I pick my kids up from school and in the car, my typically quiet son informs me that eating too much ice cream makes you fat. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing so I started to ask some questions. I discovered that this was his takeaway from a nutrition lesson at school.
I feel there’s an unspoken sentiment that parents should avoid conversations about weight with their children. I beg to differ. In fact, I think parents take a big risk when they avoid this sticky issue.
So with help from leading experts in the field, I came up with these 5 important points that I vow to teach my children, and that you may want to consider.
Point #1: Just because others say it, doesn’t make it true. (Let’s talk about it!)
After doing my homework, I discovered my son misinterpreted what was said about ice cream, which is very common with children. I realize I’m not the only person who will provide health education to my children. Because we live in a world where weight is a huge focus of health, it’s important to stay in communication with kids about what they learn and how they (or other children) are treated by others.
I tell my kids: “Please tell me when you hear nutrition/body/weight messages or perhaps wittiness someone being made fun of for their size. I will never get mad at you or anyone else, I just want to talk about what’s behind those messages because they’re not always true.”
Point #2: You cannot judge someone based on their shape and size.
First, I told Little D that no one food like ice cream can make people big. I stressed that “People come in all shapes and sizes with some big, some small and others in between. Someone’s size doesn’t tell you anything about what or even how much a person eats. And it says absolutely nothing about character.”
The reason this is so important is weight stigma is a huge problem in society. One study showed 90% of adolescents have witnessed friends being bullied for weight. A 2012 report, entitled “Weight Bias: A Social Justice Issue” from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, details how weight stigma decreases academic performance and increases the risk of depression, poor body image, suicidal thoughts and unhealthy habits such as dieting and decreased physical activity. Not only that, people who experience weight stigma are also more likely to gain weight — or stay obese — over time.
Linda Bacon, PhD, author of Body Respect, What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, or Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight, provides insight on how to broach this subject with kids: “It makes sense that kids would be concerned about being fat in this anti-fat culture, and I think it’s important to honor these fears. Telling them what we know to be true – that weight stigma is wrong and kids can be beautiful and healthy at every size – isn’t enough to help them change their attitude and behavior when they can see the real rewards people get for being thinner in this culture. It’s important to be real with them, and acknowledge that.”
“I like to use the analogy of skin color. Sure, we know that white people often get treated better because of their lighter skin, but we don’t suggest that black people bleach their skin as a solution. We recognize that bleaching may be harmful, may not work, and doesn’t get at the real problem: racism. Nor will trying to lose weight. Dieting isn’t effective and it just makes people feel bad about their eating.”
Point #3: We eat a variety of nutritious food to be healthy and strong.
You may remember the book “Maggie Goes on a Diet” about a 14-year-old girl who changes her diet, loses weight and becomes a soccer star. Well, that book didn’t go over well with dietitians and mental health professionals because of its “thin = acceptance” message. That’s why Judith Matz, LCSW, wrote and recently published a very different book, “Amanda’s Big Dream.” The story is about a girl who learns she doesn’t need to change her body to follow her dream of becoming a first-rate ice skater. In Matz’s resources that accompany the book, she makes the following point:
We ask adults to keep in mind that your own attitudes toward weight affect what you pass down to your children. While there’s been much value placed on reaching an ideal body weight in our culture, human beings naturally come in all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, when the focus is placed on weight, rather than on healthful behaviors, kids who are bigger often experience shame, and kids who are smaller often fear becoming fat. Eating disorders, low self-esteem, and weight bullying are also some of the harmful consequences that come from overvaluing thinner bodies.
And research agrees. One study showed that weight-focused health messages in the home resulted in more disordered eating habits, like dieting and binge eating, in adolescent girls than messages focused on healthful eating.
Point #4: Take care of your body, it does a lot for you.
Children who feel good about their bodies are more likely to maintain healthy, sustainable habits than those who don’t. A study published in Psychological Science, found that normal-weight adolescents who perceived themselves as overweight were 40% more likely to become obese as adults compared to those who viewed their weight as normal. And this isn’t just girls. The boys who felt this way were 89% more likely to become obese at adulthood!
“This is what we do know is helpful: everyone, regardless of their size, can benefit from taking good care of their body and learning to look at it with love and appreciation,” says Bacon. “Start there. You’ll feel better about yourself, which is really what kids are really looking for when they want to lose weight.”
Robbin Gregson, MFT, a licensed psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders puts it this way: “The most important point to make is to love your body no matter what. As we grow up our bodies will constantly be changing…taller, rounder, darker, lighter. The most important idea we can impart is our self esteem comes more from our internal thoughts of our accomplishments than our waistline, height, hair color, etc. It’s our kindness to ourselves and others that matters. Would your child love his favorite pet or stuffed animal any less if they looked ‘different’?”
Point #5: Be aware of the Thin Ideal message in the media.
No family can hide from the Thin Ideal, ever-present in movies, magazines, websites and the general population (who also are influenced by media images). “Research with kids as young as 3-5 years of age reveals that they show signs of adopting the belief that goodness in females was related to thinness,” says Jennifer Shewmaker, PhD, author of Sexualized Media Messages and Our Children: Teaching Kids to Be Smart Critics and Consumers. “But, it’s important to remember that there are variables in their personal life, such as family and community, that can help them process media messages and choose a healthy response. ”
Shewmaker provides the following tips to parents:
- Talk with your child: When you see examples of females being presented as primarily valuable for their appearance or of goodness equated with thinness or muscularity for boys , point it out and open the door for ongoing conversation. Address “fear of fat” directly when it comes up.
- Monitor your child’s media and product use: Is your child receiving a lot of messages about the importance of how they look? You may choose to restrict their exposure to certain shows or products, or you may choose to allow it, but only with your active participation. You can guide your children in developing the ability to critique media messages by doing so yourself. Then prompt them to do so as well.
- Build Community: In order to challenge the idea that how a person looks is the most important thing about her, it is very important to have a community of support that also promotes other characteristics as valuable. Find other parents, families, and groups that will support your child as they reject and challenge unhealthy ideas.
I’m committed to addressing these 5 points with my children throughout their lives. I want to help guide them in the right direction as they develop beliefs about themselves and others. I believe that if more parents commit to this we can gradually inch away from weight stigma, weight bullying, disordered eating, eating disorders and body dissatisfaction, all of which compromise the mental and physical health of people everywhere.
Ways for Parents to Combat Weight Bias by The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity
Check out the most ambitious book on body image for girls: My Body’s Superpower: The Girls’ Guide to Growing Up Healthy During Puberty