Butterfly Foundation: Supporting young people with disordered eating

Health and wellbeing are paramount to a thriving young person. An important aspect of this is the relationship they have with their body, their eating and physical activity. These are unique to each person, influenced by individual and environmental factors....

Health and wellbeing are paramount to a thriving young person. An important aspect of this is the relationship they have with their body, their eating and physical activity. These are unique to each person, influenced by individual and environmental factors. How positive or negative the relationship, attitudes and behaviours are, underpins how well young people can engage in their studies, their hobbies, sports, friendships, and life!

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic there has been a significant increase in the number of children and teens experiencing body image concerns, disordered eating and eating disorders. Studies conducted between 2020-2021 report that the increased stress, over-consumption of news/social media, concerns for the future, changes to eating habits and abrupt changes to routines and activities have played a role. A young person’s connection to the very things that support their wellbeing and evolving identity were impacted, taking a toll on many aspects of their life and mental health.

As the saying goes, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ and to help our young people reach their potential. Supporting a young person to foster a positive relationship with their body, eating and physical activity is incredibly important, as is knowing what to look out for and what to do if concerned if or when they are struggling.

But first, what is body image and why having a positive one is important.

Body image is the perception a person has about their body and appearance, it involves thoughts, feelings, and attitudes which in turn drive and motivate eating and exercise behaviours. A healthy and positive body image involves things such as showing respect to the body, accepting its uniqueness, celebrating its function, and engaging in eating and physical activity that support health and wellbeing – rather than choosing food or exercise to lose weight/reduce body size or change body shape/increase muscularity. A person who is satisfied with their body will also extend kindness to it through language and behaviours and the way they feel about themselves, and their body will not consume, distract, or negatively affect them in their life

However, given the very narrow body and appearance ideals that exist in Western society, which are so heavily promoted in the media, social media and by the weight-loss and fitness industries, it is common for people of all ages and genders to feel inadequate, unworthy or not good enough, when they don’t measure up by comparison! For young people, navigating adolescence alone can be a challenging time, so it’s important to be mindful and respectful that asking them to baulk at these narrow and stereotypical societal body and appearance ideals and expectations is far from easy and takes enormous courage and strength.  We can offer guidance and support as well as compassion to help them as well, as well as work to dismantle the harmful systems and values in our society, so that young people in all body shapes and sizes can thrive.

What happens when a young person is feeling dissatisfied, uncomfortable, unhappy, or even loathing of their body shape, size, and appearance? Isn’t it just something that all young people experience as a part of growing up and adolescence? When does it become a ‘problem’? When should someone step in and intervene or ‘do something’? Which are all commonly asked questions!

What is known is that the more dissatisfied a person feels about their body and appearance, the more likely they are to begin engaging in unhelpful and often harmful behaviours, such as restrictive eating to lose weight or excessive training and supplementation to build muscle. It is important to acknowledge that for young people who are struggling with their gender identity and/or their sexuality, there may be added layers of complexity to the relationship they have with their body and greater sensitivity needs to be considered if working with these young people.

Engaging in behaviours that improve health outcomes is of course to be encouraged. But if body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem and other factors are involved and if health behaviours are primarily motivated by weight loss or body shape change, and the achievement of those things celebrated, it not only reinforces the strong weight to worth message but also is problematic and begins to disorder a young person’s relationship with eating, exercise, and their body image.


Eating and Body Attitudes and Behaviour Continuum Butterfly


This continuum helps to showcase how the development of more serious body image and eating issues may develop.   People can sit at any spot along this continuum at all ages, stages and in all body sizes. While the pathway to the development of an eating disorder is complex and certainly not linear body dissatisfaction and disordered eating and significant risk factors. More information about eating disorders can be found here.

While disordered eating may be  a little less understood, it is more common and unfortunately often overlooked.  This may be attributed to the fact that many of the behaviours involved with disordered eating are celebrated and normalised within diet culture, fitness, and wellness industries. It is classified as a disturbed eating pattern that can involve restrictive eating/dieting, compulsive, or binge-eating, skipping meals, purging, excessive supplementation use, or a hyper-focus on healthy eating. It is considered a mental health problem and often evolves to cope with difficult emotions. It can impact a person’s life in a range of negative ways. People experiencing disordered eating require support and compassion to heal their relationship with their body, eating and physical activity.  There is often a fine line between disordered eating and eating disorders – which is why intervening early if concerned about a young person is key.

Things you may notice that flag someone may be struggling with disordered eating:

  • They may be pre-occupied with food and exercise/training
  • They will often be dissatisfied with their body size/shape (or focused on others – in life and online)
  • They may be obsessed or consumed with health or becoming ’healthy’ or ‘fit’
  • They may talk about and act ways to compensates for eating (may also include purging behaviours).
  • There may be visual changes in their body shape/size and how they dress. Important to note that there are many emotional and psychological changes that aren’t always ‘seen’.
  • There may be notable changes in their mood, concentration levels and engagement with their peers and others in their life.
  • They may be experiencing other mental health problems.

What to do if concerned?

  • Be informed and understand what to look out for as there are a number of emotional, psychological, and behavioural warning signs.
  • If concerned about a young person – doing something sooner than later is recommended.
  • Avoid dismissing restrictive eating and over-training as ‘healthy’ behaviours. Be open and curious as to what the underlying motivation might be.
  • Remember that relationships with food, eating and physical activity and the body are influenced by many factors. Food and eating (or restricting) may be used to cope with tough emotions – which may be about the body, or other stressors in their life.
  • Speak to supervisors, wellbeing staff or contact the Butterfly Helpline who can guide you on what to do next if you are noticing some concerning behaviours and attitudes in a young person you work with butterfly.org.au
  • Maintain your professional boundaries, guiding and support a young
  • If you’d like further information or training on these topics or have a specific question, you’re welcome to contact the Butterfly Education and Prevention Services team education@butterfly.org.au

If you’re struggling with this yourself, if the relationship with your body image, eating or physical activity isn’t as positive as you deserve it to be, please know that it’s never too late to seek support – these issues don’t discriminate and can occur in people of all ages, sizes and from all backgrounds. There is support available.

One of the most powerful things that young people need in their life is consistent, positive role models who can demonstrate and ‘show’ them what a positive body image is. Being mindful of language used in relation to appearance and body size, food, and exercise, accepting and celebrating diversity, adopting a zero tolerance to weight or appearance teasing or bullying are things everyone can do. As well as each day finding ways to extend just a little more body kindness… to your own body and to others!

Danni Rowlands

National Manager, Prevention Services

Butterfly Foundation – www.butterfly.org.au


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