"If My Daughter Wanted to 'Eat Healthier,' I Would Respond Like She Wanted to Smoke Cigarettes."

Raising Body Positive Teens with author and family therapist Signe Darpinian

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Teens have the ability to know how much they need to eat. And when we interfere with that, as parents, we start to break down their natural ability. When we model that we trust our children to listen to their bodies, that they are in charge of their bodies, it also models consent.

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health.

Today I’m chatting with Signe Darpinian who is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, certified eating disorder specialist, and host of Therapy Rocks, a personal growth podcast. She is also the co-author of No Weigh!: A Teen's Guide to Positive Body Image, Food, and Emotional Wisdom and the new book Raising Body Positive Teens: A Parent’s Guide to Diet-free Living, Exercise, and Body Image. I’m really thrilled to have Signe on the podcast because she is someone who can answer all your questions about intuitive eating and anti-diet life with teenagers.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! And subscribe to the Burnt Toast newsletter for episode transcripts, reported essays, and more.

ICYMI! I joined Signe on her podcast last week. We focused on how to talk about fatness and fatphobia with teenagers; listen here.

Signe Darpinian

Virginia

I am such a fan of your work, and especially the new book. Can you tell our listeners a little more about yourself and your work?

Signe

I’ve been treating eating disorders now for over 20 years. And I actually had the good fortune of being exposed to non-diet and weight-inclusive approaches right in the beginning, when I was really green. It’s something that I was very lit up about right from the beginning. 

It’s been interesting in 20+ years to see the different trends. Like you talked about in your book, The Eating Instinct, to see the trends of diet culture, which were more straightforward in the beginning, like Jenny Craig, to today’s wellness culture.

A couple other things about me: I started a podcast right in the beginning of the pandemic. And I’m what some people call a single mother by circumstance, a little bit different than a single mom by choice. It was a happy accident! It can be interesting being a single parent and doing this food piece. My lived experience is more like, well, we’re going to do it this way. That’s not always a parallel to what other people experience — doing food when partners feel differently about diet culture can be tough.

I have a 12-year-old daughter and this book was a much bigger project. My daughter threatened to stab the book in the heart when it comes out.

Virginia

Is that because of the time it took or because she disagrees with the content?

Signe

She doesn’t really know the content. It’s a funny question because the teen book is actually just perfect for her. Age 12 would be a great starting age. She has it on her bookshelf and I asked her if she would consider reading it. She’s like, “Only if you pay me.” I’m like, “Are we talking about twenty bucks?” She’s like, “More like one hundred.” I’m like, “Forget it.” So no, it’s not the content because I don’t think she’ll ever know. She has no interest. It’s more like, you know how it is with writing. It took a lot of time. It was a much bigger project and those last few weeks are pretty daunting. It’s a lot of hard work—and really fun! But she was ready for it to be done, which I understand.

Virginia

My eight-year-old often asks, “Oh, are you still writing that book?” And there’s a little tone there! A little judgment. She’s like, “How many chapters are you trying to do?”

Signe

Virginia, what about your recent post about your eight-year-old never wanting to be a writer unless she had to for the money?

Virginia

I was like, “Oh, how do I explain to you that if you have to do things for the money, this is not the thing?”

Signe

I’ve definitely got a reluctant reader over here.

Virginia

Mine’s a reader, but she does not like writing. She feels sorry for me with this career choice.

Okay, so the big reason I wanted to have you on is because I get lots of questions from parents of teenagers. I really relate to the sense of panic I get in these emails where parents say, “I’m just now discovering concepts like intuitive eating or diet culture or fatphobia.” Maybe during their kids’ earlier childhood they were more controlling around food or they were on diets themselves. And they’re just feeling like, well, now, what do I do? My kid is 14 or 16 or 20, and this is a shift we want to make. But is it too late?

Signe

The short answer is: It’s never too late. We’re not modeling perfectionism, as parents. We’re modeling humanity. I don’t know about you, Virginia, but I try to do my best in modeling good mistake-making. I’m really taking ownership for my part in things more than I’m trying to model being perfect. Well, because I couldn’t anyway. I’ve tried that it doesn’t work. 

We are all immersed in diet culture and it’s really, really sneaky. There’s so much morality around food. Parents are in the same culture. Just thinking about their evolution, the evolution of their body image, and the messaging they received when they were young. What was going on at their table with food? What was happening with body image? And the conditioning that they come with. 

So on one hand, I think parents hold a lot of power. Our hope in writing the parent book is that we can give parents a point of reference for what a friendship with food might look like or a friendship with body might look like. Because we’ve really lost our way as a culture. We hope for them to become awake and aware about when did they become disembodied? When did they become disconnected from their own body? Thinking about ways that they might like to be different as it relates to food and body image, so that they can extend it outward. 

I have friends, for example, that by now know about body positivity and intuitive eating. They know the right things to say, but there’s an incongruency with what they’re saying and what they’re doing themselves. Our kids and our teens, they can sniff out those incongruencies. So we can think about the ways that we would like to be different and think of it in terms of a process, not a finished product. I think that’s a great starting place for parents.

Virginia

What you’re really modeling is recognizing mistakes and learning from mistakes. Because kids know we’re making mistakes all the time. They’re not fooled. For us to own that and say, “Yeah, I’ve been getting this wrong, and I’m trying to do it differently.” That feels so powerful. I would imagine kids would appreciate it, even if they don’t say, “Oh, thanks, Mom, I really appreciate that.”

What does this shift look like if you’re starting this with older kids? Concepts like Division of Responsibility can be so helpful when you’re developing this with younger kids but the guidance gets a little hazier as kids get older. They are more adept at preparing their own food, they’re out in the world more. They can take more responsibility in some senses. Parents often don’t know how and when to really hand over that responsibility.

Signe

The Division of Responsibility, the way that I understand it, is the parent is in charge of the when to eat and the what to eat. I like to put a lot of emphasis on being very mindful about the what to eat not being only “healthy” food. It can be problematic when somebody is in charge of the what to eat and they are immersed in their own diet culture. That could go really badly. Then of course, the child or the teen is in charge of the how much.

I want to make one disclaimer about Division of Responsibility. In my caseload, by the time people come to me, there is already a very serious problem. There is already a clinical eating disorder. The thing that I’m hearing most often from parents, when there’s already a clinical eating disorder, is “I just thought they were trying to eat healthier and exercise more.” That’s the way this looks right now. I’m on the frontlines in this work. If my daughter came to me and said she wanted to eat healthier, I would respond to it in the same way as if she told me she wanted to start smoking cigarettes.

Virginia

So it’s a big red flag.

Signe

“Eating healthier” is a big red flag. And just don’t want to do any false advertising around Division of Responsibility.

Virginia

It doesn’t work for people in the acute stages of an eating disorder. That’s not where you start when you’re in treatment. 

Signe

Exactly. Division of Responsibility is going to really look very different with my 12-year-old than it is with somebody else’s. At one end of the continuum, we have households that may have been modeling externally imposed restriction. Externally imposed restriction might look like a parent micromanaging a teen or a child’s food and feeding them in a way that really has to do with their concern about their weight. On the other end, you might have a household that almost looks too loose. That’s actually the the household that I had, up until my daughter was in kindergarten or first grade. I was so aware of attuned ways of eating and how important a more connected way of eating is that I actually wasn’t providing enough structure for my particular child. That doesn’t mean that other children couldn’t do just fine with a very loose household with food. In my own circumstance, my daughter was needing more structure and guidance around food the same way she needed a bedtime. 

With teenagers, I think parents can still incorporate a lot of the Division of Responsibility paradigm. Making sure that the foods are there. One of the guidelines that we use in our book is making foods equal. Not only equal in morality, but equal in availability. Equal in availability might look like if the refrigerator was full of foods that sort of matched an “all foods fit” paradigm, not just the ones deemed “healthy.” Foods are there and equally easy to grab. Maybe there’s cubed up fruit and there’s cheese sticks and there’s fun size candy. They’re equally easy to grab. We can then grab the food that our bodies are actually calling for versus what’s easiest. I also want to make the disclaimer that we don’t always have the time to do the preliminary work to make foods equally easy to grab, equal in availability. So I just want to name that sometimes we will, sometimes we won’t. No big. 

One of the things that really resonates with me is not micromanaging what they’re up to with their food during the day. They’re clearly going to have a lot more autonomy with food. Some of them are driving now. They have their own money. They’re going to friends’ houses. So you would never assess or take an inventory of what was eaten that day and base your dinner decision or dessert decision on what they had during the day.

Photo by Maskot via Getty Images

Virginia

That’s their opportunity to be practicing these skills. It’s not on you to say that if they had ice cream after school, then they can’t have cookies with dinner.

Signe

Exactly. If I asked my daughter, “What did you guys have for snack today?” Like, if I know somebody brought something in. If my intention is to see if she had sweets and that will determine if we have dessert tonight, then I’m not going to say anything. But if my intention is just genuinely, I’m curious, then I might ask.

With teenagers there’s another component that comes in and this piece would really come more from my co-author Wendy Sterling, the dietitian. She says the teenage years are also a really nice time to start introducing some basic food prep skills. Maybe they’re in charge of one recipe for dinner or maybe they’re putting together their own lunch. You’re making the food available and accessible, but they’re in charge of some of those chores that are related to food prep or cleanup as it relates to a meal.

One other thing I want to bring in around that, and this comes from a podcast I did with somebody who’s an expert on adulting, Julie Lythcott-Haims. She was talking about how when we grew up we didn’t experience a culture of busy-ness in quite the same way that we’re seeing today. Sometimes, these meal prep chores, we’re not having our kids do them, because they’re too busy. Everybody is too busy. I can empty the dishwasher quicker than they can, I can set the table quicker than they can, so I might as well just do it for them. So I just wanted to bring in how the culture of busyness may show up in what we’re talking about, as well.

Virginia

I think that applies for parents of all ages. I even think about that now with my eight-year-old, she could be clearing the table more. We do have them clear their own plates, but we were just having a conversation about starting to build in small opportunities for these skills. Because I want a 16-year-old who can make her own lunch! I don’t want to be packing lunches when they’re 16.

Signe

Before before I did that interview, I don’t know that I was as aware of it, you know? My 12-year-old is like, “Can you get me some water?” I’m like, “Hey, you’re as tall as I am. Go get it yourself!” Right now I’m noticing how often I’m like there’s no time for her to empty the dishwasher. I’m just going to do it.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, who was a Stanford Dean for several years, noticed a trend that a lot of these kids that are entering school nowadays, it looks like somebody has been cutting their meat for too long. Way too long.

One other skill, as far as parents thinking about first steps that they might take in getting more attuned and connected to their body’s wisdom, is the hunger meter. We have a pretty basic hunger meter, which is one to ten. At the higher end is fullness. So, say six to ten, those are the fullness gradations of the hunger meter. At the lower end, the one would be famished, starving. A three would be the first sign of appetite, whatever that feels like for a particular person. When somebody is going from eating with a diet mentality or eating “from the chin up,” which means reducing their food choices to nutrients only and what I “should” and “shouldn’t” eat. When you go from years of eating from the chin up in a very disconnected, disembodied way and you’re going to start trying to eat from your body’s cues, the hunger meter can be a nice tool. Some people aren’t calibrated enough to start eating intuitively and so they might need to do mechanical eating. A simplified definition of mechanical eating might be eating by the clock on the wall. It may require some calibration first.

Virginia

That’s for folks who maybe in the past have been skipping meals or eating really erratically, so this is to make sure you are eating during the day and not skipping and ending up over-hungry.

Signe

Thinking about getting recalibrated, doing some mechanical eating, ultimately that might give you some access to your body’s cues. And then the hunger meter as a tool may come in handy. 

We get told a lot that that’s probably one of the most helpful tools, and we have a chapter on the different gradations. Here’s what it would look like once you’re recalibrated. Maybe you just ate lunch at noon and it’s two o’clock and you’re feeling a pull toward food. Okay, so just trying to identify where you might be on, on the hunger meter. Maybe you’re at a five and you’re neutral. You’re not hungry and you’re not full, but you’re feeling that pull toward food. The hunger meter is meant to really just be used as a tool that you’re checking in and deciding from the inside. Becoming awake and aware about where you are. It’s all about choice. The target behavior here is really about creating a little bit of space between you and the food and just assessing where you are. oh, I’m at a five, I’m neutral. I’m not hungry, I’m not full. Just to be awake and aware of what’s going on for you—and then what you do after that is up to you. That’s your choice. The intervention or the target isn’t so much what you end up doing with the food—maybe you eat it, maybe you don’t, who cares? The intervention is just becoming awake and aware so you have more choice around your food.

Virginia

That’s a helpful distinction, because I do think there’s a risk of using hunger meters and feeling like, Well, I’m not hungry enough. There’s definitely a way to turn it into a diet,

Signe

You can turn it into a diet in a nanosecond. It’s just creating that space between you and the food. 

Virginia

Another thing you have in the book that I really love is the chapter on boundaries. I loved one you just highlighted, setting a boundary of not policing what your kid eats out of the house. What else do parents of teenagers need to understand about boundaries? What kind of boundaries should we be trying to respect when kids set them around food and body?

Signe

One of my favorite excerpts around boundaries and food is from the chapter co-written with Anna Lutz, RD. [You can also hear Anna on Burnt Toast here!]

Anna says: “Teens have the ability to know how much they need to eat. And when we interfere with that, as parents, we start to break down their natural ability. When we model that we trust our children to listen to their bodies, that they are in charge of their bodies, it also models consent.” So I think this really illuminates the importance of not interfering with children’s or teen’s stopping place. You are really helping them strengthen the muscle of listening to their instinct and honoring it. We might be talking about food right now, but in allowing them to do that with their food and not saying like, “you’re not going to get up from the table until you eat your broccoli,” or “you can’t have your dessert until you do this,” or “you’re not going to have another piece of pizza,” or whatever it is.

Virginia

That’s such a powerful moment, for parents to realize that the concepts that we’re working out around the dinner table is going to translate into how your kids trust their bodies in so many different settings. And that’s all we want, right? We want our kids to listen to their bodies first and foremost, in dating, all of a that.

Signe

That’s my favorite boundary as it relates to food. In the body boundaries chapter, we did this effective communication model, we call it ad libs for effective communication. It’s an effective communication model that I see in a lot of places, it’s pretty well documented. 

When you have a body boundary to not let other people comment on your body, whether it’s positive or negative, letting them know where you stand. Like, “Hey, it’s not okay when you comment on my body without my consent.” So you stick with the facts, then you grab in one or two feeling words: “I feel angry.” And then the because. Because is what it is about them commenting on your body that makes you feel this way. “Because it gives me the impression that you’re scrutinizing my body.” So it’s a really simple formula and of course, you want to make it yours. You don’t want to sound like a therapy session. 

The person may come in and say, “Well, gosh, I just thought you looked great and I thought I would just tell you. It looks like you’ve lost weight.” The best way to win the game is to not play. So you just say, “That maybe be your perspective, but I wanted to let you know how those comments affect me.” Sometimes it helps to practice in your journal or with a therapist or to a friend that you’ve really felt safe with. Sometimes it’s helpful to just write out what you would have liked to have said that you didn’t feel comfortable saying, as you’re practicing and getting ready to do boundaries.

Something I think we leave out when we talk about boundaries is they’re really hard. Especially if somebody has been taught to not make waves in their family of origin or if somebody’s temperament is conflict avoidant, it’s not very comfortable. I think it’s important, when we’re talking about boundaries, instead of just saying, “Oh, be sure to have a boundary and don’t let anybody comment on your body,” to also bring in this preparation. We need to tell people: When you do have these boundaries for the first time, it may feel really bad. I mean, really, really bad. In the chapter, I talked about my own experience, where I would feel so awful in practicing boundaries for the first time, like I robbed a bank or something. It might feels bad in that situation, not because your boundary is wrong, but because you’re breaking a pattern. 

Virginia

I appreciate the script you’ve given us because I think the other person’s reaction is often what makes it feel so dangerous. You can’t control whether or not the boundary will be respected or how they’ll respond. So that follow up of, “That may be your perspective, but I wanted you to know how these comments affect me,” is so helpful, because that gives you a way to get out of that.

Signe

You’re right, you’re right. Because it of course it depends on who you’re giving the boundary to. If it’s a person that feels really safe and you have an egalitarian relationship with, then then they’re going to hear it and be very receptive. That’s going to be different from delivering a boundary from somebody who is out of balance. When you give a boundary to some people, they’re not going to be happy and that’s okay. It’s important for us to really get comfortable with tolerating somebody not being okay with us.

Virginia

And not feeling like it’s our job to fix them not being happy about the boundary we needed to set. 

Signe

Yeah, you can say it in the most eloquent way, and some people may still not be happy and that’s alright.

Virginia

The last thing I wanted to talk to you about was your social media chapter. This is a major route that teenagers are being exposed to diet culture. Talk a little bit about how you advise parents to engage with kids on this. How do we talk about the negative food and body messages that kids are encountering online while holding that kids want to be on social media and that there’s a real need for it. 

Signe

One thing that I learned while writing this book comes from dialoguing with Sara Pipher Gilliam about social media. In preparing for the 25th Anniversary of Reviving Ophelia, they did 18 months of focus groups with adolescent girls and their parents. What was interesting is that every single one of those teenagers were told up front when they first got their devices, “We are going to be checking in on your social media on a regular basis. Whatever you put out there in a text or group chat, it’s for the whole world to see. I am going to be looking at it regularly.” And almost every single one of the parents never did follow up on that.

This is something I’m dealing with regularly with with my particular caseload, but also with my 12-year-old. We have really good intentions and we know that the technology genie is out of the bottle and not going back in. We want to check their social media on a regular basis. But it’s mind numbing. It’s not fun. We want to be sitting down every few days or weekly and scrolling through and having them give us a tour of their TikTok or what they’re seeing and talk to them about it. But it’s just not very fun and we don’t want to do it. There’s a little bit of avoidance.

Virginia

I already feel that way hearing my eight-year-old talk about Animal Crossing, so I can’t even imagine how I’ll feel when it’s TikTok.

Signe

Yeah, it’s super boring. So let’s just say that out loud. In that chapter, we did use one of Sara’s interventions that she calls peer-to-peer peer agreements. I think we need to have parent-to-parent agreements, where we’re checking in with each other. Did you check your kid’s TikTok this week?

The peer-to-peer agreements are really powerful, more so than what they might hear from a teacher or from a parent. It’s not uncommon for me to have a teenager in my caseload totally distraught because her friend was mad at her for not being on call at 2AM because she had a breakup. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes with social media, a lot of expectations. So maybe one of the agreement is we’re putting our phones away at 10PM, depending on the age. So that people know ahead of time and they don’t have unrealistic expectations for accessibility to each other. The other thing is, I’ve seen parents who are checking social media too often. It feels a little like dimming the kid’s light. It’s really different for everybody, but we need to be finding something that’s that sort of in the middle of being too strict or too loose with social media.

Virginia

You’ve talked about needing to respect to what kids are getting out of it, too. There’s the social piece and the creative expression that comes with social media.

Signe

I did an interview with a colleague and good friend of mine who is a registered Art Therapist. She talks a lot about how we really see our kids trying to express themselves creatively through social media, through music and dance. They’re looking for art, as well as creating it themselves. On one hand, that can be okay. On the other hand, we know that not all the images that they’re seeing are positive. What she says so eloquently is that social media is not meant to take to take the place of going to see art in real time or doing our own art.

Over this last holiday, my mom was in town and she really had to push us out the door to go to the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. I didn’t really want to go, like the parking, you know. We ended up getting there and I’m so glad. We brought my daughter and one of the times we brought her friends, too. They didn’t love everything, but it’s good for them to get exposed to art in different ways than on an online platform.

Virginia

In a museum, there is still an audience for the art, but it’s a much different audience than when you’re only putting things on social media and thinking of art as something you make for the whole internet. It’s really powerful for kids to realize that art is something they can do just for themselves.

I think that’s really helpful for parents who are trying to appreciate what kids are getting out of it. But also figuring out the self regulation piece and kind of helping them learn those tools. It’s a messy thing we have to keep muddling through.

Signe

And making sure that there’s plenty of time where we allow our kids to be bored, and not sort of swoop in and rescue them from the boredom. Having art supplies available and accessible would be great. I do want to mention, the ability to have art supplies, and to go see art, depending on where you are, can be a privilege. Nowadays, places like the dollar store have a lot better art supplies than they did 10 years ago. So there are ways to get it cheaper than you used to be able to, so that’s cool. I like the idea of making sure they have a fair amount of time just hanging out in their boredom and learning to tolerate it and giving them an opportunity to come up with their own creative and imaginative expression through their own art.


Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Signe

Something that I’ve been up to lately that I used to do in my 20s and 30s and I rediscovered it recently is collaging. What’s really cool about collaging is that I don’t have art skills. I don’t know how to draw, I don’t necessarily know how to paint. So collaging can be one of the least daunting forms of creative expression. What I like about it, too, is that you can use the catalogs that come in the mail to just kind of spend time cutting out images that inspire you, which can be really meditative. My colleague calls it visual journaling. It’s kind of cool because it can give your journaling a three dimensional quality.

For teens that maybe don’t want to be writing in their journal because they’re afraid a parent might see it, journaling through art or visuals can be a way to express and get your dark thoughts out on paper so that they’re not staying private. Only you really know what the symbols and the metaphors mean in the art. So it’s something that I’ve been doing myself and I’ve also been doing with clients. It’s been really helpful. I have a couple of clients that I’m doing that with right now that struggle with unhealthy perfectionism. So just spending time cutting out images and doing collage in a way that you can’t really get it wrong teaches is a nice mindfulness practice. It helps them pace themselves.

And lately, I’ve been making collage cards. Cards are pretty expensive, at least the ones that I really like. You can personalize a collage card for a birthday card and make it uniquely for somebody that you’re close to. It’s just a fun way to share your art.

Virginia

I mean, I’m obsessed. I want to start collaging immediately. It sounds like a great thing to do with teenagers with younger kids. It’s something I also did for a while and sort of dropped. And now as you’re talking about it, I’m like, where did that go? I need to bring collaging back. That’s a wonderful idea.

Signe

It’s a really fun thing to just get totally lost in.

Virginia

Well, my Butter this week is a movie recommendation. It’s not a new movie, so probably most people have seen it. I think it came out one of the years I had a baby because the year you have a child, you’re kind of culturally illiterate. It’s Inside Out and I had a feeling you would be a fan, Signe. We just watched it with our kids a few weeks ago. It was so funny because our four-year-old was really resistant. She had a lot of feelings before we started, but then she was just mesmerized. I think she has watched eight times since then. I mean, we were all stuck in the house with COVID for two weeks. It’s been so cool because she is really using the tools from it.

So for people who don’t know, the premise of inside out is that it’s this 11-year-old girl Riley, who’s going through some big life stuff. And the movie is narrated by the emotions in her head. So you see the sadness and joy and anger, and disgust and fear constantly narrating what’s happening to Riley and what’s happening within her head. Now when my four-year-old gets mad, she goes, “Oh, angry guy, you’re being so loud in my head right now.” It’s amazing because she’s labeling the emotions and it takes her down a notch. She’ll scream and be frustrated and then we can talk about what the angry guy is so angry about. So yeah, if you’re looking for a way to talk about feelings with kids in a super accessible way, it’s such a beautiful movie.

Signe

It is so well done. My co-author, Shelley Aggarwal, MD, she’s an adolescent medicine doctor. We were just talking about Inside Out because in our friendship with body image chapter, we have this section on how it’s really normal for adolescents to over-identify with their peer groups. She was talking about how perfect the movie is to explain and show over-identification with a peer group. Diversifying our interests is a really great way to protect ourselves from body image dissatisfaction or eating issues. I’ve been talking about watching it with my daughter again.

Virginia

I can see it being something we come back to throughout the years. You’ll get different things out of it. Right now the four-year-old loves angry guy,- and she loves the imaginary friend Bing Bong, because she has many imaginary friends. My eight-year-old is a little more close to the vest with feelings and she, I think, felt very seen by the movie. Like, oh, other people have all these big feelings inside them. That was so wonderful to see.

Signe

It’s just a brilliant movie. That’s going to be our movie this week.

Virginia

Good to hear. Well, Signe, tell listeners where they can find more of you.

Signe

So the pre-order link for Raising Body Positive Teens: A Parent’s Guide to Diet-free Living, Exercise, and Body Image is now available. My website has a books tab and both books are there.

Virginia

Thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it,

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