How we look is only a tiny part of who we are – that goes without saying. However, body image consistently rates as one of the top concerns for young people in Australia.
Many teenagers feel uncomfortable with their bodies, which can seem to be rebelling against them by growing bulges and sprouting hair in weird places.
Coupled with these physical changes, low self-esteem and negative thoughts and emotions about body image and self-worth can contribute to eating disorders in young people.
Supporting positive body image
You can have a really positive impact on your young person’s body image and self-esteem simply by the messages you put out. Having a focus on good health and positive energy, regardless of weight, can help. Try not to talk negatively about your own body, comment on the appearance of others, or talk about dieting.
Conversations about what to expect and what is normal don’t need to be awkward, and it’s good to establish an open dialogue with your young person around body image so you can identify any concerns early.
They’re not always easy to detect, but if an eating disorder is developing it’s important to know the warning signs. Getting treatment and support quickly can make a significant difference to your young person’s recovery.
Types of eating disorders
Eating disorders are characterised by obsessive thoughts about food and body weight. An eating disorder affects many parts of a person’s life – their physical health, the way they eat, how they look, feel, behave and interact with others.
It’s important to understand that an eating disorder is a mental health condition first and foremost – not a lifestyle choice, a ‘diet gone wrong’, or an attempt to get attention. It's also important to be aware that some people who experience an eating disorder maintain a 'healthy' weight and appearance, but that doesn't mean the issue is any less serious.
Anxiety and depression are also common in people with eating disorders.
There are four types of eating disorders, categorised by the following features:
- Distorted body image and obsessive fear of gaining weight.
- Extremely limited food intake and/or increased levels of exercise.
- Can lead to a dangerously low body weight, malnutrition and starvation.
- Often starts with dieting to lose weight.
- Binge eating followed by vomiting, fasting, overexercising, or using laxatives/diuretics as a means of purging.
- The binge/purge/exercise cycle can become increasingly compulsive and uncontrollable over time.
Binge eating disorder
- Eating excessive amounts of food, often when not hungry, as a distraction from other problems.
- No purging, but feelings of intense guilt, shame and self-hatred after binges.
- May involve sporadic fasts and repetitive diets.
Other specified feeding and eating disorders (OSFED)
OSFED is a term used when a person shows signs of disordered eating but does not meet all the criteria for a specific eating disorder.
For example, a person may show all of the psychological signs of anorexia but not yet be considered underweight for their height. This does not mean that the person has a less serious eating disorder; all disorders in this category are serious mental health conditions that cause significant distress.
Spotting the signs
- dieting or overeating excessively
- eating very quickly or very slowly
- eating only certain types and amounts of food
- avoiding social situations that involve food
- ‘playing’ with food rather than eating it
- going to the bathroom straight after meals
- wearing loose-fitting clothes to hide weight loss
- preparing and cooking meals for others, but not actually eating
- engaging in repetitive or obsessive behaviours relating to body shape and weight (e.g. weighing)
- exercising excessively, feeling compelled to perform a certain number of repetitions of exercises or experiencing distress if unable to exercise.
- weight loss or weight fluctuations
- sensitivity to the cold or feeling cold most of the time, even in warm temperatures
- changes in or loss of menstrual patterns
- swelling around the cheeks or jaw, calluses on knuckles, or damage to teeth due to vomiting.
Emotional or psychological symptoms
- thinking and talking a lot about body image, body weight and food
- expressing extreme dissatisfaction with their body or having a distorted body image
- becoming irritable or withdrawing from family and friends
- being sensitive to comments about food, exercise, weight or body shape
- feeling anxious or depressed
- difficulty concentrating
- problems with relationships
- having suicidal thoughts or behaviour
If you’re worried about a young person in your life, the sooner you discuss your concerns with them the better. Don't watch and wait to see what happens, or assume that because they look 'healthy' everything's OK.
There are specific support services and help lines for eating disorders – it might be helpful to contact one of these services for advice on how to raise the issue, and find out about the supports available.
There’s also a range of effective treatments and health professionals who can help young people on the road to recovery.