My teenage daughter asked me if I would do a YouTube workout program with her a few days ago. I thought it sounded like a fun way to spend time with her with the added benefit of getting some exercise so I said sure. The 25-day program is touted as an “hourglass” workout. It focuses on strengthening your core. All good because I have a pretty wimpy core these days and it has given me issues with my back. What gave me pause in this whole thing is when she asked if we could measure her before we started and after the plan is done - just for interest sake you understand. Not because she’s trying to lose weight… Now, she knew exactly what to expect as a response from me because we’ve talked about this before. I’ve always tried to focus on all bodies being worthy and beautiful. Strength vs body size… all that good stuff. Having known friends with eating disorders and grown up in the diet culture we all live in, I’m very conscious of not criticizing my own body around my kids. The trouble is, my daughter is smart. She also knows what I want to hear. She knows I don’t want her to think badly of herself so I worry she just won’t tell me if she’s worrying about that. Let’s face it, it may have been thirty years since I was her age, but we’re STILL living in a diet culture and teenagers still dissect each other and themselves constantly. I can’t shield her from that. So what should we do? How can we raise strong kids who care about health, but not size? I’ve known some very unhealthy thin people and some super healthy bigger people. Size is not a determination of health.
Growing up, my mom didn’t talk too much about her weight or her size. We were always an active family and spent a lot of time doing physical activities like swimming or biking in summer or cross country skiing in winter. We always had cookies in the house, but there was also fruit and vegetables too. Overall, I was relatively happy with my body growing up, but I also live in a smaller body so I’m privileged to not have a body that goes against societal beauty standards. The crazy thing is that even with what I would call a pretty healthy upbringing when it comes to body image, I still have spent way too much time obsessing over what food I put in my body and what shape and size my body is. I can only imagine how much harder it is for people living in larger bodies! I’ll never forget the day I brought my then 5-year-old daughter to the pediatrician and he told me (in front of her!!) that we should be careful because the curve she was on meant she could be en route to obesity. For the record, as a child, she was always top percentile both in weight AND in height. My family and I look small, but are, in fact, not light. We have heavy bones and a good amount of muscle. That’s when I knew I had to switch doctors. I felt more worried my child would develop an eating disorder than that she would become “obese.”
You may think being in fashion would make it more difficult for me to navigate this topic. It’s true that the fashion industry is problematic when it comes to showing diversity of body types. Traditionally, the standard model on the runway has been very tall and very slim. I’ve always preferred to see a range of body types displaying the fashion I see in magazines or online. Fashion should be accessible to everyone and if you can’t see yourself in the model wearing the clothes, you’ll have difficulty seeing yourself in the clothes. The current pandemic has not made it easy to find models of any kind available to work distantly, but I think it’s important to show clothes looking great on women of different shapes and sizes. I want my kids to see that too. I try to point out how beautiful women who don’t fit the classic “model look” are in their clothes. I’ve done a lot of reading on this topic, but I still have a lot to learn… and unlearn. The following is a list of rules I try to follow in my quest to raise kids with a healthy body image. I’d love to hear any suggestions you might have too. It’s not easy going against diet culture - it’s so pervasive - but imagine how great it would be if your kids could just eat when they’re hungry, or because that cake tastes yummy and not feel guilty about it! Imagine if they could just live their lives and do exercise because it makes them feel strong, because they feel good when they do. That’s what I want for my kids so here is what I try to remind myself every day:
- No negative body talk - don’t criticize your own body (or anyone else’s!) As every mom has said for generations: “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all!” Be kind to yourself. If you wouldn’t like someone to make that comment about your child or BFF, don’t say it to yourself! You don’t deserve it any more that they do!
- Be aware of food and fitness talk - it’s everywhere. Try not to attach negative value to food - food serves a purpose. I try to teach my kids to pay attention to how food makes them feel. The goal is to get to a place where you’re eating enough of all the food groups that give you energy to do what you need your body to do and not to feel as though eating certain foods is bad. I’ve spent too much time in my life quickly eating something “bad” in secret because I didn’t want anyone to know. This is not healthy. It’s also easy for fitness to become a negative obsession when its goal is thinness. Your body may not be built to ever be as small as diet culture wants you to be and obsessive exercise and calorie counting likely won’t get you there. I try to call out others when talk turns in a negative direction.
- Focus on what your body can do and not what it looks like. If your body isn’t physically able to do what you want it to, then sure. Work on that! If you have low endurance and can’t go for that long bike ride you were invited to join, that might be worth working towards. Maybe you should slowly build up to longer and longer trips. Your body being able to do the physical activities you enjoy feels so great. Feeling strong and capable makes your body feel good and is great for your mental health so let that be the focus.
So to bring it back to my teen’s question about measuring herself… we haven’t measured ourselves. However, we have definitely noticed certain exercises have gotten easier to do the more we do them. We’re feeling stronger and we both know that’s important. For me, it means less back pain. For her, it means she will be more ready to get back into competitive sport once it opens back up again (come on scientists: you’ve got this! Vaccine, here we come!) I would love to see more people talking about intuitive eating (check out this great book: Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch) and health at any size (check out this podcast: Food Psych) and less laxative lollipops for my kids to see on social media but until then, I can do my part to encourage a healthy body image at home. I hope you’ll do the same!