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One of my good friends recently had a baby: an adorable, lively, happy baby. Her baby is only months old, and already, my friend has noticed a disturbing thread of conversation regarding her baby and weight. Weight is important for babies: we measure and track their growth, we talk about how well they're eating, we discuss the importance of breastfeeding vs. formula feeding-a conversation that comes loaded with its own set of issues and Mom shaming.
But the discussion about weight when it comes to babies is clouded by our cultural obsession with weight. One family member said to my friend, "Oh she's so fat but I guess she'll thin out once she starts walking so it's nothing to worry about." This comment, coupled with the dozens of well-meaning people inquiring about how "good of an eater," her baby is, made my friend realize something that I've never considered before: from the very beginning of your life, people comment on your weight, and not always in useful or constructive ways. Making sure a baby is well-fed is one thing. Worrying that a literal baby will one day be fat? That's quite another.
As a young child, I saw and heard the adults in my life talk about weight in very negative ways. Whether they were commenting on their own bodies or on the bodies of others was beside the point. I just internalized the notion that being big was one of the worst things imaginable. I remember telling myself that I never wanted to grow up to be fat. The fact that I placed so much emphasis on how my body looked, rather than what my body could do (or what I could do), is incredibly sad and concerning. Kids hear what you say and watch what you do, closely.
One study tracked parents with kids around 14 years old, finding that kids are more likely to control their weight in unhealthy ways and binge eat if their parents talk about weight loss in their presence. Another study found that parents who talk about controlling weight are more likely to raise teenagers who are dissatisfied with their bodies. Dr. Stephen Cook, associate professor of pediatrics and internal medicine at the University of Rochester said, "When parents are over-focused on weight, body image and dieting, it can lead to disordered eating, and can worsen their child’s weight status."
But it's not just teenagers who are concerned with their weight. Some studies have shown that kids as young as 5 to 8 years old can have deep concerns about body image. A report from Common Sense Media found that more than half of girls and one-third of boys between between ages 6 and 8 think they need to lose weight. By age 7, around 25 percent of kids have attempted some type of diet. And finally, over half of kids who are overweight report being bullied by peers or family members. Contrary to popular belief, fat shaming doesn't motivate many people to better their health, but more often leads to depression and social withdrawal.
Kids are highly malleable. They take to heart the things adults say. Moreover, there is no reason for kids to try to lose weight while their bodies are growing and developing. Instead of talking about weight in negative ways, adults should emphasize health and physical strength. Leslie Sim, an associate professor of psychology at Mayo Clinic, offers the following advice:
Talk about how certain, healthy foods make you feel strong and energized.
Workout because you want to feel better, not to punish yourself.
Don't reward or punish your kids with food.
Refrain from talking about anyone else's body, in the presence of your kid or otherwise.
Be honest with yourself about your relationship with your body and with food.
I grew up around a lot of negative commentary about food that wasn't couched in any real science. "I better not have bread," someone would say, "I know what that does to my waistline." The logical inference I drew as a child was that bread does bad things to a body. Comments like this were constant: birthdays and holidays were not without someone commenting on what some food would do to their bodies. Nutritional advice was everywhere, and none of it was useful or sound. I even heard adults warn me about my body as I shape-shifted from a girl to a woman, "girls can't run fast once they get hips," I was told, "puberty usually slows you down." Health and overall wellness, on the other hand, wasn't emphasized.
An article published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that 76% of parents speak negatively of their own weight in front of their children; 51% of parents speak negatively about obese people, and 43% of parents speak negatively about their child's own weight in front of the child. This is obviously not very useful. What is useful is talking about food positively around kids: to say something like, "When I eat eggs for breakfast I feel energized all morning." Same with exercise; instead of branding it as punishment, brand it as healthful, "I love going to the gym because it helps me feel stronger."
And what if your child comes to you with concerns about their weight? First, work with their pediatrician to determine if your child's' weight is problematic. Weight loss among children can interfere with their growth and negatively impact their body image and relationship with food, so it's important to handle the matter with care. And if you do decide to make healthy changes, make them as a family so your child doesn't feel singled out or alone.