I’m pretty intentional about the way I discuss food and exercise and body image and fat with my girls. Our society is obsessed with fat. Or rather, with not eating fat, not gaining fat, and not being fat. My parents never tried to get me to lose weight, and never taught me, explicitly or implicitly, that I needed to be super thin or diet constantly. However, the bombardment of “be skinny!!” messages in our culture still led me to have plenty of struggles with body image and “feeling fat,” particularly as an adolescent (I was never overweight, just not super skinny).
As an adult I have learned that it is more important to focus more on having a strong and healthy body and less on being thin. I know this in my head, but I still struggle with it every single day. I want to be able to lose the weight I gained while I was pregnant this summer. I want to be able to lose the extra pounds I had before I got pregnant this summer. I want to be thin again, like I was before I had babies. Even though I know better, I have moments of loathing this body that has grown and nourished three little people, because it doesn’t look like what I wish it did. That’s ridiculous, but it’s true.
I want better for my girls.
I have heard about little girls who worry that they are fat, or who want to be on diets, or who won’t eat certain things because these foods will make them “fat.” Five and six and seven year olds.
The idea of my little girls feeling that they need to be on a diet or do something to avoid getting “fat” makes me want to cry. I want to teach my girls about fat and food in a different way than what is common in our culture. Here are seven ways I try to do it:
1. I do not ever speak critically about my own body in front of them. Even more, I don’t scowl at my reflection, I don’t weight myself in front of them, I don’t complain that certain clothes make me look fat. When my kids inevitably poke my belly and comment on how squishy it is I just smile and say, “Yes it is.” I don’t say, “Ugh, I know. I need to eat less ice cream and work out more.” Even if that’s what I’m thinking.
2. I don’t discuss food with them in terms of its potential to make them (or me) fat, and we don’t go on “diets” in our house (I don’t believe eating paleo is a “diet” in the way I’m thinking of it here). We discuss foods in terms of their nutritional value. I explain to my girls that we need to eat a variety of foods to keep our bodies healthy.
I don’t ban sugary treats, but I tell them that we eat small amounts of these because they don’t offer our bodies much, if any, nutritional value, and eating too much of them isn’t a healthy choice and/or makes us feel tired, etc.
3. I don’t talk about fat or “being fat” as a bad thing. When my girls ask me why some people are fat, I simply say, “Because God makes people in all shapes and sizes.” Once Miss asked me what would happen if her daddy got fat. I have no idea where that question came from, but I said, “Well then we would just love him anyway, whatever he looks like.”
4. Similarly, I don’t tell them not to refer to other people as fat. The idea of being “fat” doesn’t have a negative connotation for them yet, and I want to keep it that way. I have felt embarrassed when they have asked other people, “Why are you so fat?” but I don’t chastise them for it because it is completely innocent. Obviously, if I ever heard them use the word “fat” as an insult, I would put a stop to it right away. For now, I’m just glad they don’t even think it that way.
5. I never have the TV on adult programming when my kids are awake. Commercials are so full of inappropriate content. When we occasionally have on a sports program during the day, I try to keep it muted, at least during the commercials, to avoid all the commercials about the latest and greatest “lose weight fast” schemes (it’s also nice to avoid the erectile dysfunction commercials so common during sports programming).
6. Exercise is always only referred to in terms of its purpose for making us strong and healthy and helping us to feel good, never for trying to lose weight. I was in our garage working out the other day while the girls played in the backyard. I was doing sumo deadlift high pulls and feeling like a cow, noticing how my belly fat was oozing over the top of my workout pants each time I bent down. Lass came to the door between the garage and the backyard and said, “Looking good, Mom!” I couldn’t help but smile.
7. I don’t talk about how relatively big or small they are. I have one daughter who is on the small side for her age, and two who are on the big side. Miss and Lass are almost exactly the same size. People comment on this all the time, usually right after asking me if they’re twins. But I don’t make a big deal about it. I don’t make comments about how petite Miss is or compare her sisters to her in that way. They know they wear the same size clothes, and it’s a non-issue beyond that.
I know I won’t be able to shield my girls from society’s skinny obsession forever. Really what I’m trying to do now is lay a good foundation for the conversations that will come when they get older. I hope that they will have a firmly established set of beliefs about exercise and food and their bodies, so that they can roll their eyes at the photoshopped pictures on the magazine covers and the ads promising that they can “Lose weight fast!!”
For now I’ll feed them healthy food and continue to try to be a good role model of healthy exercise and body image. I certainly need work on this myself.