Katherine Levey was 12 when she fled from her abusive father, alongside her three sisters and mother in a police-plotted expedition.
What followed was a lifelong struggle with eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
She was a gymnast at five when subtle comments and comparisons about her body started to eat away in her brain. By seven, she knew all about anorexia. At 19 she became pregnant with her first child and now at 26 she’s trying to make sure her two children don’t go down the same road.
“When you have mental health issues and children a lot of the issues are like ‘is this ok, are my kids going to be ok? Is what I’m doing positive enough to offset the negative stuff that’s happening?” she says.
A recent ‘Children’s Body Image Development Study,’ at La Trobe University has shown that the foundations for body image are set in early childhood, with 38% of three-year-old girls wanting to change their bodies.
Other studies have shown that this key time is when children start to associate slender figures with positive attributes and larger figures negatively, reflecting their parent’s attitudes as well as representations in media.
“I see a lot of people talking about exercise and dieting and stuff around their kids without realising that that’s having a huge impact on them,” says Katherine.
She knows the damaging impact of diet culture and has started a Facebook support group to help other mothers with eating disorders build resilience in their children.
“I really discourage terms like ‘clean eating’ or ‘fat free.’ I’m really careful about terminology. Hopefully my kids don’t know what a calorie is yet.”
“I just think it’s tragic that we’re gonna raise so many more kids to be stuck in this cycle if there isn’t a loud enough voice that they can see another option. Like ‘ok there’s a dieting industry and sexualised bodies, but there’s also this huge group of people who are saying ‘I’m going to eat, I’m going to live my life, I’m going to allow my body to be what it is.’”
Merissa Forsyth is the founder of the newly started organisation, the Pretty Foundation, which focuses on educating parents on the power of language in early development.
“The statistics are saying this is really the time to start building resilience and there wasn’t a lot out there,” she says.
“Rather than dealing with the issue at a later stage, we’re trying to educate parents around what they say in front of their daughters, they’re picking up on things that have value for the parent and thinking it’s of value for them as well. When a mother says ‘oh I’ve gotta lose this tummy fat,’ they’re listening, they’re absorbing.”
Their campaign Pretty Powerful launched this August.
“If you’re gonna tell your daughter she’s pretty make sure you’re commenting a hundred times in other areas, her inner character, her personality, all those things that aren’t appearance based that show that’s not the sole thing she’s being valued for,” says Forsyth.
Keely Willis is one of four daughters who watched their mother suffer with an eating disorder. Her sister Rosa- Clare Willis, known as Honey and Human professionally, has submitted an artwork in ‘Praise You,’ to help raise money for the Butterfly Foundation.
“It definitely made me very aware of it growing up, aware of the power of food. It’s sort of a trivial thing growing up; your friends decide to go on diets. Seeing how much it can really rattle a family and seeing people talk about it trivially really was quite hard to deal with.”
“I definitely think we should be less focused on physical appearances. I’ve got a little niece, she’s one and people always say how pretty she is but they don’t really say things like ‘oh, she’s smart’ or ‘she’s strong,’ or ‘she’s clever’- so I think just being aware of how much emphasis we put on appearances and exteriors from such a young age is something we should be a lot more aware of, and find more ways to compliment girls or I guess critique girls apart from their physical attributes.”