Summer Time Blues
Trigger warning: Discussion of negative body image, self-hate and eating disorders.
“I just wish summer was over.”
The first time I heard that, it was all I could do not to burst into tears right there in front of my patient. Granted I had heard many sad, even tragic statements in sessions over the years, such as kids talking to me about their sexual abuse, violence in the home, and having alcoholic parents.
And yes, I do tend toward the hyperbolic when I am feeling emotional… it may be a New Yawk thing but I have been known to emphatically proclaim:
“That was the worst movie I have ever seen in my life!”
“That was the most incredible concert EVER!”
And in this case:
“Those were the saddest words I ever heard spoken in my life!”
But when a 12-year-old kid looks at you at the end of June with a full three months of delectable “School’s Out!” stretching in front of her and sees only torment… well those WERE the saddest words I ever heard spoken in my life!
Kids hating summer??? Really? That’s like saying kids hating presents. Or kids hating cartoons. It just broke my heart.
And “Julie” was not the only young girl I’ve heard say this. In fact, right now girls everywhere are looking at the summer months ahead with dread. What should be a time for summer recreation, replenishment from academia and over-scheduled lives has become an endurance test for many. It involves months of hiding, making excuses, covering up, and pretending. Root canals are preferred over pool parties; math homework trumps a day at the beach.
“I should have started dieting three months ago. I knew summer was coming. I just didn’t do it. It is my fault. I knew I would hate looking like this and I did nothing about it.”
“I am a big fat ugly failure.”
Where do you go with this? How do you explain to a healthy, vivacious, and endearing 12-year-old that she is not a horrible person because she doesn’t look like a model in a bikini? Especially when everywhere she looks that is all she sees?
And while not all fat kids have eating disorders, for those who do, summer can be a catalyst for escalated symptoms or trigger a relapse from frantic attempts to elicit “body approval” before Labor Day arrives. If you are close to someone who has a history of an ED, this is the time to keep your eyes open for increased rituals around food, sneak eating, or erratic behaviors where diet pills and laxatives may be involved.
Decreased socializing and feigning illness are also common symptoms of disordered eating patterns and negative body image. And if you haven’t seen the movie, Someday Melissa yet, it is an effective educational documentary that can show you how these behaviors present in the real world.
So, what can be done? No doubt, a proactive approach all year long is the BEST way to stave off the Summer Body Blues, but it is never too late to start. The palpable pain of self-hate feels intractable, incurable. Kids like Julie feel unlovable and the problem to them is unsolvable.
It is difficult to imagine a world where summer isn’t defined by bathing suits, beaches and not fitting in. Feeling like an outcast is one of the problems being triggered by the summer pressure to conform to a single standard of beauty, so connecting with places that provide support and encouragement is crucial.
Some age-appropriate websites that promote positive self-image, size/self acceptance, while de-emphasizing beauty as the primary qualification for happiness and success are:
And there are ways to help protect your kids against self-hatred, including:
- Help your kids find joyful and pleasurable ways to move their bodies that aren’t weight-loss focused. Geocaching, scavenger hunts, miniature golf, flying kites, and bowling all involve actively moving in ways that are fun and aren’t about monitoring calories burned and pounds lost.
- Get them away from the television at least a little bit, or watch with them and help them to realize that they are slowly being taught to fall out of love with themselves. About-Face just shared a report on their Facebook page published by Communications Research, a study by two researchers at Indiana University and University of Michigan.
Findings evidenced that TV consumption caused self-esteem to plummet for everyone except white boys, for whom it increased. Girls and women, the authors said, inhabited roles that were “almost always one-dimensional and focused on the success they have because of how they look, not what they do or what they think or how they got there.”
- Explore what they really believe would change if they were to all of the sudden have the “body they always dreamed of?” What about them would be the same? What would be different? What new challenges or feelings might arise? Deconstructing the myth that life would automatically be perfect if the weight poofed away often helps to refocus on goals that are more systemic and improve quality of life.
- Take action. I am not saying this is easy, but to sit by passively is definitely NOT going to improve anything. Teach your kid to be an advocate for themselves. Offer alternative literature, movies, and peer groups that reflect diversity in shapes and definitions of health. (Have you seen Miss Representation yet?) Most importantly, let them know there is hope for some peace of mind and they don’t have to wait until the end of the summer and the donning of winter with its cover-up clothing to find it.
Who says, “There ain’t no cure for the summer time blues?”