Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Kids and body image

Image from Project Inspired
Today I came across a very disturbing story shared by a Facebook friend. Apparently, Vogue's latest Shape issue has an essay on how a mother dealt with her 7-year-old daughter's weight gain. According to this write-up from Salon.com:
It was a tale that involved putting Bea — who at 4-foot-4 and 93 pounds was veering toward childhood obesity — on an intense regimen of calorie restriction and public shaming. “I once reproachfully deprived Bea of her dinner after learning that her observation of French Heritage Day at school involved nearly 800 calories of Brie, filet mignon, baguette and chocolate,” she writes. “And there have been many awkward moments at parties, when Bea has wanted to eat, say, both cookies and cake, and I’ve engaged in a heated public discussion about why she can’t.”
I haven't read the full article yet from Vogue, but if you want to learn more about it I will direct you to these links at New York Magazine, Salon and Jezebel.

This story was particularly heartbreaking for me. As I told my friend through this Facebook comment:
Went through this myself and it took years and years and years to undo (am still processing to this day!). The thing is I can't blame my mom too much because she honestly didn't know any better; she had an anorexic mindset and food was so much more than simple nourishment for her. But still, remembering being put on a diet at age 8 and being shamed (while sometimes rewarded with food) and then later on being praised when I went through an anorexic phase myself -- that did serious damage.

I vowed my kids would never go through that, but I'm finding it hard, too. Striking the right balance between encouraging them to eat healthy and stay away from snacks while still affirming them and telling them they are lovable at any size, and that their worth is not connected to the scale.
I feel the need to write about this but I don't know how exactly to put my feelings into words. I don't want to delve into the past or blame anybody for what I went through; but I also want people to know that calling a child fat, shaming them, putting them on diets and focusing unduly on their weight diminishes their self worth and does lasting damage. To illustrate that I need to recall my past -- and it's still a bit painful, even for a 30-year-old mom like me.
 I grew up in a household where food as just not "food." It was reward, it was the enemy, it was craved, it was shunned, it was secretly savored and publicly denounced. I heard stuff like "I wish I didn't have to eat at all!" or "Someone wire my mouth shut for a week so I can lose weight." I absorbed conflicting messages, one day bingeing on rich treats or rewarded with two hotdog sandwiches as a midnight snack "because look at how she enjoys it!", the next day "you eat too much, what a pig, no self control!" Women who "ate like a bird" and said they were full after a handful of peanuts and a smidgen of food were venerated. That was the ideal, that was what being feminine was all about, and for us who loved to eat and enjoyed food, well, didn't that make us the opposite? Didn't it make us uncouth and gluttons? I certainly felt so.

So at age 11 and 12, tired of being teased in school and having my belly compared to a caterpillar's at home, I started severely restricting my food intake. My parents' marriage was also strained and I supposed this was the classic anorexic's move of controlling her body when she cannot control anything else. I gave my baon away at school and ate five tamarind (sampalok) candies and a glass of Coke the whole day instead. When I got home I set up two tall stools in the garage with a length of garter and played 10-20 for two or three hours. I skipped dinner or just ate two pieces of toast with peanut butter. I felt dizzy when I stood up from the couch, my collarbones poked through my skin, my toenails grew ridged and spotted, but I was thin. I was finally conforming to the "ideal." When I heard people say, "It's easy to bring Katrina along, she hardly eats anything anyway" my heart swelled with joy. I was no longer the uncouth barbarian who cost so much to feed; I was now feminine and refined and perfect.

In high school I discovered boys and alcohol and parties and music so I found other outlets for my rebellion and began to eat again. But I continued to have a terrible relationship with my body, and though this self-hate dwindled a bit more each year, I still had relapses with restrictive eating and negative self image all throughout my twenties.

I began to think differently in 2008: after stopping many years of Depo Provera, I gained a huge amount of weight that neither exercise nor dieting could budge. I became tired of years of depriving myself of food and grappling with so many unhealthy behaviors, and for what? One day it just dawned on me: being "thin" would not make me a better person. I wouldn't be a better mom or wife or writer, a smarter person, a kinder friend. Why was I obsessing over something that, ultimately, had no value? It was then that I began becoming aware of the Health At Every Size movement (although I didn't know what it was called then) and resolved to change my lifestyle and how I viewed food and exercise. Instead of aiming for thinness, I aimed for health and happiness. I exercised not to lose weight but because I enjoyed it and because I felt better afterwards; I no longer let food "control" me and instead viewed it for what it was: nourishment and occasionally an indulgence.

I share all this because when I think of all the years of negativity and self-hate that I could have bypassed had I a healthy relationship with my weight and a positive view of food, I feel angry. How much time I wasted worrying over something so, frankly, stupid! How many bad decisions I could have avoided had I not been so diminished in my self-worth that I sought approval through unworthy boys and destructive behavior!

You might think that a diet is just a diet, but to a child it's so much more than that. It is that child's whole being, their whole world view affected by the diet and the shaming, and those effects do not only show up on the weighing scale. It's their self-image at stake here, and that extends to their self-worth and psychological well-being.

This is why I feel so much for the Bea in that Vogue article. I'm not saying she's doomed to repeat the same patterns I and other girls treated similarly as her went through; but it just pains me that all that stress was just so needless. Why burden a child with so much trauma and expectation? A commenter in the New York Magazine article suggested a more sensible, responsible approach:
There was no need for any of this. When the Mom saw the daughters weight creeping up, she needed to just alter the shopping list. No need to comment, no need to berate her or be restrictive...just add a few more fruits and veggies, and hey how about NOT stopping for a gyro or pizza after school?! How about sharing some fruit on the walk home and chatting about her day?
You can make changes to your kids' diet without saying a word. YOU do the shopping, YOU do the cooking, YOU have most of the control when your kid is 7.
She should have just made small changes and left her child alone. Just love her, take care of her, and keep your own self-loathing away from her. What you hate is what you see in her that reminds you of yourself.
WORD, commenter. It's the inconsistency and the mixed messages and placing the burden on the child that the mom does that pains me the most. 

I have two kids and I am trying my best not to transmit those same messages I learned to them. I want them to grow up healthy and happy and active. I don't want them crazily obsessed with the scale. My son, though, is overweight and he is teased by his busmates. As much as I want to kick those kids' asses, I have to admit that that's what kid's do, and my son needs to learn how to deal with negative feedback (because that's something he'll encounter all his life). Still, I want to help him. For now I've limited the snacks he can eat, encourage him to bike and play after school, let him exercise with my mom and enrolled him in summer soccer classes. But still, as I said in my Facebook comment, it's hard to strike a balance between helping them remain healthy and affirming their self-worth -- without transmitting my own past issues.

Any moms out there? What are your thoughts? 

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