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Kids, weight loss and body image

Categories: Mommy Angst


“I look fat in this,” she said. My first reaction was to reassure her. You’re not fat. Look at you! So thin! You’ve always been thin. “I have?” she asked, shyly, smiling a secret inner smile, looking up at me with her big golden brown eyes. Yes, you have. Aren’t you the thinnest in your class?

Crisis averted, for the moment. She’s ten and she shouldn’t be thinking of being fat. She shouldn’t compare herself to others. She should rest in the knowledge of her own beauty, perfect as she is, because she is who she is.

And then it hit me. I had said the wrong thing. I was reacting to my own body image demons, the ones that have plagued me since the fourth grade and I caught a side view of myself in a window, belly out and breathing naturally, and I vowed to hold that belly in to avoid looking fat. I’ve done it ever since. Only in pregnancy did those muscles relax. And I had nothing to worry about — old photos reveal a stick-thin fourth grader.

What I wish I had said was: You’re beautiful. You’re perfect as you are. I love you because you are you.

But my daughter isn’t the only one worrying about fat and body image. It has saturated our culture. California teen girls are having bariatric surgery in alarming numbers (so goes California, so probably goes the nation). We are obsessed with appearance. Retailers and advertisers routinely alter the appearance of already rail-thin models to render them impossibly thin, a degree of thinness that we mere mortals could not possibly aspire to.

What do we do with this? We can’t possibly shield our daughters from the constant onslaught of body-image messages. We can show them the Dove Evolution video a zillion times, but there are twenty zillion more messages out there that say the opposite.

I decided that with my daughter, there are four things I can do:

1) Make sure she understands the changes taking place in her body. There is nothing she can do to stop them. She might feel large and ungainly for a while, but only relative to the little-kid body she is accustomed to. Now she is growing into the body of the woman she will be for the rest of her life, and to refuse that now will only bring her years of grief. Embracing it will bring her the power that resides within it, and help her feel like a whole and complete person.

2) Share my experiences with body image. No one told me the things I just said above, so at 25 I anorexia-bulemia’d myself down to 93 pounds (I’m 5′7″) — and I thought I was finally beautiful. The years since have been a struggle, until very recently when I began to embrace and love my body. It took a bout with cancer to get there.

3) Make sure she knows about healthy living and caring for her body from the inside. We had deep discussions about nutrition, and I’m teaching her to cook so that she can control healthy choices for herself rather than depend on others to do it for her. And now that she has friends in her neighborhood, she has someone besides her very busy older brother to play with, be outside with, and run around with, which will get her off the couch and using her long limbs more.

4) Help her feel the beauty and richness of all her gifts — especially the inner ones. She loves writing, so I’m encouraging her to use that love and her talent in a way that makes her happy. Pleasing herself through her work (rather than trying to please someone else) will give her that inner glow of satisfaction and self-worth that replaces any amount of makeup and trendy clothes to create real beauty.

So here’s a question for you, and this isn’t limited to the parents of daughters, either — our sons have just as much to contend with about image and identity. Is this an issue for you? What have you done to help your children rest in the knowingness of their own inner perfection? Are you still facing challenges? What has worked and what hasn’t?

Photo: Flickr, inneedofhelp08

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2 comments so far...

  • Oh this hits home. Because my child is no longer just a skinny little twig kid, she’s getting shape & definition. Which in our family tends to run toward the, well, Rubenesque.
    Should she stay slim by being super active and obssessive about eating (as my sister is) she’ll still likely be blessed/cursed with being top heavy. My 86-year-old grandmother recently remarked that she wished “God hadn’t blessed her quite so much”! We all have to specialty/catalog shop because even with a normal band size regular stores don’t carry those cup sizes.
    And as a teenager it was an issue that even dressed as conservatively as I could, I got unwanted remarks from men, and at 14 you aren’t well equipped to handle them. I worry about that for her as well.
    And I’m well aware all my worries stem from my own experiences, but I’m not certain we really CAN fully control those, because we want the “best” many of have decided that is “anything other than the way we went”.

    Mich  |  September 22nd, 2010 at 1:57 pm

  • This is a tightrope walk for me already, and my kids aren’t even 4 yet. I have one kid who loves food and does not love physical activity and has unforgiving genes. I have another kid who is a very picky, light eater, petite, super active, and has taken to saying “I don’t want to get a big belly” as an excuse not to eat a second bite of most foods.

    Like most of the USA, the women my girls are around tend to be heavier - OK, obese. Myself, I’m at a healthy weight, and I stress healthy eating and healthy movement over “getting / staying skinny.” However, I can’t hide my kids from others who, on the one hand, feel the need to offer my kids sweets and fatty foods that they don’t need, and on the other hand, talk about their body shape and weight in negative terms.

    Call me crazy, but I already feel sorry for my heavier kid, because I can just see this leading to a struggle when she is at that vulnerable age. She’s not gonna be healthy-slim unless she discovers an active sport that she loves, and takes to heart all I’m teaching her about nutrition. I’m doing my best, but I guess the second-best option is contentedly-curvy? I’m not sure I know how to get a child to that point. I never had these issues. Even though I was tending a bit heavy between age 13-18, I don’t think I really cared that much. I was focused on other things. My genes kept me from ever getting “fat,” and at 18, I got a job that kept me so busy that I got skinny again.

    So should I be worrying about my kids getting eating disorders?

    I have a bit of a theory about the recent rise in teens’ eating disorders. I am not sure it’s really all about body image. Actually, I think it’s about the need to have control over something. Young teens are ready for control over important things, and they crave it. But the amount of responsibility / freedom we give kids nowadays is far less than most of us had at that age. I feel that if we just went back to giving them as much responsibility as they could reasonably handle (and I’m not talking about performing with perfection), they would not have a need to go looking for perverse ways of winning control. So my plan is to treat my kids like young ladies and trust them to do what is right, except for laying some basic ground rules and modeling good values.

    SKL  |  September 22nd, 2010 at 8:29 pm