A friend recently asked if I’d written anything on this topic because she had a friend who wanted answers. I liked the idea of spelling out everything I know about raising healthy kids without a messed up body image, regardless of their size. So here it is…
A quick disclaimer. If you hope I’m about to outline eating and exercise rules for kids to ensure they are healthy, I’m not. The ten steps that follow are more holistic than that. As you’re about to find out, I don’t talk much about nutrition or exercise. They don’t even get a mention until step 8. They’re that far down the list on purpose. I reckon paying attention to our cultural narratives and you teaching your kids to engage with marketing and media in a discerning way first, means that teaching helpful and healthful nutrition and exercise practices (that lead to good body image) becomes much easier.
So here it is! My free 10-step Body-Confidence Academy, for parents of larger kids (and parents who are frightened their kids will put on too much weight).
1) Reject diet mentality myths.
Understand the myths that underpin the majority of diet, weight and health info that makes us fear our bodies and what we eat.
Myth one: human beings will lose weight, and keep it off, as long as they follow the ‘right’ protocol, and are motivated enough, without any harm.
It’s the without harm bit that’s worth paying the most attention to here. That said, I can’t find a single long term study (more than five years) that shows more than 5% of participants losing weight and keeping it off in the long run. That’s a pretty poor efficacy rate for any long term health protocol. And every weight loss protocol comes with potentially harmful side-effects. So what are the potentially harmful side-effects? Intentional weight loss is the leading risk factor is both long term weight gain (over and above the natural size dictated by our genes) and eating disorders - eating disorders, it is good to know as a parent, have the highest morbidity rate of all mental illnesses.
Because of these risks (and dismally low long term success rates) many nutrition and weight researchers argue that promoting weight-loss or some version of health or lifestyle changes whereby success is measured in weight loss is at best futile and at worst deeply unethical.
Myth two: That fat is pathological. That adipose tissue itself is the cause of illness in bigger-bodied people, not something else.
This myth is more challenging to understand because it challenges our almost unchecked belief that being fat is a terrible thing to be. I’m going to show you that this belief is both unsubstantiated and, more importantly, harmful. The problem begins with a misunderstanding between cause and correlation. Getting a couple of ‘c’ words misunderstood might not seem like a big deal, but please, it matters. A lot.
Imagine for a minute you’re looking at a graph that plots worldwide ice-cream consumption and drowning rates. You’ll notice the two lines follow the exact same trajectory. As ice-cream consumption raises, so does, in perfect correlation, drownings. The way downing and ice-creams are connected is, of course, easy to understand. The sun comes out, it warms up, we go to the water, we have an ice-cream. We swim. Where swimming happens, so does drowning. It’s also pretty basic to figure out that banning ice-cream is not going to have any kind of major impact on drowning stats. That’s because you’d be addressing a correlated factor, not a causal factor. And that’s exactly what’s going on with health and weight.
There is a cultural belief that being fatter automatically makes you sicker. The predominant (and unsubstantiated) theory is that fat causes illness in fat people (and we should, therefore, make fat people less fat). The bit that makes it hard to understand that it’s not fat per se, that’s making people sicker, is that being bigger does put you at higher risk of developing some health issues.
The thing is, being bigger does put you at risk of health issues in the same way as eating ice-cream puts you at risk of drowning. Being bigger is 100% correlated to many health issues. But that doesn’t mean fat is the cause of those issues. The fact remains, it’s not as simple to understand that fatness is a correlated factor in illnesses that are more common in larger people, but it works the same way.
Researchers have cottoned on to the idea that we’ve been treating fatness as a cause of illness, rather than understanding it’s a correlated one. Here’s a couple of things to consider. People die of heart disease at all weights. People can develop diabetes at any size. Some very fat people are in fact very healthy (low blood pressure, low resting heart rate, high muscle strength, good sleep, high self-esteem, good self-care practices, a diet high in nutrients, good exercise practices, good libido, good stress management).
Some small & mid-sized people have terrible health; diabetes, high blood pressure, high-stress levels, insomnia, low sex drive, body self-esteem, low fitness. Some people lose weight and at the same time become less healthy. They lose muscle mass, start sleeping poorly, become obsessed with food, stop socializing, have low self-esteem.
Can you see that health and weight are indeed different things?
Plus weight is not a diagnostic tool. We can’t tell someone’s health by measuring their weight, we need to run all sorts of other tests for that. Add to that, weight is not a behavior. In the same way, that height is not a behavior. We all have genes that dictate, to a certain extent, how tall or fat we will be.
So let’s talk about behaviours. What you eat and how much you move are behaviours that generally lead to improved long term health outcomes. What there is no evidence for is that everyone will lose weight if they engage in healthful behaviours. Some people may lose weight if they start exercising and eating more nutritious food, some will stay the same and some will get bigger. It pays to remember, too, that some very big people engage regularly in healthful behaviours and remain very fat. Many slim and average-weight people engage in very few healthful behaviours and remain slim.
The next question, then, must be: If it’s not fatness that’s causing illness, in bigger-bodied people, what on earth is it? The data is suggesting it’s many things, not one. It looks like it’s a combination of: Social stigma. Poverty. Shame and depression. A focus on weight loss instead of building healthy habits. Folks giving up healthful habits because weight loss is not achieved even though health is improved. Lack of respectful health care given to those who are larger. Lack of access to resources. Social isolation. A sense of failure and lack of respect.
The take away from this step is that what you weigh does not equal how healthy you are. We need to put those two things in separate baskets and stop treating them like they are intimately connected. Understanding that health improvements can occur without any weight loss and that weight gain can occur with health improvements is a great place to begin helping your bigger child be as healthy as possible and to feel good about their body in the process.
2. Make compliments and greeting about the person, not the body.
Learn and practice everyday non-appearance based greetings and compliments to help send that message that how we look is not the most important aspect of who we are. This is not easy. We are so trained into making ‘you look great’ or ‘have you lost weight’ or ‘wow that’s slimming on you’ compliments that we have to rewire our brains to not automatically do this.
When I first decided to compliment the person, not the body, sometimes I literally couldn’t think of anything to say - the words, ‘you look great’ were so loud in my head, I stood there silent. So I suggest you practice. Put three compliments up on your mirror and practice them while you brush your teeth.
“It’s so lovely to see you - it always makes my day!”
“I love your generousity”
” You look like a kind/smart/thoughtful/energetic (choose your own descriptor) person”.
Look, I’m not saying don’t ever compliment someone’s appearance. I’m saying when kids hear compliments that are almost always appearance-based, they can start to believe that how they look is the most important thing about them. If they don’t like how they look, then that can become a big problem.
3) Master awkward conversations
Learn how to respond when your child says “I’m fat” or “ugly” or has been bullied by peers about how they look. Learn what to say to family, friends & professionals when they make body shaming or unhelpful comments. I could write an entire article on this one subject. If you want to go into this more, you can grab this free printable here
that outlines a five-step process for dealing with these conversations.
4) Practice Gratitude
Teach your child to notice what works well about their body, how to care for it and see how amazing it is. Teach your child to make this a habit that lasts a lifetime. When I first started thinking about practicing gratitude, I couldn’t find anything that quite fit what I was looking for. I wanted a script that I could use to guide my kids to notice what each part of their body did for them and thank it. I wanted a practice that was fun and easy and quick and had them think about what their body did not what it looked like. I couldn’t find anything, so I created my own. You can find a free copy of it here.
5) Declutter diet mentality messages from your home and social feeds
Get rid of marketing and media messages that perpetuate false expectations about our bodies from our homes and media feeds. This helps create a home and social environment where body acceptance can flourish. Get the kids involved. Go around the house and Kon Marie anything from your environment that suggests dieting or slimming down or keeping your body in check is a worthwhile pursuit - or that suggests one body type is a better body type than another.
The litmus test here: if something makes you or your child feel stink about your bodies, and like you should have a different, better one - chuck it. Do the same with your social feeds.
6) Spot Stereotypes
Notice the way different body sizes are stereotyped in media and marketing (and teach your kids to do the same). Why is it, do you think, it’s a big kid that has their hand in the cookie jar and why are the insatiable appetite jokes always on them? I don’t know about you, but all kids have insatiable appetites at times and there is no evidence that bigger kids eat more than other kids.
Why do they always show bigger people on the news with their heads cut off wearing ill-fitting clothes with fast food slopped down their front? Why are the bigger kids always depicted as the lazy, ugly ones? Why do the thin ones always get the romance?
Posing these types of questions to your child and letting them know you don’t buy into the stereotypes is an amazing way to start your child on a road to being decerning about what they see in media and knowing that if something they see makes them feel bad about their body, there is something wrong with what they see, not their body.
You can start being a fierce advocate for your child to understand that people across all shapes and sizes can be inspirational or dreadful. There is not one body type that means you’ll turn into a certain type of person. What’s the best way to engage your kids in this stereotype-spotting? You can figure that out for yourself - there is no right and wrong here. As a starter for ten, I literally call out to the TV or billboard or whatever the medium is that we’re observing - STEREOTYPE!! I do it with body size, colour, gender, whatever I see that I believe is portraying an unfair and untrue stereotype.
7) Understand digital trickery
Learn how unreal most of the images we see online are and teach your child to do the same. Build awareness with your kids that most marketing and media doesn’t accurately represent reality. This stops kids buying into unrealistic aesthetic standards for themselves. Here’s a great youtube clip you can watch with your kids to show them how what they are seeing isn’t real.
8 ) Put nutrition and exercise in perspective
Learn where nutrition and exercise fit into the wider picture of long term health. Create a holistic focus on all long term health determinants for your family. As a culture, we are highly focused on healthy behaviours as a means to long term health. Particularly what we eat and how much we move. While those things are most certainly important and have their place (I’m not suggesting for a minute that nutrition and exercise don’t matter) they are not the be-all and end-all and there are most definitely other factors that come into our long term health.
If a child lives in poverty or feels shame for their body, or feels social isolation, or hates how they look, or can’t find any kind of meaningfulness in their studies, or won’t go to a doctor for fear of being told their body is wrong, or feels disrespected in their community - these things may have far more impact on their health than what they eat and how much exercise they get.
When thinking about the importance of nutrition and exercise, remember it’s only one part of a complex mix. To believe a child’s health rests solely on the shoulders of what they eat and how much they move is to get the importance of nutrition and exercise completely out of balance.
9) Make peace with sugar
Learn to see sugar as just another part of a varied diet. Let go of fear and angst about your child eating sugar and help them develop a healthy relationship with it. I’m not saying that if your child ate nothing but sugar they wouldn’t butt up against health issues (it pays to remember if your child ate nothing but kale they’d butt up against health issues as well). Nor am I saying you should give your kids carte blanche access to it. But stressing and policing and cutting out entirely doesn’t work either.
Ultimately having a child who can enjoy the delights of sugar while being able to stop easily as soon as they’ve had enough and not think about it when they are not eating it is healthy. It’s possible for your child to have a relationship like this with sugar regardless of what size they are.
A great place to start helping your child to develop a peaceful relationship with sugar is for you to understand that it’s not addictive. The headlines that state it is are based on bad science and click grabbing.
10) Discover body-led nutrition
Learn the two approaches to feeding that result in long term peace with food and your body (and better long term health outcomes): Divisions of Responsibility and Intuitive Eating. Now that you’ve understood some of the myths surrounding health and weight and begun to teach your kids about media and stereotypes, building a great relationship with food can be fun and rewarding.
If your child is under 12 I’d suggest understanding the Divisions of Responsibility approach to feeding. It’s an approach that helps a child discover their own needs by connecting with their hunger and fullness cues. No policing necessary!!
If your child is 12 or over, take a dive into intuitive eating. This approach helps unlearn unhelpful behaviours around food and relearn positive and long-lasting ones. I’m not talking about portion control or figuring our what balance of veggies versus protein, I’m talking about listening and honoring your own body so that the nutrition you feed it is satisfying, both emotionally and physically. It’s wild and freeing and so healthful!