As we complete yet another holiday involving the consumption of lots of food (in my case, BBQ and apple pie), I have to admit that I’m at a loss as to how to square this with my role as a parent who wants to help my children develop both healthy bodies and a healthy body image.
At times, the two seem completely incompatible on the surface. Michelle Obama has spent a good portion of her time as First Lady focused on the issue of childhood obesity by working on a campaign called Let’s Move. This year, the news media repeatedly have reported about the dangers of sugar. One even labeled sugar the new “snack crack.” At the same time, though, I constantly have seen messages about children and body image. The New York Times recently reported on a new study which warns that parental comments about how much a child is eating, or any other negative comment regarding food, even if well meaning, could have negative repercussions for years, particularly for daughters.
My daughters are now 10 and 7, and I’m worried that I’ve already done irreparable damage, even while actively trying to promote strong, healthy body images. I never disparage my or other people’s bodies, and I encourage my daughters to see their own bodies as natural. Yet at times, if they ask for a second helping at dinner, I do occasionally suggest that they wait and see if they are still hungry. Do they see that as my judgment on their weight? What about the times when I try to encourage them to have a piece of fruit instead of a cookie for a snack? Is that judgmental, or just responsible parenting? Is it my fault for having cookies in the house in the first place?
A new children’s book, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the “I Feel Fat” Spell, tries to fight children’s negative fears of feeling fat. This book wants children to feel comfortable even if they have body fat. Yet just this week, the New York Times reported on a study indicating several health dangers of childhood obesity, including increased incidents of cancer, stroke, and depression, as well as more of a likelihood of being obese as adults.
It seems to me that, in order to help develop healthy children in both body and mind, I need to create an almost surreptitious campaign whereby my children are not aware that I’m trying to keep fat off. Can healthy living ever fully be separated from body image implications? Realistically, some people are able to keep fat off easier than others, and some people crave more active lifestyles than others. The reality is that the above messages are often contradictory and overwhelming for parents like me. Which is more important: my child’s body or body image? Is there a way to achieve both? What solutions have you found?
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