“Mummy, are you fat?”
“Er- I don’t know. Do you think I am?”
And so my daughter, aged nearly three, moved effortlessly into the world of female body preoccupation. (In terms of tact, though, she takes after her father.) Reading about the influence of childhood on body image, I’m now wondering how worried I should be.
Apparently, if we call our daughters fat, they are more likely to grow up with body image problems, whatever their size. Well, duh. But they are also less likely to have a “healthy” BMI, making such comments as ineffective as they are unkind. Other research warns us that trying to control our children’s diet, commenting at all – even positively – on their weight, or otherwise encouraging them to pursue thinness, could be setting them up for a future of insecurity. That’s for girls and boys.
So we need to be careful what we say. I hope it’s obvious that you don’t make disparaging comments about your child’s weight once they’re old enough to understand. (And certainly not when they’re an impressionable adolescent.) But beyond that, I’m not quite sure what we should be doing, or just how early all this starts.
Am I wrong to exclaim over the delicious chunkiness of our younger daughter, aged nearly 11 months? Should T. and stop referring to her (adoringly) as the “small fat one”? I can’t imagine it’ll harm her – we’ll stop before she knows what we are saying – but are we sending the wrong message to her big sister? Or is it OK because we’re countering the prevailing thin-is-best mentality? (“I’m kissing her chubby little arm,” Little A. announced the other day, cutely but – in light of this research – disconcertingly.)
I’m also stuck on how not to control my children’s diet in a bad way, whilst also doing all the things I’m supposed to be doing to control it. Because let’s not forget that other thing we are always reminded to worry about: childhood obesity. Of course, we can make sure we provide mostly healthy food, don’t make a big deal about the odd biscuit, and encourage our boys and girls to enjoy running, jumping, and generally rampaging. But I need to be able to explain myself when my daughter wants chocolate buttons every night instead of broccoli, and I don’t give them to her.
I get that, “Don’t eat that, it’ll turn you into a porker”, is out, but what about: “It’s bad for you to eat too much of that”? According to one researcher, that’s out too. Which seems very limiting. Of course we shouldn’t tell our children to be thin, but presumably we can and must encourage them to be healthy, and that’s got to involve some education about different foods.
I could always imitate a couple of my friends and appeal directly to the effects (positive or negative) of certain foods, in a non-weight related way. “Eat this fish, it’ll make you clever.” “No, you can’t have that drink. The sweeteners always make you behave like a maniac.” Etc. I’m also hoping that teaching my girls to enjoy cooking food as well as eating it is a positive thing: part of making it a legitimate pleasure. But it’s always going to be a balancing act.
Then there’s the still more difficult task of policing what others say. Can we? Should we? Of course, if they are actually offering insults, or waving pictures of Lindsey Lohan around and asking, “Don’t you want to look like that?” But what about the family friend who mock-stumbles and says, “Oh, aren’t you getting heavy?” as they throw your child into the air? It’s meant jokingly, even affectionately, but I wonder how young is too old to say that to a child.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but this troubles me especially for girls, scarily high proportions of whom already worry about their size. It can’t take long for our daughters to pick up that “You’ve lost weight,” is pretty much the ultimate compliment in the adult female world. Or that they never hear their mothers telling each other that they look great because they’ve put weight on.
Which brings me, of course, to the real challenge. It’s not just about what we and those around us say to our children. It’s not even just about what we do (or don’t) encourage them to do. It’s also about what they see us doing, and hear us saying to one another. If we constantly comment on our own and each other’s weight, if we spend our lives dieting, we’re setting them up for body insecurity. And, hopefully, if we enjoy a range of food, exercise, and generally don’t make a thing of it, then they will have a better chance of following suit. Again, duh. But that doesn’t make it easy to carry out.
I don’t diet. That’s simple, since I made promised myself several years ago to stop wasting my life on such a futile occupation, and reinforced that when it came to the baby weight second time round. But I do have some spectacularly unhealthy food habits I don’t want to pass on, starting with an inability to eat anything cake or chocolate-related in moderation. If my girls pick up my chocolate binges but not my love of cycling, they will not only not be thin – which doesn’t matter – but not be healthy. Which does. And even if they are, that all or nothing approach to sweet treats has its roots in a food-as-sin mentality that I wish I could unlearn.
So for me – as I expect for many mothers – demonstrating a healthier attitude to food means quietly re-examining some of my own eating patterns. But it also means shedding a lifetime of insidious little phrases. “I shouldn’t, but I will.” “Oh, OK then: I’ll be naughty.” “I won’t. I’m trying to be good.” All of which tell our daughters that food is something they should feel bad about enjoying, and so, almost certainly, make them think about it all the more. And which tell our sons, if not the same, then at least that that’s what they should expect from the women in their lives.
It’s going to be a struggle. But it’s one worth trying, for my daughters. For the record, when Little A. said I was fat, I laughed and said I thought I was a pretty normal size but that it didn’t matter anyway. I don’t know if that was the ideal response, but it was the best I could manage at the time.