Monday, March 21, 2011

Talking to Our Children

Main Coon (source: www,ted-payne.com)

A few days ago, Lynn at Lynn's Weigh wrote a post about the history of her weight. The post really got me thinking. Read it here.

I was with Lynn all the way until she said,"Clearly I was not obese in 7th grade, but my weight was rightly a concern to my doctor."

The picture of her in the 6th grade showed a beautifully formed young woman on the cusp of womanhood. Even the high school picture she posted was far from the picture of a fat person. Yet the doctor saw her as perched on the edge of a fat precipice. And therein begins the tragedy.

I see the doctor's comment as yet another trigger for the weight journey (nightmare?) Lynn was about to embark upon. There was nothing useful about this comment, even though it was not meant to cause problems. However, the reality of the matter is that comments such as these pave the way for terrible things to come.

I think the absolute worst thing we can do is talk to our children about their weight. Not a single word should be spoken. Not one, ESPECIALLY NOT TO OUR DAUGHTERS (shouting caps intentional). They are already surrounded, nay drowning, in negative messages. Even the slimmest of the slim know that they should consider themselves fat. It's practically a badge of honour to say, "Oh, I feel so faaat today."

Does this mean we should blithely stand by while our children eat themselves into oblivion? Of course not. However, believing that we must DO something to stop their inevitable slide into obesity means that we think that without our guidance, all our children will turn into pre-adolescent roly-poly blimps. That's ridiculous.

But first, we must admit (and this one is a hard one) that some people (of both the child and the adult variety) will never be thin. They are probably not fated to be grossly, morbidly obese, but not everyone is naturally slim just as not every cat is a Maine Coon or a Siamese.

Siamese cat (source: palbes.com)

I am a mom myself and I struggle with these issues. I sometimes feel lucky to have two boys since I know that their lives, at least in terms of their physical self-image, will be much, much easier than if they had been girls.

But I can still have some influence over what and the way they eat, so I too must be careful.

Yes, we do have a role as teachers for our children. But the best way to teach is to walk the talk, by modelling healthy eating, not berating them. I believe in less processed or unprocessed foods; fresh produce; meat that is not shot through with hormones, food that is (inasmuch as possible) locally sourced. This is the food my husband and I prepare and serve to our children. We talk to them about the nutritional value (or lack thereof) of what we eat. We encourage them to eat when they're hungry and stop when they're full. It's amazing to see that principle at work. One of my sons has much more of a sweet tooth than the other, but when he's not hungry he just walks away from the treat, no matter how enticing it may be.

I also believe that no food should be off limits, but that many foods should not hold pride of place in a home. There are numerous reasons not to feed yourself or your children on a constant diet of fast food: empty calories is just one of these reasons. I'm sure you can name many more. (BTW, I fully recognize that people who have to work two or more jobs just to make ends meet usually don't have the luxury of making nutritious, home-cooked meals for their families.) I'm also not a fan of stocking your pantry with a generous variety of cookies, cakes, candies and other treats. However, having been deprived of most treats as a child because "they weren't good for me", I can attest to just how thrilled I was to gorge on them, whenever the opportunity arose (usually at a friend's house). Our pantry often holds one bag of cookies and there is often some ice cream in the freezer. Both these treats last quite awhile. There is almost always a very large bar of dark chocolate on the counter. We have about 10 bars in the basement pantry since we don't often get to the store that sells this chocolate. My husband and I have two small squares a day, never more. Once in awhile we don't have our "medicinal dose" of chocolate at all. The boys eat somewhat more, but again, not every day.

I firmly believe that trash talk with children or adolescents, i.e. classifying food strictly along caloric lines, is the best way to create and foster disordered eating. You all know my mantra: eat when you're hungry, stop when you're full. If this is the consistent message a child hears, he or she is much less likely to gorge or starve.

We can also encourage our children to walk more, or take their bikes or use public transit. Driving your grown child everywhere takes away a valuable opportunity to get to know one's neighbourhood, to learn to be autonomous and to do something good for the planet by not burning unneeded gas. (I'm not going to open up the city/suburb debate here. Sorry.)

Our schools should make phys ed compulsory right up to graduation. But these classes should be pass/fail, and simply based on attendance and participation. Those dumpy, uncoordinated kids need to feel accepted, otherwise their desire to participate and move their bodies will be squashed like a bug. Believe me, I know. At 54, I still remember being always chosen last (or next to last) for team sports. Yeah, let's get our kids moving, but the athletic model is a killer unless you were born with the "right" body. Phys ed, as it's taught now, is the best way to discourage most kids from wanting to move their bodies.

The worst thing we can do for our kids is make them fear food and hate exercise. What with society's dieting obsession, the message that the only right way to exercise for a fat person is to exercise until you throw up (see: Heavy or Village on a Diet), our worship of winning athletes (go for the gold or don't go at all) and our black/white way of seeing things (the only truth is the BMI), it's pretty darn hard to not raise fat obsessed children. The problem is, being obsessed with fat never kept anyone at a "healthy"* weight.

*I do not accept the BMI as a proxy for healthy weight.

10 comments:

  1. What a lovely recognition about the power of suggestion and social relationships through which the conditioning (of the minds of children) occurs! As I've mentioned elsewhere, I'm constructing a theory about the body image map within the brain, regarding ways in which it becomes distorted and ways through which it may be healed to reflect (with more synchronicity) a body that fulfills the physiological and emotional needs for the whole person within a whole social/cultural/natural environment. Truly, our bodies are beautiful whether we resemble the lovely Maine Coon or the delightful Siamese. (What wonderful illustrations of diversity!)

    Thank you for always bringing a fresh perspective for your readers to consider. Your post today has taken me back to the origins of my own early awareness of my body size and my attempts to control it, to either fight back against my surrounding cultural/familial dysfunctions or to use my body as a commodity with my culture in a desperate attempt to get my needs met.

    You are a brilliant observer of humanity.

    Rebecca

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  2. My Mum spent her whole life 'on a diet' I remember my Dad once saying he would love to see her eat a proper meal. I am sure her low fat diet was a major factor in the severe osteoporosis she suffered from in her last years. She was obsessed with her weight - and obsessed about MY weight. I was put on my first diet at the age of 14. She saw me as 'fat' so I saw me as 'fat' and now I can't see myself as anything BUT 'fat'. Is it really any surprise I have a weight problem?

    Our self image is such a huge factor in this issue.

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  3. I really like what you are saying in this post. I think it's much better to be FOR children's health than AGAINST childhood obesity. I don't think that you can have a war on childhood obesity without having a war on obese kids.

    I would ask a favor. As an extremely healthy, extremely fat woman, I wonder if you might consider omitting terms like "roly-poly blimps", "dumpy" and "grossly, morbidly obese". I found them hurtful and I think other people who look like me might too, and I don't think that was your intention. Of course this is your blog and I will support you in expressing yourself however you wish, this is just food for thought in case it's helpful.

    Thanks again for a really great blog.

    ~Ragen

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  4. Hi Ragen,

    Great to see you here. I read your blog religiously.

    I'm really sorry that you felt hurt by those words. They are awful, but were used intentionally to reflect the thought processes of people who believe that they are doing others a "favour" by warning them against the "proven dangers" of overweight and obesity, or simply insulting them for what they see as a moral failings.

    I do feel badly though that my writing could be interpreted any other way. I guess I'll just have to be even more clear in expressing the difference between how I see things and the description I give of how others see the same things.

    I feel honoured that you came by!

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  5. I was put on my first diet before I even started kindergarten, my mother was/is constantly obsessed with my weight. It did not work out well for any of us.

    I have this idea regarding dogs. You can have a bulldog, who has a wide sturdy body and a whippet, a dog with a small, wiry body. With neither dog over their appropriate weight, the bulldog is going to look "fat" in comparison. If I started to withhold food from the bulldog until he was as thin as a whippet, that would most definitely be animal cruelty, but parents do it all the time to bigger kids.

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  6. My mom helpfully informed me that I was the fattest girl in my drama class. My father let me know I'd get dates if I did "something about my thighs." And the culture has only gotten worse since my childhood.

    I'm glad I have a boy. Thirteen years old, and all that THAT entails. But, nevertheless, a boy who is content to call himself a nerd. He vascillates from "overweight" to "Husky." He is happier during the "growing upward" phases and gets down on himself during the "growing out" phases, and it makes me so sad. And I fear my "experiment" may not be helping him.

    I don't think it's good to NOT talk about weight, especially if the child brings it up. I have told my kid that our society is messed up and disordered with regard to weight, food, etc. He gets it. He sees the big blue elephant in the room. He knows to click past "Biggest Loser" when it pops up on the TV screen.

    I, like you, try to steer the family away from processed foods, toward organic, locally sourced options when possible. We do what we can.

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  7. "Our schools should make phys ed compulsory right up to graduation. But these classes should be pass/fail, and simply based on attendance and participation. "

    That's how it is in New York State. It was a big waste of time. I took a gym class all through school. My weight fluctuated up and down, but I never once felt good about my body. And gym made it worse, because normal male clothing covered up my fat rolls pretty well but gym is different. And 30 minutes of extremely light exercise isn't going to help much, especially when the cafeteria vending machines are well stocked.

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  8. GAH, well, i'm glad i was arguing with my wife and not redirecting at my overweight son.

    Normally, i'd log in as myself, but 1/2 his friends and his sister are on facebook or google+ etc.

    he's a sneaky eater, and trades with his friends for money to go to wendys etc.

    however, my wife is one of those super health chicks that can eat a bag of fritos and never gain and oz, AND has superb healthy blood workups.

    my point is: we let him get fat by being too involved with him. instead of guiding him silently, we explained why he needs to eat healthier.

    i feel like a ass now, after reading this blog.

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