Janie Dimopoulos considers how we may inadvertently inflict our values on others in the language we use around food.
As we approach Eating Disorder Awareness week, I am mindful of practices in schools, which have been introduced with good intentions and with health and wellbeing in mind, that children and adolescents tell us are negatively affecting them.
Experiences such as being weighed, or being set assignments asking them to count how many calories they have eaten over the weekend, or lessons about healthy eating. Clearly it is necessary to promote good health in schools, but it is also essential that those who are doing it are aware of the language they use about food.
Grouping foods into healthy and unhealthy, good and bad… even dirty and clean, is imposing value judgements on these foods, and this has become a problem, as has our obsession with calories, which are now listed on all food packaging and on menus in many restaurants, helping us to make ‘good’ decisions, and to avoid ‘bad’ ones. Our young people have become terrified of getting it wrong and they look to these standards to seek validation and avoid disapproval. In a society where we determine our worth by comparison with others, it occurs to me that an awful lot of us don’t have a very good relationship with food, or our bodies, or other people’s bodies for that matter.
A ‘typical’ eating disorder isn’t about food (or didn’t begin that way), we are simply using food as a vehicle to express ourselves, and to achieve the perfection or control of our bodies (and lives) that we need to feel better about ourselves; to communicate what we are unable to say, and to avoid what we are unable to face.
It is important then, that we consider the values we have around food and eating behaviours. Eating disorders can be perpetuated by these values, so it is helpful to think about the way this is reflected in our language. When we admire someone for their willpower in refusing food, or comment on our own inability to do so, this serves to reinforce to idea that abstinence is a virtue and gluttony is a sin… actually one of the seven deadly sins!
This black and white thinking can encourage a young person trying to fit in, or seek validation, to be the best at losing weight, and it is particularly unhelpful for someone in recovery from an eating disorder as the desire to overeat is a natural and powerful human response to periods of famine. Our bodies are built for survival and the response to a lack of food is to stock up before the next time we have to go without. The way someone might feel about themselves having ‘given in’ however, results in negative self-talk and a resolve to ‘try harder’, thus maintaining this toxic cycle of control and chaos.
We also live in a world where we are ashamed to admit to having a mental health issue, and even more ashamed when one of our children has one. For most parents our first thoughts are ‘Where did I go wrong?’, but in reality, the trigger for many eating disorders is endemic within society. It feels important therefore, that we absolve ourselves of blame for our participation in this societal obsession with beauty and body perfection… social media has a lot to answer for, as has advertising, but we have all been colluding with it for decades. What feels more helpful is if we are able to reflect on our own relationship with food, and with our bodies, and consider the messages we give to other people during everyday exchanges throughout the course of our daily lives.
If you’re ‘being good’ by not having a piece of cake, does that mean I’m being bad if I do have some? If I make a negative comment about my body, how does that make you feel about yours?
Our children take in everything, and while we can’t watch everything we say, we have an opportunity to change their relationship with their own bodies if we are able to be comfortable with ours. If a mother frequently makes self-deprecating comments about herself, her daughter will take this in. If Mum or Dad make comments about a celebrity who has recently gained or lost weight, this information is also taken in and informs our children about how they are to assess and value others.
In this way, we may inadvertently inflict our values on others in our language around food, and we might also unthinkingly collude with our young people who are struggling to recover from an eating disorder, or who are simply trying to figure out their own relationship with food and with their changing bodies, as they gain autonomy and independence and begin to make their own choices about when, what, and how much they eat.
TIC+ offers a Parent Support & Advice Line. If your child lives in Gloucestershire and is between the ages of 0 and 25 and you, as a parent or carer, would like support, please get in touch. To make it easier to reach out for help we offer a choice of ways to contact us on Freephone 0800 6525675 or web-chat. Whichever option you choose, there is no need to make an appointment, drop-in anytime during our open hours.
Alternatively, if you would like to arrange counselling for a young person who lives in Gloucestershire and is aged 9-21, they can get support from our TIC+ counsellors. All they, or someone they trust, needs to do is call us on 01594 372777 or text us on 07520 634063 to give us some details so we can arrange an appointment.
If you need to speak to someone urgently, call NHS 111 (on 111) or the Samaritans on 116 123. There’s always someone there to help, and any conversations you have with them are confidential.
For more advice check out our SUPPORT RESOURCES page!