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Helping young women learn to resolve problems in healthier ways than by manipulating their meals and weight is the goal of eating disorders screening and prevention programs on campuses across the country. Even so, according to the U.S. Department of Health Task Force on Eating Disorders, prevention efforts aimed at teenage girls may come too late. It's enormously difficult to change body image attitudes and unhealthy eating patterns once they are formed. Primary prevention needs to take place early, before girls learn to feel bad about their bodies.
How you perceive your body is only one component of a complete self-image, but too often it becomes the sole factor in determining self-esteem. When "how-I-look" becomes more important than "who-I-am," the groundwork is laid for crippling and life-threatening eating disorders. Parents can do a lot to prevent that from happening, beginning with examining attitudes about their own bodies and by fostering a healthy, positive body image in their children. Take these steps, even with young girls, to discourage unhealthy behaviors:
- Accept that puberty will influence girls' perception of their bodies, but be prepared to step in if certain behaviors become unhealthy;
- Don't reinforce the message that women have to look a certain way;
- Teach girls how their bodies change during adolescence and that it is normal to gain weight during puberty;
- Talk about images of women in the media and how they are unrealistic for most, if not all, women;
- Take women and girls seriously for what they say, feel, and do, not for how slim they are or how they look;
- Encourage children to be active as a way to have fun and to enjoy what their bodies can do;
- Exercise with your children to promote a healthy family lifestyle;
- Model healthy attitudes about your own body (Girls need to see women who are satisfied with their bodies and appearance or who take positive and healthy steps toward making changes. Girls who see their mothers worrying about their own appearance and weight are more likely to believe that being thin will make them happy.);
- Don't nag about eating or focus on eating habits, which could make a child more self-conscious and secretive about her relationship with food;
- Don't compare her to others and don't be judgmental about other people's weight; and
- Most important, don't ignore an eating disorder. It is a devastating and potentially fatal disease. But people can and do recover from this illness, once it is correctly diagnosed and treated. If you are a mature woman with an eating disorder, talk to a health care provider for guidance. Support groups may also be helpful.