At Brain, Child, Nina Badzin’s honest, thought-provoking article Losing the Handle on Treats discusses how, in her attempt to make body-image a non-issue in her house, she might’ve inadvertently cultivated an environment in which her kids are developing poor eating habits. She’s made such a point to not focus on weight that she’s “lost touch” with how to talk about food and is a little unsure of how to address her kids’ excessive snacking, you know, without permanently damaging their delicate egos.
This is a universal dilemma, isn’t it? Walking the fine line of giving our children the information they need without creating an unhealthy obsession. From the media, we get: “big is beautiful,” “real women have curves,” “love your body no matter its size.” We hear terrifying stories of anorexia and bulimia. But then we’re told to keep our kids active, to make sure they eat healthily, to not let them get fat. BUT DON’T ACTUALLY TALK ABOUT FAT, because you’ll make your kids anorexic. Or they’ll get even fatter! With so many mixed messages to unravel, it’s all too easy to become paralyzed with indecision.
Nina wisely observes that not talking about fat “feels like an elaborate ruse to convince kids that we don’t care about their weight.” She then adds, “I want to actually not care about their weight. My kids should know that I think they’re perfect as they are, and that what’s important about their lives has nothing to do with how they look.”
Nina ends her piece with an invitation for ideas. Here are mine:
I think that when it comes to talking about weight issues with our kids, we parents need to drop the euphemistic psycho-babble and get real. After all, if we aren’t honest with our kids about fat, how are they ever going to figure it out? It’s like sex: We now widely-acknowledge that we need to talk to our kids about sex before their ill-informed friends explain to them that you can get a girl pregnant by peeing on her, or they choose some famous twat-waffle to be their role-model.
It’s the same thing with body issues: Why can’t we just be honest with our kids? And I don’t care if you yourself are fat! Great; use yourself as an example and explain how you got that way and how difficult and frustrating it is to undo it.
“But admitting you’re fat means you think you’re ugly and you hate yourself!” What??? Would someone please tell me who started this ridiculous lie? I know plenty of people who are overweight and are absolutely stunning on top of being incredible human beings. And on the flip-side, some pretty frail-looking coke-snorting models are held up as the gold standard for beauty, though many are far from healthy. (I bet a hundred dollars I can bench-press Kate Moss.)
We’ve become so consumed with fear that we’ll damage our kids’ self-esteem that we’re willing to out-right lie to our children: “It doesn’t matter if you’re fat.” Well, they found out about Santa, eventually they’ll find this out:
Being fat is an indication that one has, at some point, made it a regular practice to consume more calories than they burn. That is what it means, and yes it does matter.
The medical community tells us that a person who carries excess weight is at risk for a host of health problems including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, fatty liver disease, kidney disease, and pregnancy problems.
And we’re tip-toeing around the word “fat” with our kids because we’re worried about their self-esteem?
I can’t be the only one here who’s confused about our order of priorities.
This is not to say we shouldn’t still have concern for our kids’ confidence. I’ve heard more than one woman unhappily recount her mother saying, “Should you be eating that?” and how those words permanently damaged her self-esteem.
Well who wouldn’t be humiliated by that approach? But I think we’ve gotten it completely wrong about why it’s humiliating: it’s not humiliating because the mother was trying to address a perceived weight issue; it’s humiliating because the mother implied there was a problem without ever actually addressing it. It’s passive-aggressive; that is the problem.
Turning the subject of healthy eating and body awareness into a taboo subject that is too shameful to discuss is not the way to inspire healthy eating or healthy body-image in our children.
Being fat doesn’t mean that someone is ugly, weak, lazy, or a bad person, and of course this message must be conveyed.
But we still need to have frank conversations with our kids about fat. What is it for? How does it get there? What happens if there’s too much of it? How do we avoid storing too much of it? Is it ever okay to point out that someone else is overweight? (It is not.) Is it okay to encourage our overweight friend to join in our game of tag? (It totally is.)
We also need to stop tip-toeing with our words when it comes to healthy eating and the dangers of too much junk food. We are obligated to provide our kids with the healthiest food we can afford. We need to say to them: This food is healthy because it has nutrients that fuel your body and your brain. If your body and brain do not have the proper fuel, they won’t function the way they’re supposed to.
And when it comes to junk food, we need to explain what it is, and why and how to avoid it. We need to tell our kids about the deceit in food marketing, how the food industry is money-driven and doesn’t care about our physical well-being, and how we should never draw conclusions about food based solely on the commercial or the pictures on the front of the box.
On the rare occasion that I take my kids to McDonald’s (I’m not running a dictatorship here, okay?), I use the opportunity to tell my kids: This is a once-in-a-blue-moon treat. Even though this food is delicious, it is not actual food. It has no nourishment for our bodies and will not give us lasting energy. People that eat this food every day, year after year, have unhealthy insides. Sometimes they even get heart-attacks or diseases like diabetes where you have to take medicine every day just to stay alive.
And then I let the poor kids eat their Chicken McNuggets.
But we as parents need to say these things to our children. And more importantly, we need to set a good example for our children. For many of us this will mean facing our own food-demons. But we all say we’d fight an angry bear for our children, right? So why can’t we accomplish the significantly less gory task of setting a good example for healthy eating?
That’s right: My name is Kristen and I care about my kids’ weight. I have no desire to change that sentiment. I don’t want my kids to be fat when they’re young, and I don’t want them to battle weight throughout adulthood. I will do everything in my power to keep them fit and healthy, and I don’t care if they are aware of my intent. And I don’t believe unconditional love and caring about your kid’s weight have to be mutually exclusive.
I care about my kids’ weight because I love them. I will be frank with them about nutrition and fitness because I love them. I will throw away their Halloween candy after three days because I love them.
Would I still love my kids even if they were fat? Absofreakinlutely. But I won’t lie to them and say it “doesn’t matter” if they’re fat. Because it does.
Nina: Thank you so much for starting this conversation. For those of you who would like to read more by Nina Badzin, her page can be found at http://ninabadzin.com/.