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Everything I Couldn't Say to the 9-Year-Old Who Brought Up Dieting

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I never thought I could be one of those people who posts extremely vulnerable, personal content on social media. I never thought I would want to be that person either. I have held on so tightly to my eating disorder, been so private about it for years, and have been so, so selective in choosing the people I let know about it.

But yesterday that changed.

Yesterday, one of our neighbors brought some friends to our house to say hi to our dogs. Somehow, it came up that I was vegan. The girls asked some questions, and somewhere along the way they started talking about diets. They talked about diets their moms were on or had tried, what diets entailed and if they were a good idea. Then one of the girls talked about how she had tried to diet and then had stopped. I felt completely floored. This kind, smart, funny, beautiful 9-year-old girl talking about wanting to diet broke my heart into a million pieces.

I wish I could say that I handled the experience perfectly. That I found the magic words to help her accept and love her body just the way it is. To show her that changing her body is not the answer to feeling sad or overwhelmed or insecure. That she is incredible just the way she is. And that I knew all this from experience.

But instead I failed her. I was so shell shocked by the conversation and so afraid of unintentionally shaming her that the words I wanted to say got lost on the way to my mouth. I have replayed this conversation over and over in my head for the past 24 hours, thinking of what I should have said, how I could have helped. Because this conversation represented one of my deepest fears: that the way I have struggled with my body and my own experience with an eating disorder would negatively affect the wonderful, amazing children I care so much about.

That has always been one of my biggest motivators for getting better. I want so badly to be a good example for the children I nanny, my little cousins and all other kids I interact with. I don’t even know if I could live with myself if I passed on any of my unhealthy relationship with food and my body and the dangerous habits that come along with my anorexia. That’s why I’m choosing to say something and open up. Because these kids deserve healthy role models and unending support around all of the pressures they will face.

Coincidentally, this experience happened on the eve of National Eating Disorder Awareness week, a time of year that has always brought a ton of anxiety for me as people from all over come forward and speak about their eating disorders. I don’t know if this was a little extra push for me to write about the conversation I was a part of yesterday and how that affected me, but it’s definitely not making it easier. I’m sitting in the family room of my parents’ house typing and literally shaking at the thought of clicking “post.” But I also feel resolute that I am doing the right thing and that I want to take a more active part in being a role model for the kids I love. I’m not naïve. I know that this post in and of itself probably won’t change much. But taking this step feels empowering and is helping me open the door to have hard conversations, to be honest and to just really be there. And so that feels like something has changed in me and I think I like it.

When I was in treatment over the summer, one of the assignments I was given was to write a letter to either my younger self or to a child I care deeply about. I was tasked with writing about the pressures that accompany growing up and advice I would give for dealing with them. I chose to write to one of my little cousins who I have always had a special bond with. I haven’t had the courage to send her the letter yet. I’ve had a lot of fear around being that vulnerable, of starting this conversation with her too young and of trying to have this conversation and failing her. But the reality is, she’s probably not too young. Those pressures start so early, so this is probably the window of time where she would most benefit from learning how to contradict all of the messages society sends around what a body should look like, which foods are “good” to eat and which are “bad,” and all of that untrue, brain-washing crap. So I decided to include the letter here and hopefully soon I’ll work up to actually sending it to her.

Dear _____,

Someone I know recently challenged me to write a letter to a child who is an important part of my life, so I chose you. The focus of the letter is supposed to be on what I wished someone had told me about the world I would grow up in and the messages our society sends to women in particular.

I want to be perfectly honest and open with you and tell you that I am not 100% sure how to have this conversation with you. But it is a conversation that I think is extremely important and something I always want to support you in. I want to start by saying that I love you endlessly and accept you for who you are. I think you are smart, kind, strong, brave, funny and important. Whether you’ve already experienced this or not, this world will try and send you other messages and make you doubt these truths. It will tell you that you are not enough and that you need to change things about yourself. And it will be sneaky. It will plant ideas in your head and make you doubt yourself.

But I want you to know that the messages you receive are not truths. Believe me, I understand how convincing they can be and I am in no way saying that it is easy to work against them. It’s definitely a trap I’ve gotten stuck in. And while I don’t have the answers, I will always be by your side so we can try and figure them out together.

My hope for you is that you accept yourself and stay true to who you are. Recognize what you are grateful for and what you want out of life. Talk about your passions and what you feel. You will have moments of insecurity, sadness, hurt, loneliness and shame. And that’s totally OK; everyone does. Connect with people, but don’t drown in that. No one else gets to change you or shape who you are, so be unapologetically you. You are not responsible for what other people think of you or how they feel. You deserve support and love as much as anyone else and you deserve to ask for that. Set goals, but don’t let them become the end all be all. The world will not end if you get a bad grade or make a mistake. Honor your body and practice recognizing and giving it what it needs to feel strong, healthy and safe.

You are enough, and you always will be. Watching you grow up so far has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I can’t even tell you how much our relationship means to me and how important our bond has been. The love, laughter and connection you have brought to me and bring to the world as a whole are powerful gifts. I am so grateful to have you in my life in the way you are now and in all the ways you will continue to grow. Thank you for being such a bright light in my life. Whenever you doubt yourself or need someone, know that you have a cousin who will always have your back and will do anything and everything to support and help you.

All my love,

Originally published: February 29, 2020
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