TEEN HEALTH:

“To Eat and Not to Eat”

by Dr. Ann L. Engelland

(May 5, 2005) Readers may have noted that since I started contributing to this column over a year ago, there has always been a space at the end of each article for readers to email questions. Because writers do not identify themselves, I am unable to reply directly, but I feel a recent message begs for a public response. Here, verbatim, is a query from February 2, 2005:

“Hi, im 11 years old and my boyfriend is starting to ignore me and look at the skinny girls that’s cuz I weigh 112 lbs. I need a list of things to eat and not to eat or something”

My first reaction was one of sadness. “Here we go again.” So, I decided to deconstruct it and see if I could figure out “what exactly is wrong with this picture.” Here is a list of the operative words in this inquiry from “Ignored”:

  • 11 years old
  • my boyfriend
  • ignore me
  • skinny girls
  • cuz I weigh 112 lbs
  • a list of things
  • or something

Let’s take these one at a time:

11 years old

I am impressed that an eleven-year-old girl is reading the Larchmont Gazette online. It is indeed a remarkable publication, and young readership is a testimony to the relevance of its material. Her young age, however, is a stark reminder of just how early concerns about body size and image are becoming prominent in our weight-obsessed world.

my boyfriend

What is a boyfriend for an eleven year old? From her statement I wonder if merely “looking at” her is what makes him a boyfriend. If I could speak with Ignored, I would start the conversation by asking what she wants and expects from him as a friend, a boyfriend, a classmate. Is there a relationship here?

ignore me

I would advise Ignored that her boyfriend’s behavior and attitude toward her may have nothing to do with her weight. If they have in fact been friends maybe she could find the courage to ask him why he seems to have changed. In any case, I’d ask her to tell me 10 positive things about herself that have nothing to do with appearance.

skinny girls

At age eleven, indeed at any age, there are some remarkably skinny girls out there. Many of them are most certainly shorter or less developed than Ignored. “Skinny” does not mean funny, cute, smart, kind, compassionate, creative, generous, hip, or a good friend. I bet Ignored picks her friends based on “what’s inside” – their inner strength and beauty – and I’d remind her to keep looking for friends who appreciate her for who she is, not what she looks like.

cuz I weigh 112 lbs

On my official growth charts, an 11 year old who weighs 112 pounds is at the 90 th percentile for age. The 90 th percentile is normal if Ignored is within an inch or two of 5 feet. She would not be considered overweight by any medical standard. I might share with Ignored that when I was in sixth grade I was a good 6 inches taller than the tallest person in my class, which felt odd, to be sure.

Try to accept your body at its natural shape and size for now, I’d tell her. Your body is sure to change as it goes through puberty. One thing we know for sure is that at age eleven, the body is sure to change as Ignored continues to go through puberty. Celebrate all that your body can do for you the way it is now (like reach the top shelf). Be patient.

a list of things

I think Ignored is asking for a diet here. What we need to teach Ignored her is that eating is not a matter of following a list. Learning the healthy foods is relatively simple, but developing good habits may take some work and time. Still, no one should be deprived of the tremendous pleasure of ice cream or hot crispy French fries, at least once in a while. Balancing food, sleep and exercise is a way of life Ignore can learn. I’d strongly urge her to promise herself to stay away from extreme or fad diets that would deprive her of valuable nutrients. But at the same time she needs to tell herself , : “I will try not to get in the habit of eating when I am bored, sad, mad, or tired. I will eat to nourish my body.”

or something

Here is really the crux of the matter. What is that ‘something?’ It’s this advice that Ignored needs to hear: Listen to your Body and Ignore it No Longer!

Bodies and people have many appetites, not just for food. We have appetites for play, love, hugging, exercise, goofing off, learning, remembering, and a myriad of other needs. We need to heed them. Say to yourself: “I will remember that my body is the vehicle that will carry me to my dreams!”

*****

For more information check out: www.NationalEatingDisorders.org, the website of the National Eating Disorders Association. Some of the advice in this article comes from their literature.


Dr. Engelland has a practice in Mamaroneck devoted to Adolescent Primary Care. She can be reached at 698-5544.

Have a teen health question? Use the form below to send it to Dr. Engelland. Please note: Dr Engelland cannot respond privately to individual queries online. Comments are welcome and anonymous questions may be answered in future columns. Serious medical problems should be referred to your own physician.

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