One recent morning while I was getting dressed, my four-year-old daughter had some advice for me: “Mama, I want you to eat and eat. I want you to always eat lots of healthy food because then you won’t get skinny”. Where was this conversation going? Was this about body image? I have a good appetite most of the time, I’m not particularly thin, and my weight hasn’t changed much recently, so I didn’t think I’d given her any cause for concern. (Of course I immediately thought her comment had to do with something about my body—talk about body image issues!). Further probing revealed the source of her concerns: “I don’t want you to get skinny and stop eating because then you’ll die, just like Bobby did.” Bobby was one of our elderly cats (our first babies) who, in the past two years, we watched succumb to kidney disease within months of each other. Their appetites diminished, they grew thinner and thinner, and then they stopped eating and drinking altogether. Interestingly my daughter has now come to associate thinness with death. I think that my daughter’s reminder to me to eat was just her way of dealing with normal childhood fears about the death of a parent.
I was relieved that my daughter’s comment reflected an early understanding that healthy eating is important for life, and that not eating is unhealthy. Although I know that my son is not immune to body image issues, I’ve been particularly conscious about having my daughter overhear any discussions about dieting or the need to lose weight. I don’t want her to develop the fears of food that I witnessed in my teenage and college years. My girlhood was no different from that of many women. I was bombarded with discussions about dieting in the media, among friends, and in my own family. How often would I hear at family gatherings: You look great! You’ve lost so much weight! And then there were the whispers: She’s really put on the pounds! After my freshman year of college my grandmother looked at me with a frown and said, “You’re looking very hippy.” I don’t think she was referring to my Hindu print wrap-around skirt, long hair, and sandals.
In college, eating disorders were pervasive, and there was no end to the obsession with weight loss and calorie counting. Someone read that ice cream cones (just the cone) were low in calories, so sugar cones become the snack of choice among women in my dorm. We’d raid the ice cream bar in the dining hall after dinner, and walk out with stacks of cones to get us through a night of studying. Then someone pointed out that the calorie count listed in the book was for wafer cones, not the sugar cones we’d been consuming by the dozen. There was panic over the number of extra calories that had been unwittingly consumed. At this point I rebelled. I simply enjoyed food too much and preferred chocolate to Styrofoam-flavored cones, pork chops to iceberg lettuce salads. Instead of calorie-count books, I read about nutrition and escaped the conversations about dieting and number of calories burned from exercising to the Jane Fonda work-out tape.
I can’t say I’ve completely accepted my own body, and the desire to easily shed a few pounds is always there. But I keep these thoughts to myself and focus on exercise for fun and health rather than weight loss. And it’s especially important that our children see that my husband and I both enjoy cooking and eating tasty food. We try to follow Michael Pollan’s guidelines from In Defense of Food, especially his advice to sit down to meals together and eat only things my great-grandmother would recognize as food. After trick-or-treating we read together the labels on candy my kids received and had them decide what seemed most like “food” and was therefore worth eating (not much!).
Distorted views about food, dieting, and body image are pervasive even among health professionals, especially with current, often legitimate, concerns about childhood obesity. A friend of mine with two daughters told me about a nutritionist who was invited to speak to her daughter’s second grade class about healthy eating. Her advice to the children was not to eat certain foods because they would get fat. One look at the children in that classroom would have told her that obesity was probably not an issue for them. In what may have been a desire to simplify eating guidelines, she missed an opportunity to focus on nutritional content of foods.
In a world where my children see wasp-waisted, busty Disney characters as heroines and movie stars with rail-thin bodies, it’s a challenge to counter those images of beauty. At home we try to disassociate food and body shape, and instead model an appreciation for healthy, tasty food and active living. But I think we may have our work cut out for us.