Ep 31: Eating Disorders and Exercise

Episode Summary

Dana Suchow, founder of Do The Hotpants, discusses what parents need to know to discuss eating disorders with a teenager. She also explains how to connect with teenagers about exercise in a positive way, words you should avoid with teens, and a lesson in negative body image.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

If no one takes care to combat eating disorders in teenagers, unhealthy dieting can lead to damaging long term health problems. In serious cases, malnutrition can lead to death.

Does your teen seem uncomfortable about what they eat? Does your teen struggle to keep weight on? Do you even know what your teenager thinks about his or her body? These can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable questions, but it’s so important to ask them.

The secretive nature of eating disorders in teenagers can make unhealthy dieting a deceptively difficult problem to identify and address.

To be clear, having a teenager who struggles with body image or food consumption does not mean you are a bad parent! Billions of advertisement dollars have gone into convincing all of us that our bodies are ugly. Advertising companies know we buy more stuff when we feel bad about ourselves, so they use billboards and TV ads to train us to hate our own bodies. In this way, eating disorders in teenagers are the natural product of emotional marketing. While these ads primarily target girls, boys are affected, too. 

My special guest today believes that in just 10 to 20 years, advertising will put just as many boys at risk of developing eating disorders as girls. If this is true, then eating disorders in teenagers will soon be a more relevant issue for all parents, not just parents of girls. So what can parents do to combat a thriving industry that’s invested in teens hating their own bodies? I spoke with Dana Suchow to get an idea, and it turns out there is a lot that parents can do.

Dana is the founder of DoTheHotpants.com, a website that she initially started as a fashion blog. Eventually, she transformed the website into a platform for people to safely share their own stories about body image and eating disorders. Having struggled with an eating disorder herself, Dana has personal experience on the matter. She knows firsthand how important it is to have conversations about a healthy understanding of body image.

A Delicate Subject Matter

Eating disorders in teenagers can be an extremely sensitive subject to breach. They are very secretive and highly personal. Parents need to be very careful with how they approach this subject because even though you mean well, bringing it up in the wrong way can actually backfire.

Dana remembers a personal example of when a conversation about her eating disorder went poorly. Dana’s roommate in college noticed how she was struggling to eat food. Her roommate vocalized her concern for Dana, but Dana remembers getting instantly defensive. She felt like her roommate was talking down to her, even though her roommate was really trying to help.

Dana explains how people who struggle with eating disorders want so desperately to hide what’s going on. When a teen feels like their secret is being threatened, they can become fragile and defensive. Striking the right tone to navigate this conversation is tricky. What helps address eating disorders in teenagers most, Dana says, is that parents get on the same level as their teens.

Getting on the same level means empathizing, something Dana believes parents need to focus on. Empathic words like, “I get it,” and, “you’re not alone,” mean so much to teens who struggle with an eating disorder. If parents share they also feel down about their body from time to time, teens might be more inclined to open up about themselves. On the other hand, their defenses will stay up if they sense you are mad, or disappointed, or ashamed.

In order to understand eating disorders in teenagers, though, you’ll want to have a better awareness of the greater problem: uneducation.

“Uneducating,” or Questioning Negative Input

Currently, we live in a world that is so fixated on thinness and youth. You can probably imagine the “ideal” body in your head! It’s the body represented on 99% of movie posters: a thin, young, white woman who has no disabilities. She has no body hair, perfect makeup, and the list goes on and on.

We need to unlearn this!

When we don’t have representation of all the ways girls can exist, we start looking at girls through a narrow lens. Dana believes that advertisements teach us there’s only one, narrow type of girl can be loved, which is related to her body type. The negativity your teen has towards certain body types (even her own), isn’t coming from her voice alone. Part of that voice is modeled after what she sees and hears represented in popular culture. This prejudice has been ingrained by marketing tactics for so long that we might hate any body that doesn’t look like the singular, narrow norm.

However, you can’t shame women for trying to fit in. We live in a world that rewards people for fitting in, so instead of judging those who represent unrealistic norms, we should ask insightful questions about unlearning. For example, Dana references the movie Wonder Woman, a great movie in many ways, that also provides parents an opportunity to talk about unlearning the “normal” appearance of Hollywood stars.

If you go watch Wonder Woman with your girls, you can ask them after the movie:

“When did all the Amazonian women get electrolysis to get rid of their body hair? When did they all find the time to shave?”

You want your child to learn that every woman deserves to fit in. This means questioning why not all women are represented in popular culture. Like with Wonder Woman, you can enjoy a movie and still question if it’s encouraging a culture that promotes eating disorders in teenagers. 

This is only one of a dozen different topics I went through with Dana!

An Ongoing Conversation

When discussing eating disorders in teenagers, there are so many angles, rabbit holes, and doors that lead to the next. We certainly couldn’t touch on every aspect of this discussion in one interview, but there is one thing Dana wants to make clear:

Parents are not powerless when it comes to addressing eating disorders in teenagers!

Eating disorders in teenagers is a delicate subject matter, but champions like Dana are working hard to help us parents learn more so we can help our kids. If you were to fill a book with everything we talked about in this interview, these would be the chapters:

  • The un-shaming process
  • Accepting the power of advertisements
  • “Pulling back the curtain” on these industries
  • Destigmatizing “fat” bodies
  • Idolizing looks vs idolizing health
  • The love-hate relationship with social media
  • Redefining “overweight” and debunking the BMI (again!)
  • Positive language around teen exercise
  • The privilege of “clean eating”

The scope of this problem is massive, but sculptable. If we’re going to protect against eating disorders in teenagers, we’re going to have to do the work! You can help do your part by giving this episode a listen!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Get your teen to open up about body image and food issues:

“Hey I see that you might be having a hard time around food and I just want you to know that I do too. I’ve been having a difficult time eating and haven’t been feeling very good about my body. I saw a movie the other day and this person was so thin and I was wishing I was that thin. I get it. You’re not alone.”

-Dana Suchow

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Don’t Communicate Disapproval for Your Own Body:

It’s important that your teen doesn’t see you criticizing your own body, Dana told me. There are a lot of ways that we subtly communicate that we wish we had a better body. You might tell a joke about being younger or thinner or stronger. Or perhaps you may look in the mirror and frown or pinch your love handles disapprovingly. Take a few minutes to think about all the little ways you might be communicating disapproval of your body. Write down as many as you can think of. Next, circle the three most important ones and make a promise not to repeat those ever again.

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: The place that I’m most curious about is, how this all started, because you have such a big thing going. This international brand and all these people who are sharing their stories through their website, and there’s really like a community.

Dana: Yes.

Andy: I’m always so interested in people who have started something that’s like such a movement like that in what was the driving force behind it, because it takes so much energy and you have to be a little crazy to do something like that.

Dana: It’s interesting looking at where I am now to where I started. So I started as a fashion blogger. A couple of years ago, I was dating a fashion photographer and I thought that if I could be a fashion blogger, we could do this together. And I could be flown around the world and I could be cool and famous, and get clothes and everything sent to me. But on the inside, I was struggling with an eating disorder. So I had this kind of outward appearance that I was showing to people online and on social media, and it was polished and it was photo-shopped. It was perfect. And then on the inside, I was just absolutely struggling. I hated my body. I was terrified of food. I was over-exercising, my relationships were crumbling.

Dana: So through that and through my recovery over the years, I started slowly coming clean to my readers and slowly saying, “Hey, I’m not feeling great about my body.” Or, “Hey, I’ve been, I was binge-eating.” Or I was this, or I was that. And people started relating and they started saying, “Oh my God, me too. Oh my gosh, I’m not alone.” And so over the years, it’s really taken on this kind of different movement than what it started. I mean it started because I wanted to be cool and I wanted to be seen, and I wanted to be valued. And it’s gone all the way over to vulnerability and talking about struggle, and talking about pain, and talking about mental health. And so other people have seen that and felt like this community is a safe space. This is a safe area that I can talk about my body, and I can talk about my pain and I won’t be judged or shamed for it.

Dana: So that’s where my body story series came from. It was as I had gone through a lot of recovery, I was like, “Okay, I don’t need this as much for my recovery.” But I have built such a platform. And I have built such a safe group and space for people that I think with privilege comes responsibility. And it’s my responsibility to also not only give people space to talk about their struggles, but show different voices and faces, and body types that are going through the same thing that we have such a preconceived notion about, because of how society puts pressures on bodies that we can say, “Oh my gosh, these people are human.” Everyone is human. We all have a shared humanity. And we can really through our empathy, we can listen to other stories and we can go, “Okay, we all have something in common and we all need to fight this.”

Andy: Okay. So then just walk me through how it actually works, because I’ve seen the stories that are posted. And it’s like people are posting photos and then they are posting a story of… Usually it seems like there’s some shame that they were made to feel like they were, had something about them that they tried to hide. And they’re coming clean about it and posting photos. How does it work and how did that aspect of it start?

Dana: Yeah. I think it was one day I just thought I’m done talking about myself. I have shared so much of myself and I have so many people in my messages, in my emails, in my DMs, on my social media saying, “I’m really struggling and I wish I had a space to talk to this. I wish I had friends here. I wish I had a community here.” And I go, “I want to share your voice. I want to feature you. I have this space.” Let me share this with you. What it is, it’s a writing prompt. It’s if your body could tell a story, what would it tell? And every single person, man, woman, queer, straight, cis, trans, Black, White, it doesn’t matter. You have a story that you’ve experienced from the way society has treated your body, and the way you perceive your body. And the way you take care of your body, and love your body or hate your body.

Dana: We all have a story. And some stories deal with a lot more marginalization than others, but I believe that every body tells a story and every story deserves to be heard. So, that’s really how it started. And so it’s not that people submit, it’s actually that I do one-on-one with the person and we talk about it. Some people right off the bat, they just have the whole story there. And other times it’s people message me and they’re like, “I want to talk about my eating disorder.” And I say, “Okay. Well.” And then I ask them a couple of questions. We get the ball rolling. And then I put it all up on the website. So it’s not that it’s an open forum. It’s really that these people have worked so hard to put this story together and really have dug deep in what they feel safe sharing with people.

Andy: That makes sense, because these are polished things. These are coherent. Feels like there’s a beginning, middle and end. And I love this idea of the body story too.

Dana: Right. I mean, there’s definitely some that the person shared a paragraph and that was all they felt safe sharing. And I’m not here to push people to share more, because we share what our comfort level is. And so that’s why you’ll see some that are very short, and you’ll see some that are very, very long and it’s the comfort level. Also, it releases a lot of shame. Whenever I talk to people after they’ve shared their stories, they go, “I feel so much better. I feel like a weight has been lifted off my chest. I feel like I shared a secret that has been hurting me for so long, and it just doesn’t have so much power over me.” And I think that, that’s another important aspect too.

Andy: I hear that. And I think that’s true in a lot of ways that once you just get it over with. It’s like ripping off the bandaid, or something sometimes. And sometimes we realize that what we feared has come to pass and it wasn’t so bad. I think that’s so cool what you do with helping people to find their body story. And I wonder if we could talk a little bit about that. And you mentioned that there’re some questions that you ask people, because we focus here on teenagers and specifically on how parents can help their teenagers to thrive more. And I wonder if there’s conversations parents could have with teenagers, and some of those questions maybe that you were mentioning that you ask people. Or some prompts that you could ask teenagers to get the conversation going, and help them to start developing their own body story.

Dana: Yeah. I think it’s a lot. I mean, we live in a society that dieting is normal and eating disorders have become normal, or at least disordered eating. And so I think that, that’s why I see no eating disorders go so undetected, or they’re so normalized and parents have absolutely no idea what to do. There’s so much that can be done. And that’s what drives the work I do, is I don’t want kids to go through what I went through. And so I want to give the parents, the teachers, the caregivers, everyone that’s around them, the tools to protect children from going through what I did because most parents don’t know. And that doesn’t mean that they’re bad parents. It just means that society is not teaching us or teaching parents, or anyone that’s around children how to properly talk to kids about bodies. The very first thing I say is even before we start putting the responsibility on children, is talking about our own bodies. And that I think is the biggest thing is. Is really, it starts in the home, it starts in the school. It starts with adults mirroring how to treat bodies.

Andy: Sure.

Dana: So if you are sitting in front of the mirror and you are going, “I hate my stomach. I hate my thighs. I’m so ugly. I’m this, I’m that.” Your child who probably sees you as an adult that needs to be respected, that they love, that is perfect in their eyes and [inaudible] going, “Wow, this human being is so flawed.” Or, “Oh my gosh, bodies are so ugly.” And that child starts internalizing those voices and they go a body is something to be torn apart. So I tell the story of, I saw my mom tear her body apart. And for me as a young child, I mean it was twofold. The first part was I saw my mom is perfect and I couldn’t as a child understand how she could tear this body apart, but this body that I also found soft and comforting and warm, and loving.

Andy: Right. Right.

Dana: Yeah, and another aspect of it was I look like her. I look like my parents.

Andy: Yeah. There’s a lot of you and me. So if you don’t like yourself then what does that say about me and-

Dana: Exactly. And look this for teachers or caregivers, or babysitters, or adoptive parents. I understand that this might not perfectly fit your narrative, but still children mirror themselves from adults. And so if you’re tearing yourself apart, a child is going to look in the mirror and go, “Well okay. Well so what’s wrong with my body.” So really is respecting bodies. And I firmly believe that you’re going to have negative body thoughts. That is how society works. That is how media works. That is how advertising works. You’re going to have negative thoughts.

Andy: Yeah. Billions of dollars are spent to make you feel bad about your body, and they’re really, really good at it.

Dana: Yes. And that’s the thing. So you’re going to have those negative thoughts. Don’t vocalize them around children, is one of the most important things I can say.

Andy: I love that. Yeah.

Dana: And it’s so important you know what you just said about, they’re spending billions of dollars. So there’s a lot of studies that show that people think they are smarter than ads. They think that they can look at an ad and not be affected by it. And study after study shows this. And what we fail to understand is that these companies are literally putting in billions of dollars, millions of dollars per company, to get a group of people in a room who are so much smarter collectively than any one of us individually, to figure out how to make you feel bad about your body. And there’s this idea that an ad does its job when you don’t know that you’ve seen an ad. And that’s how we walk away. We go, “This didn’t affect me.” But it absolutely affects us.

Andy: I think it’s the same as a researcher. It’s so typical to tell people about studies and psychological phenomenons. It’s easy for people to say, “Yeah, man. One of my sisters does that all the time.” But really hard for people to see that no, it applies to everybody and-

Dana: Yeah.

Andy: These are fundamental truths. And companies today have so much data that a lot of it is not even malicious. It’s just like, “Hey, we crunched the numbers, and this is the best way to get you to buy more stuff is this type of image.” I don’t think people aren’t necessarily to blame. It’s like at each stage of it, it’s just like people doing their job and trying to get the best results they can. But what we end up with is this crazy system where so much money is spent about how we look, right?

Dana: Yeah.

Andy: So the first thing I love, which is not voicing those negative thoughts around kids.

Dana: Yes.

Andy: So what would be then another thing that parents would want to consider that they could use to try to engage teenagers also.

Dana: Yeah. I think parents right off the bat when they see a child struggling or avoiding food or talking negatively about their bodies, they want to jump in immediately and protect their children and have these conversations. But a lot of education has to happen before you have these conversations, because they can go very badly if you act like you know what you’re talking about, or you don’t embrace the child with empathy and understanding, and let them know that they’re not alone. So my first thing is, if you think that your child has an eating disorder, if you start seeing that behavior where they’re talking negatively about their body, negatively about other people’s bodies, they’re afraid of food. They’re talking constantly about the fear of getting fat. Learn about eating disorders.

Dana: And one of the best places to go is the National Eating Disorder Association website. It’s a nationaleatingdisorder.org and they have some great tools on just learning about the different types of eating disorders, and de-stigmatizing these ideas we have around eating disorders that aren’t true. So definitely education. And when you do finally have that conversation, I think back all the time of I had a roommate when I had my eating disorder. I was really, really struggling, but I didn’t know it at the time.

Andy: You never do.

Dana: Yeah. Right? Hindsight 20/20, but at the time I just thought, no. This is absolutely normal. It’s completely normal to freeze food so I don’t eat it, and to weigh myself five times a day. And I remember my roommate said something to me and she just said, “I’m really worried about you. You just don’t seem like you’re doing well.” And I instantly got defensive. I instantly was like, “I’m absolutely fine.” And all my defenses went up because it almost felt like this person was talking down to me. And I remember that all the time, because once a child has an eating disorder, the way you talk to them, they’re so fragile. And they’re so defensive because they want to desperately hide what’s going on. The language is so… it’s so tricky. But if somebody had said, “Hey, I see that you might be having a hard time around food, and I just want you to know that I do too.

Dana: I have had a difficult time eating, or I’ve been feeling really just not good about my body. And I saw a movie the other day and this person was so thin, and I was wishing I was that thin. And if you start to, instead of looking down on someone and saying, “Hey, I’m totally cured. How are you down there?”

Andy: Yeah.

Dana: If you can get on the same level as them and say, “I get it. I have been struggling and you’re not alone.”

Andy: Yeah.

Dana: And if we can have those conversations, that’s where we start getting kids to open up and teens to open up about what’s really going on, because they don’t feel like you’re going to get mad at them. They don’t feel you’re going to be angry. You’re going to be disappointed. You’re going to be ashamed. And the defenses aren’t up. And I always think back on how I wish somebody had spoken to me at the time.

Andy: I like that. So have the talks, keep engaging and thanks for supporting the podcast and following.

About Dana Suchow

Since overcoming Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder and exercise compulsion that resulted in permanent injuries, Dana Suchow has become an expert in the field of body image and eating disorder prevention. In 2012 Dana founded Do The Hotpants as a fashion blog, but once she realized fashion’s unattainable beauty standards were fueling her eating disorder, Dana made the difficult decision to leave the industry and focus on activism. In 2014 Dana founded #MyBodyStory, an ongoing storytelling series created to uplift women’s voices that so often go unheard. In 2016 Dana co-founded The Ripple, a nonprofit women’s collective, empowering women to make waves in their communities through the use of workshops, TED style panels, field trips and movie screenings.

Dana work centers on giving teachers, parents and caregivers the tools they need to prevent eating disorders in girls before they start. She offers a nonclinical and holistic approach, and teaches adults how to put their children on a path towards body love, empowerment and self-acceptance. For years Dana has been working with audiences of 10 to auditoriums of over 1,000. She is a frequent Summit Panelist and Keynote Speaker, and has given 15 minute talks to 3 hour workshops. Dana works with all school levels, from Elementary School to College, appearing in person or by video. To find out more visit DanaSuchow.com

Dana currently lives in New York City and holds a Masters Degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. You can find her on Good Morning America, The Oprah Winfrey Network, Vogue, Huffington Post, Yahoo, ELLE, Seventeen Magazine and more!