By Molly Gerster, MS, RD, Dietician & Nutritionist
I have been an eating disorder nutritionist for nearly 20 years. I could write a book on the stories I have heard, the individuals I’ve met, and my successes and failures. But one story has always stuck with me. It prompted me to begin a crusade of self-worth and how we speak to our children.
I had a client, an adolescent girl; she’d had a growth spurt. She had grown quite tall over the past year, begun her period, and was developing into a woman. She was curled up on my couch sobbing about how she could not possibly eat more and gain weight, and when pressed on why she felt so strongly about this, she blurted out, ‘Because, Molly, then I won’t be an adorable tiny little thing anymore!’
This child had been one of those pixie-like miniature little girls with rosy cheeks, blue eyes, and a pint-sized body. Her whole childhood had been awash with compliments about being such an adorable tiny little thing that she had no idea who she would be or how others would perceive her if she was no longer tiny. Her self-worth was wrapped up in the self-image of being tiny.
We worked together to develop her true self-worth and worked with her family to change the language around compliments at home. Ultimately this girl is thriving; she is not a tiny little thing; she is a tall, strong, confident, and successful woman with a great sense of self.
How do we best talk to our students about body image?
The best advice is to shift focus off body image and onto self-worth.
Self-image is the perception of what we look like on the outside, while self-worth is the deeper and richer perception of who we are, our interests, hobbies, relationships, and motivations.
In general, those with a good sense of self-worth feel better about their body image, and those who struggle to identify what makes them worthy often also have a negative body image. The less an individual thinks and focuses on their body, the better their body image actually is!
In addressing how to foster self-worth, the impact of social media cannot be ignored. The image and video-focused ways of communicating prompt users to inherently focus on their self-image and self-worth can easily be overlooked.
In image-driven social media, we see a focus on the ‘perfect photo’, the ‘perfect meal,’ and the ‘perfect body’ without ever having the context of who these people are, what they do, are they even happy and healthy people?
Even highly educated professionals find it challenging to weed through these mixed messages about what we ‘should’ be eating and how we ‘should’ look, and our children are suffering.
Social media can create uncertainty in children as they develop; they question what they should look like, how they ought to feel about what they ate, and finally, grapple with the consequences of inevitable growth out of being a ‘tiny little thing.’
However, social media is here to stay, and while we may sometimes want to throw out our phones, we must instead teach our children and ourselves to look beyond the image and inward into who we really are and what makes us worthy.
Three activities to create an environment of self-worth in your school
1. Help to create an environment at school focused on self-worth.
Encourage language on campus to shift from image focused to self-worth focuses. Create a ‘Say this, not That’ bulletin board for teachers and students.
Instead of saying this:
Try saying this instead:
‘Hi, you look great!’
‘It is so great to see you!’
‘OMG, you look great in that outfit!’
‘I love your sense of style!’
‘You look exhausted!’
‘Hey, are you ok? I’m here if you need to talk.’
‘I look so fat after that meal.’
‘That was filling and delicious.’
‘I am never going to eat again.’
‘That meal was filling and delicious.’
‘I need to go to the gym.’
‘I would like to get stronger.’
2. Why are you friends with your friends?
Hopefully, we select our friends based on their worth—maybe we share common interests and similar values, or they’re good listeners and easy to be with. Ask your students why they have chosen their friends. Would you still be friends if they got a bad haircut or had a pimple on their face?
Pair up students and have them tell their partner something that makes them interesting, then something they like about each other. Note with your students that they have, for the most part, selected characteristics of self-worth rather than self-image. We tend not to choose our friends based on whether their hair is long or short or their eye colour. Self-worth is a more important feature of a good friendship than self-image.
3. Love your body; it is yours for keeps
Health is a behaviour, not a number. Again, we are bringing the focus off the image and moving inward to the choices we make and behaviours we engage in.
You cannot measure health with a scale; health is measured by how people act. Health can come in all shapes and sizes. Society and social media often define what we consider ‘looking healthy’, but the irony is that many of the people featured are not healthy at all.
Brainstorm with your students ‘What are characteristics of a healthy person?’
- Good eating habits that include three balanced meals a day with include carbs, fats, protein, fruit and veggies
- Good night sleep at least 8 hours a night
- Balanced mood
- Include some physical activity
- Good hygiene
- Don't smoke, drink alcohol, or use substances.
When you engage in healthy behaviours, you will have a healthy body. When you engage in healthy behaviours, you love your body.
While educators are working hard to help their students develop strong self-worth, they must also be mindful of the language they are using. As role models, it is imperative that educators model these behaviours we are trying to instill in our youths.
A client of mine once shared that one of the big triggers for the inception of her eating disorder was a teacher, who in commenting on the child’s lunch, said, ‘Oh my, you are so lucky you can eat that; if I ate that for lunch I would be as big as a house.’ Comments like these can be very harmful to a young person’s development, especially from adults they respect and admire. It is best to say nothing about one’s own body unless you will say something positive.
The goal is to create an environment of self-positivity in your school by focusing not on body image but self-worth. Encourage positive self-talk and value-based compliments.
Here are some additional resources:
- Five ways to improve international student healthcare when they transition to university
- Teaching about consent and boundaries
- Recognizing and addressing identity-based harm in schools
- Student well-being perspectives on cross cultural transitions to higher education
About the author
Molly Gerster MS, RD has been working as a registered dietitian in the field of eating disorders since 2005. She loves the challenges of this very specific field and has successfully helped thousands of clients find lasting recovery. In addition to her work as a dietitian, Molly is also an adjunct professor of biology. She uses this solid understanding of science to help create research-driven treatment plans for her clients and explain the long-term medical impacts their behaviours have on their bodies and minds. Combining this knowledge with her warmth, compassion and great sense of humour, Molly forges trusting and productive relationships with clients and their families in order to foster lasting behaviour change. Recently Molly has moved her focus towards the family and social system and the changes that can be made in those settings to reduce the incidence of eating disorders.
Molly has her bachelors of science from Bates College, and her masters in clinical nutrition from New York University. She will commence an MPH program at Yale University in 2024. Molly has worked for the past nine years at Backcountry Wellness in Greenwich, CT, USA where she began as the Nutrition Director of the intensive outpatient program and is currently the Senior Outpatient Dietitian.
Molly has presented on this topic many times, in schools, for parents and educators and at the Nantucket Project headquarters.
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