Oy. What are we doing to a child’s body image when we are putting them on a diet at the tender age of 1 or 2 years old? How are we affecting their future relationship with weight and body image?
Any of you who have read my body image book, Good Girls Don’t Get Fat: How Weight Obsession is Messing Up Our Girls & How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It, know that comments were made about Tallie’s “fat thighs” when she was just 5 months old– and how she should “enjoy it now…because it’s the only time fat is cute.” She was in the 15th percentile at the time. Now that I have a son who is at the other end of the spectrum– between the 75th and 90th percentile for height and weight, I get other comments like “Good thing he’s a boy…it would be terrible if he was a girl and so big!” Yup, body shaming, labeling, and messaging starts very early.
But what if this fear of fat and societal body pressure came out in dieting for tots? Unfortunately, it seems it has.
My friend, Jennifer texted me in frustration this morning as she caught a segment of Good Morning America on parents putting their babies on diets and monitoring their weight for fear of them getting fat later in life. Now, I’m all for healthy eating. My 21 month old, Tallie is, thankfully, an amazing eater who loves fruits, veggies, brown rice, and a host of nutritious foods. Really, she eats just like we do. And she really loves food. Perhaps some parents would be anxious about this– I mean, “she’s a girl,” after all, and “girls” are “supposed to be” thin, small, tiny eaters dieters.
I refuse to do that to my child.
I allow her to be in charge of her own body in the sense that I provide the range of healthy foods, and she decides when she’s full. I want her to be in touch with that feeling of fullness inside her– after all, only she can know!
As typically developing babies have an internal “shut off” mechanism that tells them when they’re full (and we all know when they’re hungry!), when we take control of how much they are eating by taking their bottle away early or ignoring their hunger sounds, we mess with that mechanism. Children shouldn’t be looking to us to tell them when they’re full– but they will have to if we take that control from them. Plenty of girls who were interviewed for my book tell the tales of parents who took control of their eating– and now they feel out of control. I just got a comment about it this morning, in fact, from another girl.
“I feel like I have no control over my body image and am terrified that I’ll balloon up. How do I reclaim my own body again?” –Meagan
This is not to say we should give them bags of Doritos, Oreos, and a chocolate cake and tell them to have at it. Each day we have an opportunity to teach our children how to make good choices for their bodies that help them to grow up strong, powerful, and energetic. Many of us overeat when we’re around sweet, salty and fried things that taste yummy. So part of parenting is teaching our children (and ourselves) to try to eat when we’re hungry rather than eating just because food is in front of us, tastes good, or we’re feeling sad, angry, or “empty.”
Beyond that, I bring you back to that question I provided on The Today Show– “Is my child’s weight a problem for me or a problem for her (him)? And in this case, we’re talking about potential weight– rather than what’s actually in front of us. We are anticipating “problems” when there are none.
People sometimes tell me that my work is important in the field of “preventing” negative body image problems. But I don’t see it that way– I don’t view myself in the field of prevention. I see myself in the field of “promotion” of positive body image. There is quite a difference. The former anticipates issues. The former claims there is already an inherent “risk.” The latter, on the other hand, looks at each child as whole, resourceful, and asset-rich. It shows that with what I call SPARK (Support, Passion, Action, Reason, and Knowledge) each child can thrive.
Our children are destined to have different bodies, be different sizes, have different strengths, interests, and needs. Believe me, I understand the fear of fat as I’ve been submerged in stories of the fall out from it for the last 5 years while researching and writing my book. It’s a very real fear and a very big problem. Is there room for a switch? Let us work on promoting positive development rather than allowing our fears to set them up for problems before they even have the ability to speak up for themselves, walk away, and claim what is theirs– their bodies.
Your thoughts are welcome.