A note from Mary Margaret West: Leaders and Moms, I hope you’ll take the time to think this over and pray for the girls in your life. Oftentimes, we have the hardest time seeing what’s right in front of us with the people we love the most. Prayerfully consider how to navigate these conversations, when to talk to parents, when you’re responsible to intervene because of self-harm, and always know some local Christian counselors you can point families to.
It’s that time of year, when….
Well a lot happens. If your calendar in the month of December is anything like mine, it is FULL of event after event. We gather to celebrate Christmas time, celebrating and fellowshipping around the coming of our King and it is nothing short of glorious. But the endless festivity brings up a heavy heart for me because these events are not only merry and fun, but usually full of endless sweets and treats.
I have faced eating disorders of many shapes and forms in different seasons of my life. I typically begin to state how many years I have been free, but if I am honest the tendencies still pop back up when I least expect it. While I, by the grace of God, was able to leave the habit of purging after a meal in a middle school bathroom, I still find myself starving going through drive-thru lines only to have talked myself out of eating by the time I have paid and received my food.
And for the girls in your ministry, their family members, and your volunteers who face this battle, this is an extremely vulnerable time of year. Not only are there celebrations full of unhealthy food, there are Christmas card photos going all over town, stressful exams on the calendar, and a spirited frenzy in the home which can lead to key signs of disordered eating going overlooked.
We aren’t going to stop celebrating Christmas, but how can we shepherd our girls well through this season?
As a survivor and fighter, I’d love to share a few common misconceptions of eating disorders:
- Eating disorders are not always triggered by a negative body image. Many seasons of disordered eating are not in an effort to change how one’s body looks, but rather for a sense of control. When an individual’s life feels out of control or overly controlled by outside sources, often they will find control in the one thing they can – their food intake. Be mindful of students in your ministry facing difficult transitions such as grief, divorce, a parent’s remarriage, sibling moving to college, etc.
- Eating disorders are not just for skinny girls. I have never had a concern to my health due to being underweight, yet disordered eating has been a part of my story since about 11 years old. Disordered eating also includes overeating or emotionally coping through an unhealthy addiction to food. Furthermore, eating disorders are not just for girls. One in three diagnosed with an eating disorder are male.
- Eating disorders are not always a body image problem. Many times disordered eating manifests as an individual is facing problems at home, severe stress, anxiety, depression, or serious health issues.
So what can we do not only during the Christmas season but throughout the year?
- Know the signs. Any period of rapid weight loss or gain is concerning, especially in preteen and teenage years. Be mindful if one of your girls is always going to the bathroom right before or after a meal. When an eating disorder is reaching a level of clinical concern, girls no longer have regular monthly periods and begin to grow an extra layer of hair on their bodies.
- Familiarize yourself with fad diets. Know the common diets people are practicing (e.g. Keto and Whole30), especially the ones your girls’ moms are practicing. Know what the diets stand for, promote, and restrict and be prepared for some warped understandings of nutrition.
- Provide healthy snacks at events. Youth ministry is always a time for pizza, Coke, and Oreos, but we can love those who walk up to a dinner with no nutritional value with great anxiety by offering fruits and vegetables to make them feel more comfortable. This is an important time to teach treating our bodies as a temple.
- Watch what you model. I (like you most likely) am with girls in every setting under the sun. We eat together, travel together, shop together, grocery shop together, and everything in between. Be so mindful of what you say about how clothes fit you, how you feel you look in a photo, and what you wish you could change about yourself. Model health and balance.
- Know critical seasons. Working in college ministry, I know there are key times of disordered eating – e.g. week before spring break and finals weeks. I am not afraid of texting my girls and saying, “Sleep and eat this week.” Because sometimes you need those reminders.
As we go from celebration to celebration, sometimes with a pie or casserole in hand, may we be mindful of the pitfalls of food. And for your girls who face disordered eating, remind them they are seen and not alone on this journey that can be isolating and defeating, but it is never without hope.
Emily Katherine Dalton grew up in Spartanburg, SC and now lives in Rome, GA where she graduated from Berry College, studying Psychology and Spanish. She now serves as an assistant coordinator with the WinShape College Program as she is pursuing a Master of Divinity in Christian Education from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Emily Katherine loves volunteering with middle school and high school girls in her church’s student ministry and working in college ministry. She is a coffee lover, book reader, blogger, and a big fan of a paper planner. Connect with Emily Katherine: Website // Instagram