Ask a Nurse: Mirror Mirror on the Wall

Pamela is an RN, MSN/Ed.

Pamela is a mother of 6 amazing children ages 11 to 24. She is a nurse educator and loves to travel overseas to work in medical clinics and teach health-related topics to schools and communities. She has been married to her best friend, Steve, for 29 years. She has many different interests including reading, writing (NOT arithmetic!), baking, teaching, and spending time with her family. She lives in central Pennsylvania with her husband and two youngest daughters.

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Nicole was only ten when she began dieting. She lost her baby fat and became quite thin. She was afraid of gaining any weight, even as her body grew taller. She counted calories at every meal and labeled food, “good” or “bad.”

Katie began calling herself “fat” at 6 years of age…her mother didn’t contradict her.

Alyssa stopped eating at school in 7th grade. She “forgot” to eat breakfast, never ate lunch at school, and usually ate just a sandwich for dinner. She felt weak and dizzy, and fainted at school.

Gabby exercised every spare minute she could. She “ate” breakfast before her family got up, which consisted of pouring a splash of milk in a cereal bowl and dropping a few pieces of cereal in the bowl. She skipped lunch, and hid her dinner in a napkin or fed it to the dog under the table. If her parents caught her, she cried and told them they were trying to make
her fat…she was 11.

  • 8,000,000 or more people in the United States have an eating disorder.
  • 90% are women.
  • Eating disorders usually start in the teens but may begin as early as age 8.

Source: National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders

This problem does not seem to be going away, and no wonder, with our beauty-obsessed culture! I read an article a few years ago, where a gorgeous fashion model was looking at a magazine cover, and wished she was that beautiful…only to look closer and realize it was her! Her image was so airbrushed and photo shopped that she didn’t recognize herself!

I have some tips for parents to help encourage a healthy body image in their children.

1. Focus on character, not appearance. Compliment your child on their work ethic, good study habits and being kind to siblings. If all they get praised for is how pretty or handsome they are, they will feel pressure to “be beautiful” in order to keep receiving that praise.

2. Never tell a child they are fat (or stupid, or clumsy, etc.)! Focus on the positive, and lead and model a healthy lifestyle.

3. Do not stop hugging, kissing and cuddling with your child when they begin to go through puberty. This sends a message that their physical changes are wrong and unappealing. My husband and I try to hug and kiss our teen and young adult children when we greet them, when we say good-bye, before bed, and whenever they seem to need it. As another benefit, we see that they do not seem starved for physical touch, which causes many tween and teens to seek out affection in relationships before they are mature enough to handle them.

4. Leave your insecurities at the door! Do not complain to your children how much weight you need to lose, how awful you feel you look, etc. If you model a healthy self-image, your child will likely have one, too.

5. Find teachable moments. My 12 year old and I saw a photo on the internet of a young girl’s skeletal back. I used this moment to bring up eating disorders and how people who starve themselves are also starving their heart muscle, which can cause cardiac arrest in even young teens. We talked about how sad it was that some girls feel that they are not beautiful unless they are boney and underweight.

Keep the lines of communication open and your child will find that they can share what is on their mind. You may even have a chance to be a listening ear for other teens and be a source of encouragement to them.

The examples I gave in the beginning of this article are all true, I just changed the names.

Oh, and I was “Gabby.”

Be Well,


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