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Tag: The Butterfly Foundation

Eating Disorders and Primary School Children

Last week the Herald Sun reported that children as young as seven are being hospitalised with eating disorders. Equally as alarming, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead’s eating disorders clinic, which specialises in working with people aged seven to 17, has experienced a 270 per cent increase in admissions since 2000.

The crew at Kerri-anne asked me to come on and discuss this worrying trend with viewers yesterday. I asked for Melinda Hutchings — an eating disorders survivor, ambassador for The Butterfly Foundation and author of the incredible Why Can’t I Look The Way I Want?: Overcoming Eating Issues to accompany me to offer her personal insights.

As is always the case with live breakfast television, there wasn’t enough time to offer all the insights we would like, so I have asked Melinda to be my guest blogger this week.

image001 A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2009 found that between July 2002 and June 2005, 101 children aged from five to 13 years old were newly diagnosed with an eating disorder. About two-thirds were affected by anorexia nervosa; the rest were experiencing “food avoidant emotional disorder”, a condition unique to children, which involves extreme weight loss driven by high anxiety levels, rather than wanting to be thin.

And according to a 2003 study of 135 South Australian children conducted by Professor Marika Tiggemann, of the School of Psychology, Flinders University, two-thirds of girls in year 1 believed that being thin would make them more popular. Even more believed weight gain would attract teasing.

Children spend much of their early lives at school, an environment that can be competitive, with hierarchies often based on physical appearances. A negative fixation on weight and size potentially lends itself to self-destructive thoughts and behaviours, which can be triggered by situations, comments or events that bring up feelings of anxiety and worthlessness. These include family arguments related to eating (e.g. “You’re not leaving the table until you’ve eaten everything on your plate”), feelings of being misunderstood, rejection by peers (e.g. “Go away, we don’t want to play with you”) or feeling like a misfit.

Negative emotions can lead to unhealthy thought processes and feelings of insecurity around body image. If left undetected, these feelings can lead to the onset of an eating disorder.

In my book Why Can’t I Look the Way I Want?: Overcoming Eating Issues, there is a chapter dedicated to the early warning signs. These signs are often subtle and can be passed off as “normal” behaviour – unless you know what to look for. Common warning signs include avoiding eating in front of others, making excuses to avoid family meal times, obsession with food preparation and a change in attitude towards food, e.g. becoming vegan or cutting out entire food groups under the guise of wanting to be “healthy”. In addition, ritualistic behaviour when eating, such as cutting food into tiny pieces, insisting that meals are eaten at a particular time each day or obsessive use of the same crockery and cutlery is cause for concern.

There are also warning signs before the warning signs. If a child is constantly complaining of headaches and tiredness, or appears to have trouble coping at school, this could indicate there is something deeper going on. Emotional issues, including feelings of inadequacy, often manifest as physical ailments, so stay aware of any symptoms that persist or behaviour that indicates difficulty coping, such as falling behind in class.

Becoming vigilant about the early warning signs means there is a very real chance of catching the behaviour before it spirals from an eating issue into an eating disorder.

Here are five tips for parents and carers:

1. Eat with your child as often as you can so that you become familiar with their eating habits.

2. Watch for changes in those habits, especially anything that appears unusually strict and lasts for several weeks.

3. Listen to the language your child uses around food. If they start talking about diets or calorie contents, or complain that they are fat (when they’re not) this is a red flag.

4. Watch for a change in disposition. If your child displays hostility around meal times, they could be experiencing internal conflict towards food.

5. If your child eats large amounts of food constantly but doesn’t realise how much they are eating and/or aren’t enjoying it, especially during times of stress, this could indicate obsessive eating.

In the event your child begins to display an aversion towards food and changes in their eating patterns, seek medical advice as soon as possible so that they get the right treatment without delay. Early intervention is critical in reframing the mindset before it becomes entrenched.
Melinda Hutchings

Welcome to the Wasteland

Warning – this special blog post may be a trigger for some people.

For those of us who have never had an eating disorder it can be hard to understand the grip that diseases such as anorexia and bulimia have on young women’s minds. This week I would like to share a piece of writing that brings clear insight. Written by a 20-year-old woman whose anorexia and bulimia have brought her to the brink many times, it takes us right to the heart of what it means to have an eating disorder. I first met this talented young Sydney woman through my work with Enlighten, and I feel fortunate to have developed a real connection with her since. She is soon to leave hospital after spending time in treatment, and everyone at Enlighten sends her love, health, hope and peace.

Welcome to the Wasteland

If you could read my mind you would know how we see ourselves. Pathetic. Stupid. Ugly. Disgusting. Worthless. Useless. Fat. Lazy. Gluttonous. I could go on.

Yet others, when asked, will describe us with words we never imagined to be synonymous with ourselves. Witty. Intelligent. Together. In control. Hard working. High achieving. Compassionate. Energetic. Creative. Enthusiastic. Happy.

Welcome to the wasteland of eating disorders – contradictory in almost every way, and the epitome of self loathing. It is a world where nothing makes sense, basic requirements for human life are marked with a scarlet “DENIED” stamp and having nothing means everything. Where going down means you go up, and going up means you go down – low. It’s a place where frightened children fall into a mirror which shatters before they can escape. And where “leave me alone” actually means “please help me.”

It’s a reality carefully denied by those in its grips, and carelessly denied by those without the knowledge, experience or desire to understand. It’s an illness which affects not only those it physically hurts but almost every single person who comes into contact with that person. It’s a parasite which infects our minds and reprograms them, before we can possibly comprehend what a monster we’ve unleashed.

It’s a place where you have to watch someone fall. And fall. And fall. And fall. And often, there’s very little you can do to help them. Watching someone collapse doesn’t guarantee they’ve had their fall yet and “looking well” is merely a sign that someone is hiding their disease well. Running on empty doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve run out of fuel.

Welcome to our show – stage makeup, false smiles and all – where you’ll hold your breath and be gripping the edge of your seat as you watch us teeter on the tightrope, playing chicken. However, it’s a disease where all too often we lose our footing and we do make our spectacular final descent to earth, ending up 6 feet under. It’s up to those left behind to wonder if they could have done anything different to catch us. It leaves those of us in the grips of this illness wondering if we’re going next, or completely denying that we’re even on the tightrope.

Our community is unlike any other. We band together in mateship, each strongly denying our own illness, only to turn around and engage in exactly what we are most afraid of our friends doing. We accuse others of being irrational, frustrating and even psychotic – yet simultaneously we delude ourselves into believing that “one more time won’t hurt,” when we are in fact swiftly killing our spirits, and ourselves, and it’s only by the grace of Someone who is watching over us – or sheer fortune – that we’re still here today. We bitch about how awful our friends’ treatment teams are, but silently pray they will save them. We inadvertently collude with a friend’s disease before realising that we don’t want anyone else to be up to their necks in our hot water. No doubt our disease has also asked, even expected, others to collude with us in our scheming, planning and plotting.

We have moments of clarity, followed by moments of despair, quickly followed by denial. In that order. We would sell our mothers, our children, our lovers, for there to be silence in our heads. We dream of food, think of food, are obsessed with and possessed by food, and at the same time wave plates away with our hands and hold our breath walking past McDonalds. We eat carrot sticks in public, spending our nights eating everything in the pantry then acting out gut-wrenching, throat-shredding compensatory behaviours, which rip our bodies and minds apart. Or we’ve got the “normal eating” in public down pat yet eat nothing but soy sauce and vegemite at home, or spit out our food when no one is watching.

In recovery we take baby steps, chastising ourselves for never being the “best” at recovery. We swing between believing we need help, not wanting help, denying we need help and not feeling as though we deserve help. And back. We get up and run, crash headlong into an obstacle and lie on the ground crying. If we pick ourselves back up, we crawl, tentative, scared, knowing that it’s safe but anxious to stand up lest we crash back down to earth. We give up. We stand up and fight again. We leave treatment centres and psychologists on a whim – and regret our decision the minute we’re out the door. We take a few adult steps. We crawl again. Then we learn that things need to be taken slowly and consistently, and that even if we fall, we have the practice and, after years of doing this, the muscle tone in our knobbly, wobbly legs to actually support us.

We get frustrated. We scream. We take our unrepentant rage out on ourselves. We temporarily forget all we know about the damage we so easily inflict on ourselves and, desperate for a moment of control, fall back to our own ways. We come to terms with the damage that we’ve done – with psychologists, doctors, psychiatrists, dietitians, dentists, friends, family – and then turn around and point blank deny it. Or the truth hits us square in the eyes, and we regret everything. We swear we’ll never do it again, that we won’t make it any worse. We think “I seriously didn’t expect that to happen” even though we can recite the complications of eating disorders backwards. We end up close to dying, with all evidence before us, and repeatedly deny that we are so much as ill.

We say sorry over and over. Sorry for taking up so much space. Sorry for getting in your way. Sorry for voicing an opinion. Sorry for saying no. Sorry for saying yes. Sorry for thinking. Sorry for eating. Sorry for breathing. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Yet we can change to our eating disordered selves and back without so much as a breath.

We cling to childish ideas of recovery, of finding a cure, of fairytale “and they lived happily ever after” endings. We acknowledge that we will have to work hard to achieve our idealised state of recovery, but when the going gets tough we baulk. We begin once again to listen to the voice in our heads that convinces us that we’re not sick, or, in times of negotiation, that we’re simply “not sick enough”. We pin up fairy wands in our hospital rooms and pretend to be positive when in reality we don’t feel like we will ever escape the chokehold of this disease alive.

We can remember every minute detail of our week’s food intake and the calorie content of food we’d never so much as touch, and can recite our meal plans in our sleep. Yet sometimes we can’t remember what day it is. We live in a world where intelligence is measured by how many people we can deceive, rather than what we achieve.

Welcome to the wasteland of anorexia and bulimia.

Early intervention is key to treating an eating disorder. If you are concerned that your daughter or a girl close to you may be at risk, a good starting point is your GP, who can refer her to a relevant specialist. For older teens especially, it may be easier said than done to seek professional help. If she does not accept treatment, try to keep the lines of communication open; let her know that you are there to offer support and help her get treatment if she changes her mind. 

You may find it helpful to know some of the signs that can point towards an eating disorder:

• Extreme dieting, such as cutting out entire food groups or skipping meals
• Overeating
• Weight loss or gain
• Obsession with appearance or weight
• Loss of menstrual periods or disrupted menstrual cycle
• Sensitivity to the cold
• Faintness, dizziness, fatigue
• Anxiety, depression, irritability or an increase in mood swings
• Withdrawing from friends and family
• An increased interest in preparing food for other people
• Food rituals such as eating certain foods on certain days
• Wearing baggier clothes
• Exercising to an excessive degree
• Frequent excuses for not eating
• Eating slowly, rearranging food on the plate or using other strategies to eat less, such as eating with a teaspoon
• Eating quickly
• Stockpiling food in her bedroom
• Food disappearing from the pantry
• Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals

For more information on eating disorders visit:

The Butterfly Foundation:

Eating Disorders Victoria:

or US site Something Fishy:

No Diet Day – May 6th

May 6th is No Diet Day. This event, which began in Britain in 1992 with an anti-diet campaign called Diet Breakers, is now an annual internationally celebrated day that encourages community awareness and discussion about healthy attitudes to food, and celebrates diverse body shapes.

I think it is a day well worth commemorating at your school or workplace, hence the early heads-up. Here are some ideas you might like to pursue:

  • Fundraising: The Butterfly Foundation, an organisation supporting Australians with eating disorders, is asking for groups to host a morning or afternoon tea, at which guests make gold coin donations to the foundation. For a fundraising kit, contact
  • Film screenings: Hairspray is one of my favourite feel-good movies to show girls. For older girls, Muriel’s Wedding offers some great messages on choosing to be yourself. Do you know of others?
  • Art projects: I love Nancy Bruno’s Beautiful Women Project. This series of photos and stories focuses on real women and what makes them truly beautiful in the present moment. A wonderful idea might be to ask girls to record an image of themselves at their most beautiful and to write an accompanying reflection on what real beauty means to them.
  • Closet clean-outs: Encourage girls to clean out their wardrobes and donate to charity any clothing they’ve been keeping “until they get thin”.
  • Sharing the love: Girls could make cards that celebrate diversity and send these to their family and friends. How about these ideas: “I like you the way you are”, ” You’re beautiful because . . .”
  • Awareness campaigns: Love Your Body Day ( runs an excellent poster design competition. Some of the past entries are fabulous (including the one below by Australian Anand McCorquodale, from Pyrmont, New South Wales) and may inspire your own budding artists to reflect on how they can spread some positive body image messages.

Any other good ideas we can share?

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