Body image advocate, bestselling writer and Australian of the Year Taryn Brumfitt wants more done to tackle body image issues. Dangerous messaging around food is having devastating consequences, particularly for girls and young women. But, she writes, change can start from small places.
Food is such a big part of our life. It nourishes us, provides comfort and brings us together with loved ones. It gives us the energy to run and jump and dance and sing, and can help to heal us when we’re sick or injured.
So it’s no surprise that we like to talk about it. A lot. From the dinner table to the tearoom at work, food is one of our favourite topics of conversation. Sharing a recipe or bonding over a shared love of a certain cuisine is harmless enough, but often we can find ourselves perpetuating more damaging messages – sometimes without even realising.
We’re so used to hearing these types of comments about food that we almost don’t notice them anymore. In fact, these messages have become so pervasive that entire food groups have been ascribed moral value – good/bad, healthy/unhealthy – and completely changed our relationship with what and how we eat.
The impact of this is dangerous and far-reaching. Rates of body image distress and eating disorders have reached crisis point, and it’s affecting one group in particular – our young people. Research shows that 77% of young people in Australia report body image distress, making them 24 times more likely to develop depression. Although body image distress can affect both genders, women are particularly vulnerable.
The statistics are alarming, and solving this crisis is not going to be easy. But thanks to the tireless work of body image researchers and advocates around the world, we know what we need to do.
Crucially, we need change in the settings and environments around us that continue to reinforce dangerous messaging around food – the mainstream media, social media, and advertising of diet and weight loss companies.
We need to let them eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full, and trust that they know what their body needs.
But we can be part of the change too, in how we help young people develop a healthy relationship with food. Instead of policing what they eat or passing judgement on their food choices, we need to encourage them to enjoy a wide variety of foods to fuel their growing bodies. We need to let them eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full, and trust that they know what their body needs.
We need to be mindful about how we talk about food around them as well. As parents and relatives, we have such a huge influence on our young people and they absorb so much from us – even when we think they’ve tuned out! Comments like “Ooh, I’m being so naughty eating this” or “I’ll need to go for a run after this burger” might roll off the tongue without a second thought, but they can start to embed harmful ideas about food from a very young age.
We can’t let another generation suffer the devastating effects of the body image crisis. There is a lot of work to be done, and sometimes it feels hard to know where to start. But in my experience, big change can start from a small place – like the dinner table.
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Words by Taryn Brumfitt. Photography by Meg Hansen.
Published September 2023
This article is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your medical practitioner.
Jean Hailes for Women’s Health gratefully acknowledges the support of the Australian Government.