In all the years I lived under my parents’ roof I was the ‘picture’ of health. Slimish, glowing skin, sparkling eyes. When I told them I had bulimia, they told me I was gorgeous, asked if “I was over all that now” and then we carried on as usual.
The illness almost killed me, but I’m not surprised they didn’t get the gravity of the situation. They’d done an amazing job as parents and did everything one is taught to do when it comes to health and kids.
They’d feed us a healthy diet. Policed sugar. Told us the dangers of fat. Praised our beauty. Congratulated us, each other and friends for weight-loss.
In some ways, I had the textbook upbringing to grow into a body confident young woman. Except I didn’t.
And millions of other kids don’t either.
My folks were so keen for us to avoid ‘obesity’ and be ‘healthy’ they completely missed the mental part of health when it comes to how I felt about my body in the seclusion of my own mind.
In my work as a Body Confidence Consultant (I work with smart parents who want to build a fence at the top of the body image cliff) I often get asked what are some of the simple low-hanging-fruit ways to make a positive effect on kids body image.
I suggest scrubbing the following three words from your vocab:
- Overweight. It seems harmless, I know. Turns out it’s all but. Size and shape of human beings fit a normal bell curve, just like any other physical attribute we have; height, shoe size, shoulder width, hand span. It’s the same with weight. There will always be people who are bigger and smaller than the general population. That leaves those kids whose natural size expression is on the outskirts of the bell curve feeling their body is wrong their entire lives — and the rest of the kids scared to be one of them. This sets kids up to either hate the body they have or be terrified of getting a body that’s wrong and needs fixing.
- Obese. Yep, I’m saying avoid it like the plague. Here’s why. Unlike describing someone as ‘fat’, using the term obese assumes that anyone above a certain BMI is sick. It medicalizes the way someone looks. And remember, I ‘looked’ the picture of health — and was seriously ill. In that sense ‘looks’ are a shockingly unreliable way to determine health. Besides, it’s not, in fact, true that if you are over a certain weight to height ratio you are automatically sick. Plenty of people in the ‘obese BMI’ have zero health issues. Loads of folk in the ‘normal’ weight range deal with serious health problems. Talking about ‘obesity’ adds fuel to the some-bodies-are-better-than-others sentiment and that can play havoc with a child’s trust and respect for themselves and lead to poor health outcomes. Can you see what is happening here? Simply talking about bigger bodies being sick can in fact lead to illness. Language is powerful.
- Junk. Yes, indeed, this word as well. Junk is a particularly problematic word for children under 12. That’s because their brains haven’t developed the capacity to understand sophisticated and nuanced concepts. Junk, healthy, good and bad when it relates to food are way more nuanced ideas than we might care to believe. More to the point, if you label food ‘junk’ or ‘bad’ and your child enjoys that food (they will enjoy that food) they can think they are bad or junk by default. By the time I was seven, I stole food, ate in secret and felt deep shame about what I enjoyed eating. Taking moralized labels (good/bad/junk/clean, all have a moral position in the background) away from food is a great way to stop your child feeling fear, shame or guilt when it comes to food. And reducing shame guilt and fear can have massive long-reaching positive health benefits.
If you’d like to protect your kids from a messed up body image, I hope you’ll consider taking my three-part training series, to help you build a fence at the top of the body image cliff. It’s free.