Eating Disorders and Body Image in Young People

Our relationship with food can change over time, especially when we are young and still navigating nutrition and body image.

A young person’s relationship with food might begin to deteriorate if they begin to use foods as a coping strategy for low mood, anxiety or other times when they are bored, angry, lonely or sad. Using food to help cope with painful situations is a problem, and can often happen without the individual realising it.

Body image issues and low self-esteem can be an underlying issue, alongside the fear of getting ‘fat’. The young person might feel as though disordered eating behaviours are a solution for their feelings, which can make identification and recovery difficult.

Our appetites do change over time, and even from a young age this can be normal. Teenagers may try out a ‘fad’ diet or switch up their usual eating habits for a period of time. This is not necessarily a cause for concern but if you feel as though it is affecting their day-to-day life or routine, check in with them and see how they are doing.

Causes and Consequences

Relationships at Home:

There are a number of things that can affect a child’s relationship with food, including the way their parents and peers approach nutrition and body image. Exposure to negative attitudes around food can be really damaging to a child’s own beliefs about food and can lead them to believe some foods are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Negative feelings around body image can be a problem too, and can teach a child that our appearance is linked to our self-worth. In fact, research has found that the way a child feels about their body begins to develop as early as three years old (source: McCabe et al. 2016) so it is really important to be mindful of the way we discuss our bodies in front of young people.

Children and young people take in more than we think, young brains are like little sponges, absorbing lots of information all the time. Body expectations from parents and caregivers can be strongly internalised (meaning we absorb the ideas as being normal, often without even knowing it). This focus can lead to children feeling like they have to “fit in” and if they don’t, they may feel guilt and/or shame around their body or appearance.

Regardless of actual appearance or weight, children are more likely to develop body image problems (a common risk factor of eating disorders) when they are in an environment where friends and family have eating or body issues. In fact, one study showed that 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat (Mellin et al., 1991).

“I thought fat was the worst thing you could ever be from as young as I can remember. I was so wrong. Being a bully is worse than being fat. Having that kind of prejudice and hatred against people ‘different’ to you is much worse. My body size has nothing to do with my character, and I deserve respect no matter how I look.”

Media and Representation:

Diet culture plays a role in a young person’s development. From a young age we are exposed to dangerous societal expectations which recommend unsafe practices around food and a culture which idolises dieting and ‘thinness’. Frequent exposure to messages which labels our foods, puts unhealthy diets and behaviours on a pedestal and connects our self-worth to our weight is extremely dangerous. Children are learning that there is one way to eat, and to be worthy we must look a certain way. This ideology stigmatises people who don’t conform to these expectations.

We can’t ignore the role of the media here. Most of us are aware that the media (TV, films, magazines, newspapers, social media etc.) has a huge impact on our body image and self-esteem. Images can be so heavily edited that it’s impossible to attain that level of perfection, which can severely affect your self-worth.

In recent times, media outlets have received increasing criticism for the use of editing which often prizes youth and slimness. The people shown in the media are not always fully representative of our diverse society, and ‘normal’ is still often based on being white, thin and able-bodied.

Maybe that’s changing though. Film and TV producers are striving to ‘do better’ to tell unheard stories and share minority voices. In fact, one thing that made me smile earlier this year was the release of the new Disney film Encanto, and the reviews I’ve seen! Cards on the table, I’m yet to see it. But whilst I can’t give you the lowdown on the story, Encanto has been praised for its representation across the cast and characters, with some new fans saying that the film has made them ‘feel seen’ for the first time in film. You can read and watch this sentiment straight from the cast themselves here. (And yes, I will watch it at some point!)

And then there’s social media. As Marketing and Communications lead for First Steps ED, I can sit here all day and tell you how great it is for awareness, for community and for engagement… But, alas, it has a dark side. We were joined by Suzanne Samaka of the campaign #HonestyAboutEditing last September for a blog which explored ‘Social Media and Body Image: Are Filters Fuelling Negative Body Image?’ And the research is pretty clear, ‘young people feel under pressure from social media perfection or crippling loneliness when they feel that their face doesn’t fit.’

Social media is a complicated and vast thing – it’s never simply good nor bad, it’s very much about how we use it, and how we encourage other to use it. I put together some useful advice on the blog ‘Think Before You Scroll’ if you are worried about yours, or a loved one’s activity online.

School and Education:

Bullying and discrimination is never far from the conversations around children and eating disorders. Bullying can lead to low self-esteem, isolation, negative body image, and has also been shown to directly contribute to the development of eating disorders. Bullying at school can begin at a very young age, with children in larger bodies often being the target for teasing. For this reason, it is important that schools introduce conversations around weight stigma and be more mindful in their discussions around obesity.

School life can have an impact too. Whilst my school days are long behind me, I remember the stress, social pressure and grumblings I often had throughout primary and secondary school – and I was one of those who (for the most part) loved school. It can feel as though our adolescent years are a balancing act between our homelife and school life; keeping up with school work, stressing over exams and coursework all whilst maintaining friendships and family life. During this time, food and mealtimes are important and can be an anchor for routines and stability. If you’re worried about their loved one (if they are turning to food for comfort or avoiding mealtimes) check in with them and see if you can help them. Our Children and Young Persons Coordinator Holly put together our ‘Supporting Your Child’s Mental Health as They Go Back to School’ blog last year which offer some really useful advice in how to support a loved one!

So yes, there are a number of things that can affect a child’s relationship with food. Whilst this blog isn’t an exhaustive list of all the factors involved, it has hopefully introduced you to some of the key areas of a young person’s life which might be having an impact on their mental health. If you’re worried about yourself or a loved one, know that support is available and early intervention and prevention is really important.

When something doesn’t feel quite right, it is important to follow your ‘instinct’. Often, eating habits are established during adolescence, so if problems develop and begin to interfere with a child or young person’s daily routine or life, it is important to reach out to a professional.

Contributed by Lucy Robinson

Fundraising, Marketing and Communications Lead