A couple months ago, a good friend of mine and mother of three emailed me about childhood obesity. She’s passionate on the subject (as it should be) but is concerned about keeping her kids healthy, in shape, and making smart choices about food in a way that doesn’t encourage disordered eating in the future. (By the way, as someone who plans on having children at some point, this notion TERRIFIES me to death. If I do ANYTHING that breaks my kids to the point of disordered eating, I probably will never forgive myself. I’m even hesitant to tell them about my struggles lest they give them any ideas.)
This subject is a touchy one so I’ve done my best to avoid writing on it until now. But this afternoon, this article popped up in my Google reader about children and diets. I guess it’s time.
The first time I was ever displeased with my body was when I was eight years old. Eight. Not eighteen. Eight. A child. I distinctly remember standing in the bathroom and looking at my body from the side and being angry that my stomach poked out. (Imagine a child’s body. That’s exactly the way an eight-year-old should look.) Then, I resolved that once I got boobs, my body wouldn’t look so bad. So I looked forward to developing boobs. Then, I got boobs. And my ballet teachers made me hate them. And I wanted to starve them away and look like an eight year old again.
As a person who spent the better part of her childhood obsessed with not being fat, I can’t accurately articulate my feelings on the subject. While I absolutely hate the idea of any child being put on a diet (do NOT get me started on this) the obesity epidemic in America, particularly when it comes to children, is something that I think shouldn’t be ignored.
So. The question is, then, how do we encourage our children to make healthy decisions about food and exercise without scaring them into destructive behavior like eating disorders?
I’m no expert. I have no degree on this subject and I have no children. But. Here’s how I’m going to try to address it in the future.
1. replacing negative comments with positive ones.
The entire focus of the diet industry is to deconstruct and violently remove parts of ourselves. Seriously. “Shrink your belly!” “Melt your thighs!” “Burn more fat!” There’s nothing that sounds positive about any of that. It’s laborious, damaging, and scary. By the same token, using negative words about our bodies in front of or (God forbid) to our children has the same effect. We should never say to our children, “Don’t eat that X because it’s fattening and bad,” or, “Make sure to get outside and play so you don’t get fat.” Rather, we should say, “Make sure you do eat all your veggies so you will become big and strong,” or “Playing outside is so good for you because it keeps your body strong!” If working in marketing has taught me anything, it’s that your message is 90% spin.
2. practicing what i preach.
People say that children are sponges — they absorb everything adults do, retain it, and eventually leak it out on their own. I completely agree with this, but I disagree with the idea that it goes away when we grow up. Personally, I don’t think I ever stopped being a sponge. I’m always watching people and sometimes (unfortunately) emulating them. If our kids see us complain about our bodies or use negative language toward food, they’re going to do it. Period. I can’t pinpoint the reason that I thought my eight year old belly stuck out too far, but I can only assume that it’s probably because I heard someone else say that about themselves.
3. focusing on what we can do, not what we look like.
This, I think, is the biggest miss of our entire society. We focus so much on what we look like and hardly at all on what we can do. (My biggest pet peeve concerning this, for instance, is the body ideal of having a completely bone-thin body with giant boobs and a round butt. Sorry, but this isn’t anatomically possible. Yet, our society demands it of us women, because all we seem to be worth is how easy we are on the eyes.) By putting the focus on what we can do — our talents, our passions, our gifts, our strengths — we put value in the things that, despite the passage of time, will not change. I think this is crucial to raising happy, healthy children.
4. not a diet — but a way of life.
Diets don’t work. They don’t. If you can’t sustain a behavior for the rest of your life, it’s not going to help you. Sure, cutting out carbs helps you lose weight for a minute; but once you eat a bagel again (and you will, I promise) you’ll gain it all back and then some. Committing to a healthy lifestyle — choosing healthy foods, eating “unhealthy” foods in moderation, being active, and training your mind to think positively — is the way to go. I am making a vow, here and now on my blog, to never, ever, EVER, say the words, “I need to go on a diet” in front of my kids. I may say, “I need to eat more fruits and vegetables,” or “I should keep my sugar intake to a minimum,” or some variant of those, but I will NEVER say, “I need to go on a diet.” Everything inside me would cringe if I heard my kids say that and so, per number 2 and 3, I will never say it myself.
And there you have it. It’s a bit rough, and may be tweaked a bit once I actually have kids. But there it is.
What about you? Do you have kids? If so, how have you encouraged health in your house?