Our bodies, our daughters, ourselves.

As a mother of girls, this is a subject that’s been on my mind for a long time. So I’m really pleased to be working with Chase on this sponsored post on the topic of body issues, since they’re strong supporters of the National Eating Disorders Association. I urge you to check out their website.

It was the 8:30 morning rush in my Brooklyn building, and we all crammed into our tiny elevator headed out for the day–the Wall Street guy heading to the 2 train, the woman in dark glasses walking the dog, two moms taking backpack-laden kids to school, and me and my girls.

“Good thing I’m skinny!” my six year-old joked loudly as we squeezed our way in. And I laughed. She is me. I’ve said things like “Good thing I didn’t have thirds on pancakes this morning!” in similar situations.

“Anyway,” she added, “you can’t be fat if you’re in ballet.”

The elevator got awkwardly quiet.

Eyebrows were raised, mental notes were taken, the Brooklyn parenting message boards were surely alerted by instant messenger.

I prayed for the pug to fart, just to break the tension.

“Uh, honey…”I said at a volume directed at the others in the elevator as much as toward Thalia, “we’re gonna have to discuss that one later.”

Knowing smiles. Sympathetic smiles. Embarrassed smiles. (That last one, mine.)

I asked Thalia as we headed toward the end of our block toward school where she heard that ballet dancers have to be skinny. She just shrugged and changed the subject.

(Note to self: Find way to interrogate group of first-graders next Thursday, 4PM. They’re the ones in the blue leotards.)

Is there a parent among us who doesn’t worry about this stuff? I am terrified about having one of those little girls you hear about through gossip or Jezebel posts on slow news days–the skinny 7 year old on a diet. The overweight seven year-old on a diet.  I don’t want an eight year-old saving up for a nose job or a 9 year-old who complains about “her thighs.” I’ve read stories from friends, recovering from eating disorders just how early the awareness and the pain started within them.

I want my girls to feel good about themselves and who they are, however they look.

But if I’m truly honest, I don’t want them to be fat. There’s the health reasons, of course, but there are the social issues as well.

I grew up a skinny girl, best friends with a heavy girl. I remember the looks she got from strangers as early as third grade. The teasing comments. The whispers and the mocking. I’m sure in part we remained friends because I never shamed her–never really talked to her about her weight. That was her problem, not mine. And I loved her for who she was.

As for me, I was always thin. I suppose I was fortunate in that way; weight was never something I really thought about, at least until my freshman year in college when I realized I could no longer survive on Twix bars for lunch and Absolut shots for dinner without physical consequences. I think to some degree we lock onto some earlier version of ourselves, freezing it in time. So even today, there are times I feel like a size 2 trapped in a not-so-size-2 body. While I’m late to the game on this one compared with most, I see how weight can affect my moods, my self-worth.

And of course, it’s all conflated by the incredible national discussion around childhood obesity. Which is a good thing. However the lessons that stick I think are not about health. I think what kids are learning, earlier and earlier, at the most basic level, is that fat = bad.

So then does skinny at any expense = good?

That’s where I get worried.

For some reason I have no trouble talking to my daughters about race. About body parts, what to call them, and who does and does not get to touch them. About evolution. About baby-making. About religious differences and politics. About who to talk to on the street if you feel unsafe. Even about how fat people should not be judged for how they look. But when it comes to their own bodies as it relates to health and self-esteem, I sometimes feel at a loss.

I do know what not to say: I avoid saying, “oof, I’m feeling fat” in front of them. I never complain about my weight or the size of my butt (even on bad butt days, which is kind of like a bad hair day only you can’t hide it with a hat). And I’m careful how I respond when they talk about “Daddy’s fat belly”–a line they’re simply repeating from him.

So how do I talk about it with them?

How do you talk about bodies with your children?

And how do we keep a nation concerned with our children’s health  from becoming a nation that encourages second graders to count the calories in their ice cream cones at the park?


106 thoughts on “Our bodies, our daughters, ourselves.”

  1. Thank you – great post and important thoughts… I too have never had to worry about weight (and also spent my life in ballet, where some really talented girls and women struggled with Thalia’s observation). I now have an almost 4-year-old who watches and observes the world around her (as they all do).

    My husband recently changed his eating habits for the better and has lost over 30 pounds. It has created opportunities for lots of discussion in our house about healthful eating, bodies, and weight. Even as we celebrate his decision to “work on healthy” (as as the 4yo calls it), we have to be careful about how we talk about “weight loss” in general. It’s hard for her to grasp that healthy eating is important, but that kids in general don’t need to worry about losing weight when they are growing (oversimplified, yes, but she’s not quite four). She loves to jump on the scale after he does in the morning in the hopes of prompting the same kind of celebration for her holding-strong-at-40-lbs as my husband gets for his continually dropping pounds.

    I also find it challenging to frame fun kid things like ice cream cones and cupcakes as what they are – fun treats – when we have been talking about healthy eating choices so much at home. “Daddy isn’t going to have a cookie because he’s trying to be healthy but go ahead and have one because you’re a kid”? I don’t know… One thing we do say is that there are no “bad” foods – but that the best thing for our bodies is to fill up on high nutrient foods first and then it’s okay to celebrate with treats once in a while. It’s tough to know what to say for sure…

    Thanks again!

    1. Oh Sarah, you’re me!

      We’re in the same place, complete with Daddy going somewhat vegan to lose weight and get healthier. It definitely opens up conversations–and helps to put better food on the table. But I would rather it be around health than “fat.”

      Meanwhile, my kids are so skinny, mostly we’re rooting for them to gain weight. If they ate more steaks, I’d be happy to give them more milkshakes.

  2. The amazing website PIGTAIL PALS is doing a whole series on body image talks for girls at different ages/stages and it’s been a lifesaver for me, especially as my 4yo is picking up on the notion that the word “fat” is code for “bad” somehow. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “Robin, fat is just a describing word! Same as big or little or red or blue!” I also work hard on emphasizing the pleasure of my body rather than the appearance (this shirt is so comfortable! i love dancing, it makes my body so happy! etc). This is far as I’ve gotten. I’ll be reading for more perspectives on this!

    1. I’m excited to check it out, thank you. And I love how you talk about making your body happy!

      But I’m conflicted–“fat” may be literally a describing word, but it’s loaded with negative meaning beyond “big.” It’s why we tell kids not to point and say “look at that fat lady!” So while we can teach our kids to be kind to bigger people because they are the same on the inside, I still think they get a million cues from media and culture and classmates that fat is not something you want to be.

      1. I agree that fat *should* be able to be just a describing word and not a pejorative, but too often, it’s not seen or taken that way.

        My comments regarding describing or talking about people have pointed out that we never know how a person feels about how they look, so unless we are going to compliment them, it’s better to not comment. Examples there have been that in mentioning someone’s weight or big nose or whatever, you might not have meant it as a negative, btu if they feel bad about that thing, you might hurt their feelings without meaning too.

        Meanwhile, I started running last fall and have become a little smaller. I haven’t really talked about it in terms of my size, except to note that some of my pants are now too big and can’t be worn anymore. Instead, I’ve noted that it’s something I enjoy and think is important for me, so I make a point of finding the time.

        So far, my skinny girl seems aware that she’s a little short and skinny, but it doesn’t seem to come with a value judgment that I can tell. Yet. (ohmyhellpleasedon’tstart)

  3. this one hit home for me, since i’m a classic over-thinker, and at 20 wks pregnant just found out what gender baby we’ll be having in aug. prior to finding out, i couldn’t help but read up on everything i could about girls, body image, self esteem, media portrayal, etc. and (over)think about how i would approach all of that if my baby were to be a girl. turns out we’ll be having another boy–our 2nd. while i have to admit to feeling a slight sense of relief regarding what many people consider to be the ‘simpler’ sex, (seriously…why does everyone seem to think that raising boys will be magically ‘easy’? all kids come with their own challenges, right?) there are still so many of these issues that are hitting home for the guys, too. as a girl i’ve struggled with body image issues for ages, while my husband is on the opposite end–he can’t gain weight no matter what, and has struggled with that himself. i’m determined to have these same open conversations about health and weight with my boys, hoping that it will help them with not only their own health and self esteem, but also so that they learn to respect women and their bodies regardless of shape. so much easier said than done, though, and i love it when conversations like this appear online since i’m sure we can all use as much help as we can get!

    1. Sarah,
      So excited you’re having another boy. I have 3. It’s fun.

      But I will say this-I can’t tell you how many eye rolls I get from moms of girls who say “you’re so LUCKY to have boys.” It just about does me in. On more than one occasion, I’ve said, politely of course because I’m a southern girl and we wouldn’t want to stir up conflict…”well…I’d love to have a girl! Don’t you think we’re part of the reason girls are ‘so difficult’, because we tell them that at every turn?” I am certainly not the most popular gal in my neighborhood, alas.

      You’ll have those conversations, no doubt, and your boys will be better for it.

      1. See, and I was thrilled to have a second girl, because even with the issues didcussed here, I think they’re easier. At least on the furniture. Plus, I’ve got more insight into these issues than I would with boys.

  4. The one thing I have learned is that we can’t always control the size of our bodies all the time. And we *do* come in different sizes. So I focus the discussion elsewhere, on to healthy lifestyle.

    Unfortunately, schools etc. do not. So my oldest started to develop “pre-eating disorder” red flags in KINDERGARTEN. I dug down to discover it was the horrible obesity posters that covered the cafeteria walls, which lunch ladies dished out processed and fried chicken nuggets and french fries for lunch.

    She had gotten the message that “kids are fat” and this is TERRIBLE and will MAKE YOU DIE and it generated the tremendous cognitive dissonance with our message in home, the foods we ate at home, and the eating habits in the school.

    Welcome to “you are now only 25% of influence on your child and descending rapidly.”

    Like I always was, my kids are skinny — my youngest has consistently had weight gain issues, in fact.

    We talk about healthy food choices and why that’s important for your body — what different foods do for the parts of your body. We talk about being active and exercising. We model that, my husband and I. We respect different shapes, sizes, exteriors. And focus on healthy lifestyle. Most of all, we talk about respect — that *you* is your focus, and that is who you are in charge of, not others. Because we all have different ideas.

    When the MANY ads etc. come in front of us, we discuss those critically.

    Now, five years later, as she enter this critical pre-teen age, she seems to be pretty healthy about it. One time, someone called a heavier build friend of hers fat, and she said, standing up for her friend, “No, she’s HEALTHY, she eats good food and exercises every day.”

    She got it. She understood insults aren’t okay, nor is shame.

    Crossed fingers we keep it up.

    /war and peace length treatise about a topic VERY important to me

    1. “the horrible obesity posters that covered the cafeteria walls, which lunch ladies dished out processed and fried chicken nuggets and french fries for lunch.”

      That. Right there.

      Sounds like you’re dong awesome.

  5. As a mother and someone who lost 40 lbs with Weight Watchers over 7 years ago (and now works there), we discuss food , exercise and healthy habits at our house and try to set a good example. I have 2 boys and thought I’d get to generally avoid discussions of healthy body image but that’s not true, especially in today’s society. Boys are just as susceptible to social pressures about their bodies and often end up with unhealthy habits and/or eating disorders.

  6. My husband and I were just talking about this the other day. My daughter is only 6 months old, so I’ve got a while, but I’ve struggled with body image issues for as long as I can remember (My mom had me in pageants throughout my early childhood. Enough said.), and I don’t want her going through the same thing.

    The thing I find most appalling is that there seems to be no limit to the glorification of “skinny.” Even sickly skinny seems to be preferable to fat, which is just…stupid. Unhealthy shouldn’t be glorified regardless of which end of the spectrum a person falls on.

    I don’t know exactly how we’ll go about tackling this issue yet, but one thing I have resolved to do is to stop making negative comments about my appearance or anyone else’s in front of my daughter, and to teach her (once she’s old enough) to look for something beautiful in everyone because everyone has at least one beautiful thing about them. Then, of course help her to make healthy food choices and talk to her about the importance of keeping her body healthy.

    I don’t know. It’s so difficult. If I could just lock her in a room and never let her look at TV or magazines this would be so much simpler 😉

    1. I also am really careful not to make negative comments about myself in front of them. When they ask why I put on makeup I stammer a lot.

      1. You put on makeup because it makes you feel good. Right? So far, that has satisfied my girls. But they are younger than yours, so who knows if it will keep working?

        On the original topic: I haven’t gotten to this too much yet, since my oldest is just now turning 5. (Today! Holy cow, that is weird and amazing.) She is also really thin and a picky eater, so yeah- unlikely to be getting any vibes about being “fat” anytime soon. Like you, we’re happy when she eats! She hasn’t really said anything yet about the differences in body types she sees, but I wonder if this is a bit like race- something kids notice but we socialize them not to mention? I need to think on that more, and think about whether some of the research on how to talk to kids about race could be translated into how to talk to kids about body types, etc.

        I have thought some about how I’ll talk to my kids about body image, though, and about the related problem of having my girls start to think that the most important thing in the world is to be pretty. I remember that phase, and thank god it was short lived for me, because I am now at the age where it is blindingly obvious that what the rest of the world considers beautiful rarely lasts! I know some women who seem to have been stuck in the “pretty is most important” phase, and they seem to be having a harder time with the transition to middle age.

        Anyway, back on topic… my 5 year old has the gorgeous blond ringlets, and everyone comments on them. I am trying to teach her to accept the compliments gracefully but not take them too seriously, because I want her to identify what is good about herself with what she can do and how she treats people, not with what she looks like.

        I am fumbling around a bit on this, because I am not free from the impact of our culture, too. I come with my own baggage and issues, and that makes navigating this with my daughter harder. But I’ll keep trying.

      2. My girl likes Fancy Nancy (who is way cooler than I pre-judged) and I just say it is for when I want to be a little fancier…just like sometimes she wears sequined pettiskirts and other times jeans.

  7. Liz,
    As always – thank you for your eloquent and well considered “tackle” of the tough stuff. And this one is a land-mine! My experience takes the story a few years farther down the pike. Here I am with teens who frankly have gotten the most mixed messages in the world and YES FROM ME — you know (random sample):
    1. let’s fix that blue mood with a City Bakery Cookie 2. Oh let me post that picture of you in your “happy place” slurping down a milk-shake 3. did you exercise today? 4. Look at that beautiful bread! 4. Please don’t buy that – it is junk and not good for you. 5. No you can’t wear that, it really does not flatter you 6. I wish I had (insert any person’s name here)’s metabolism 7. Is that locally sourced – ok then fine, eat that it supports a local merchant. 8. Of course she looks like that – she does not work and she works out all day. My point – this is such a slippery slope – super hard to navigate and frankly I am getting a failing grade…le sigh. I do manage to focus (to the point of eye rolling) on their inner-beauty, brains, strength, power, conviction, creativity, kindness, potential, grace, community mindedness, etc. all the time — still this does not fix the food issue…Thank you Liz for the resources…

  8. *deep breath*

    I didn’t have an eating disorder because of the media, or because of my mother who was always dieting. It didn’t happen because someone called me fat, or my round face always balanced out my 90-pound frame. Of course I can’t prove those things weren’t influential, but I believe I had an eating disorder because I was afraid of growing up. I hated the curves I was getting and I felt I couldn’t control my life or anything in it. I was fearful and I think and bulmerexia (binging and starving) was the result. In terms of clinical mental disorders it’s probably one of the more socially acceptable, as no one makes being overweight their goal. But I believe it is a sign of other problems than poor body image.

    I know it’s important to focus on prevention, but I can’t help but think we scare the bejesus out of ourselves with anxiety of all that could go wrong. (I know I do.)

    Honestly, I think my parents did the best thing possible. They got me into counseling and they tried not to worry.

    1. Thanks Siobhan. I’ve heard this echoed by other friends who lived through eating disorders. Did this all exist 100 years ago? What’s changed?

      1. I think what’s changed is the pressure to be thin. Girls didn’t really go on diets so much 100 years ago. Yes, they wore corsets. But I think that’s different. And there wasn’t all of this overly processed food, thus not the constant barrage of messages about ‘good food’ and ‘bad food’.

        1. I believe it did happen 100 years ago. In fact my grandmother’s sister suffered from anorexia. She was born in the 1880s. If anything it’s gotten better because we are more aware. What hasn’t gotten better is our health.

          1. I am beginning to believe we don’t need to be hyper vigilent of self esteem as much as we need to change our political future. As one reader already described the disconnect between the problem we see with obesity and the businesses we empower to feed our communities.

            1. I did some research on this in college and there were a few women saints they believed were anorexic back in the 1200’s. One of them actually gained power in society because she looked less “womanly” and men were more comfortable working next to her. I learned way too many disturbing things from this research.

          2. It was used as birth control too and still is in some societies where resource scarcity can significantly contribute to a decline in fertility. A now-dead relative of mine married a man with a heart defect. They didn’t want children because they didn’t want to pass along his heart problems, so they used starvation as a means of repressing menstruation and terminating undesired pregnancies. Not a broadcasted means of accomplishing infertility and definitely not an endorsed one, but certainly an effective one in a world where birth control wasn’t readily available.

  9. Oh yes, oh yes.

    I have struggled with weight my entire life. I remember the girl who said I had chubby cheeks on the bus to kindergarten. I remember my mom taking me to a nutritionist when I was eight. I remember thinking I was fat in high school, and being SO SO SO much heavier now that I want to smack that 16-year-old girl. My mom watched what I ate, so I started sneaking foods at an early age and still do as an adult. It sucks, and it’s a constant battle.

    Oh, how I want to avoid passing that along to my kids, especially my daughter. I do my best to talk about healthy foods being good for our bodies, exercise making us stronger, etc. I NEVER talk about wanting to “lose weight” or being “fat” in front of them. I might talk about getting healthier or stronger, but always as a positive and never shaming. It may not be how I feel inside, but it’s what I’m going to project to them as much as I can.

    And when my mother-in-law is around and starts talking about “fat” and “skinny”? Oh, I about lose my shit. That sort of body-conscious talk has no place around my not-even-five-year-olds. Talk about healthy, talk about strong. But we do not equate those things with being “prettier” or a better (or worse) person.

    But yes, it’s a fine line. I need to lose a lot of weight and eat better and exercise, but I need to be really careful how I talk about it in front of my kids.

  10. Liz,
    As a mother and a survivor (daily) of eating disorders, I will honestly tell you that when you talk to them, focus on the wonderful things they are and talk in positives. This is the one area in the entire world that I believe there is NO room for focusing on weight.
    I don’t know the answer, I only know that I never want my girls to go through what I have gone through in my life with eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder. I try not to use the terms, ” Do I look fat?” Or speak in terms of size.
    I also remember that my first trigger ( at 12) was my father saying, “Mija ( Spanish for “My dear), You really need to run more.” That one sentence ( that probably meant nothing to him and I know was not meant in any mean way) altered my entire life. It changed the path and flipped a switch. http://www.motherhoodthetruth.com/bulimarexia-the-consequence-of-impossible-standards/
    I commend you for giving this matter the weight it deserves. You are awesome. Your girls are blessed.

  11. the problem is really two-fold.
    eating disorders are primarily not about the weight but rather lack of control and b/c the messages are so loud and clear in our environment that skinny = happy, beautiful, perfect…it makes weight a very easy way to control and regulate out of control emotions.
    I believe that the issue must be tackled on 2 levels – 1) teach our children (boys and girls) successful coping techniques and 2) stop the message that skinny will lead to happiness.
    Lack of control and society’s constant pressure to derive self-esteem from being skinny is a deadly combo.

    1. I wish I knew how to teach our kids successful coping techniques, then. I took a class in coping techniques, and taught it at my daughter’s school. It didn’t help. I’m not saying that parents don’t have an effect…just that if this happens to you or your child, don’t blame yourself too much. Some of this is out of our control.

  12. This is something I work really hard on. My daughter who is 4 is all about make-up and the prettiness of being a girl. I struggle with my own body image and am working hard on accepting who I am and letting my daughter see that. We don’t talk a lot about weight (both of my kids have fast metabolisms) as my kids are super active and pretty healthy eaters. We do talk honestly about what foods are good and which ones are bad. We also talk about moderation–and it’s okay to have one cookie every once in a while–but not 3 cookies every day, etc. We don’t keep a lot of unhealthy snacks at home.

    We don’t allow the “fat” word in our house if it relates to people. We talk about how words can hurt someone, even if we don’t mean to hurt them. It is hard, but we try to focus on being a good person and that has nothing to do with how someone looks.

    It’s always a struggle and will never be easy. I am working on my own focus about being healthy and not about being thin. I talk to my kids and praise their healthy choices and try not to talk about how thin they are, unless it’s about how clothes don’t fit because they are thin. I try to use words like lanky and petite as opposed to skinny.

    I hope that it’s enough to help my kids develop a positive self-image.

  13. Gah. I worked so very hard to get this one right. Never talked about my body, about gaining or losing weight or any of it. Never talked about how some foods were bad, just that some foods had more nutrition, and so it’s best to eat more of those, less of the sweets. Never forbade junk food, just tried to say, ‘these are not every day foods’. My daughter never seemed to think about or care about her weight. Just a happy, healthy kid. Then one day in 7th grade she went on a diet and lost 30 lbs. (OK, not one day…) Watching my healthy, happy, confident girl be pushed out of the way by an angry, hungry, terrified, extremely defensive one was the most difficult thing I’ve ever been through. Worse than losing my mother too young, which was incredibly horrid. Trying to get her to eat, and her saying, “I hate my friends, because they can eat anything and still be thin…” My sweet girl who never had a bad word to say about anyone, calling her pediatrician a bitch when she said that she would have to have treatment. The tears and terror when leaving the nutritionists office, because the nutritionist said that her body organs were not functioning correctly any more, and she MUST GAIN WEIGHT. The whole thing has scarred us all, and I suspect stunted our growth. I’m afraid to have her go away to college (She’s 16 now), because I’m afraid the eating disorder will come back. I never say this to her, but it’s true. What worked for her, and seems to work well with younger patients of eating disorders, was something called the ‘Maudsley Method’, or ‘Family Based Therapy’. It was a long, hard slog, and I’d like to think she’s over it all and completely better. She doesn’t hate her friends anymore, she’s active and eats a good combination of healthy and treats. But I swear, when people make fat jokes, I want to punch them in their stupid faces. And when I see the women in Hollywood and how thin they have to be to succeed, it breaks my heart.

    And for preventing these things? I have racked my brain and lost a lot of sleep, wondering what we could have done differently, besides raising her on a desert island where she never had a chance to notice that people are different and make judgements based on that….I’ve done a ton of reading. The best I can find is the theory that some people are susceptible to eating disorders, and the brain triggers it if they get below a certain weight. Like being susceptible to cancer, and it being triggered by smoking or exposure or something. Some people can smoke like a chimney every day of their life, and no cancer (my Grandma, for one). Some people can go on a diet and not have problems (other than maybe gaining 15 pounds when they just lost 10). Others get sucked into a deadly vortex. Ugh.

    1. And wow, the attention she got when she was malnourished and starving…people on the street telling her how beautiful she was. Now that she’s a healthy weight? Not so much. Our society sucks.

    2. Oh J, this totally breaks my heart. In a way it’s reassuring that not every kid is predisposed to this…but for those who are, I totally understand the hell it must have put you through. Thank you so much for sharing this. You’re strong and you’re amazing. I’d expect she’ll get those traits from you too, even if not right now.

      1. Thanks Liz. Actually, she is already strong and amazing. Living through and conquering an eating disorder has to be the hardest thing a person can manage. Sort of like conquering cancer, though you do have more control with ED. But I think to myself, she can really handle anything, because she’s proven how strong she is already. (I Know, that’s not what I said about her going to college, and fearing it would come back. I feel both ways.)

          1. On a lighter note, she once told me that she wouldn’t even wish the horror of an eating disorder on George Bush. And my, how she HATES THAT MAN. HA!

  14. I grew up very thin, only to struggle with weight issues after child #2. It is physically miserable and knowing that others are judging only makes it worse.

    Now that I am finally back to a healthy weight, it is hard to know what to say when my daughter overhears friends and family praising my weightloss. I am happy to feel more comfortable again. I do want to share that, too. I also do not want to create the sorts of issues you describe.

    We focus on teaching about healthy eating but I worry all she will hear is thin = good.

  15. This is so important! My daughter is 16, average-sized in a skinny world. She’s 4’11” and not getting any taller. She knows she will never be tall, her arms will never be long and her thighs will always touch. That’s genetics. She’s fabulous (as if you had any doubt) and I heard from someone once, “embrace the body you have” and that helped me help my daughter while shopping for clothes, because she’s not “big” but she’s short, her feet are tiny, and let’s say, she’s well-endowed. Because she’s older I can make “fake” fun with her of the air breezing through skinny legs, how much cuter her size 5 (really 4) feet are than her friends’ 8s and 9s — and it’s just that — joking around and she can hear how silly it is that someone would be judged based on physical attributes. I think the key is if your daughters eat healthy and are active and you instill self-esteem that has nothing to do with how they look, they’ll grow into that thinking on their own, for themselves as well as for others. It’s really about being healthy, body and mind. I hope you don’t have any doubt you are off to a stellar start, Liz.

  16. Oh, how this sparks so many memories in me! From the best friend who talked about food all the time as being “bad” and accused me of thinking less of her because she was much larger than I was, to the lady who pointed to my pregnant belly and told her son that I was fat because I ate at McDonalds. From nasty girls at camp “deer kissing” anyone deemed overweight, to how two “bigger” girls from my youth are now thin, healthy triathletes. I know what it feels like to be proud of my body and ashamed of my body. I think about how my dance teacher treated us differently based on weight, and how my competitive gymnast son is extremely aware of body size even though he is male.

    1. Oh God Kari, this gave me shivers. I know I can’t shelter my girls from everything, and that adversity is essential in making us stronger. But I think as mothers, we’d all give anything to keep our kids from feeling that kind of scrutiny and pin. (Mean girls at camp…my achilles heel. Ugh.)

  17. Thank you for shining example of a sponsored post! Disclosure up front followed by personal, well-written content. This is the kind of post that will be RT’d, liked, and shared freely because it’s good, not because you’re DMing friends asking them do so.

    1. Oh that’s so nice Kim. Honestly, I would have written this anyway, so I’m really thrilled to be able to do it on behalf of a really excellent organization that I believe in.

  18. My daughter is only 17 months old but I have thought about how to approach the issue of body image. I too have been blessed with a naturally thin build, I consider myself a “normal” size 4 or 6.

    One way I have been trying to start thinking about the way I talk about my body is with regard to buying clothes and trying them on. I feel pressure to fit into a smaller size; celebrate when the smaller one fits and feel gulity when I have to go up a size. So, I have tried to make a shift in my own thinking that the size of the clothes has nothing to do with me, it’s just the clothes. It’s not about me, the way the clothes were cut and labled has no bearing on my body. I aim to find the size that fits me and feels good. This is really tough for me.

    I am hoping to model for my daugher that bodies are beautiful and finding clothes that fit and flatter your body is about finding the right clothes, not about fitting your body into clothes of a particular size.

    Great post!

  19. I’m a skinny woman (I was always thin), with two skinny, tall girls (5 and 7), and a little boy. Their father struggles with his body and image (and, yes, he does need to lose weight). I emphasize eating a variety of different foods and playing (which for kids is getting exercise). I try to model good behaviors. And that’s what I think is the hardest thing. If women have a contentious relationship with food and/or their bodies, it’s hard not to pass that on. I try to discourage my children from talking about the way people look, but I’m not sure that’s the way to go. I guess I need to find a way to decouple a person’s weight from his/her “goodness”. Skinny does not equal good, in other words, not automatically. And no one should want to be skinny be any means necessary. I think we (as a society, as a family) need to emphasize health, not size. Which is hard. I think your commenters have a lot of good ideas. We all struggle to help our kids, and helping them deal with body image is going to be another way we have to get through this together!

  20. How funny, ask 100% awkward I am about talking to my kids about sex, I’ve had a much easier time talking to them about weight issues. I grew up a very fit, athletic kid. But I also grew up in a heavily Japanese American community in Hawaii where the majority of my classmates were naturally tiny in stature and size. And I got picked on about being fat even when I wasn’t, which lead to body image issues which were further complicated by weight gain once I was married and working and more sedintary. I went out of my way with both kids to never refer to anyone as “fat” or “skinny”. For the longest time, it wasn’t even part of their vocabulary. But as my daughter entered school, she inevitably heard both terms thrown around. I told her that while it’s OK to use those terms referentially (the pig is fat, the straw is skinny) that it hurts people’s feelings to call them either because it’s teasing them about they way they look. As I’ve battled to lose the weight I’ve gained over the past few years, I’ve tried to emphasize the fact that working out keeps our bodies and hearts healthy and that healthy food gives us the energy we need to play and think. I don’t equate it to making changes in my body because I don’t like the way it looks.

    Still, with all of my effort, I’ve heard Amelia say more than once, especially after eating “look at my belly Mommy, it’s fat”. It makes me sad because I know she must be hearing it from other places. My guess is she hears it at school. I just try to keep reinforcing to her that how she looks isn’t important, but being healthy and active is.

  21. My toddler is only two and I already get pissed off when people comment on his round belly. I haven’t said anything yet, but this article makes me think I need to put a stop to that, however innocuous the comments may be.

    It’s tough to talk about obesity to kids because on one hand, you don’t want them to think any less of a person because of how they look (weight, included), but on the other, we encourage them to eat healthy and exercise. While we’re not exactly saying outright, “…if you don’t, you’re likely to gain weight,” kids will notice that those who eat healthy tend to be skinny and those who don’t can be fat.

    So we’re telling our kids that we don’t want them to be fat as if it were this horrendous thing, yet on the other we tell them that it’s okay if that person is fat.

    Oy, so many things to think about! Personally I never got too overweight, except, like you, literally gained all 15 pounds of that freshman fifteen. But I still need to be mindful of my language in front of my son, and keep it positive rather than negative.

  22. This is so hard. I think about it often. As someone who has pretty much been overweight for as long as I can remember I hope and wish and think there’s no way my daughter will be. Can be. No – right? But she’s big for her age (5) and the doctor even mentioned it to us. And right there – in a way she wouldn’t full grasp – it broke my heart into pieces. I was letting my little girl be fat? What the fletch? How?

    And I’ve recently started working out really regularly. And so she knows I do it to be healthy and “get my energy out” and she knows healthy choices and like veggies and fruits and all the other crap I try to not buy, too. But I don’t want her to have a complex. She’s already tall. How to make it so she just LIVES her life, as a 5-yo, ya know? She loves to swim. She loves soccer and loves to dance. I try not to give her treats for good behavior, but sometimes frozen yogurt is fun for the family. Sigh. It’s just such a turmoil-filled mindset. I think you’re addressing it well, but I know what you mean. As if you couldn’t tell that from my outpouring here. Sorry. I didn’t mean to go overboard. Wonderful comments and discussion.

  23. This is a tough one, and I admire the way you’ve written about it — especially as a naturally skinny person. I grew up feeling like I was too heavy, and remember dieting seriously (and unhealthily) as early as middle school. I also remember being horrified to weigh the same as the boy I had a crush on in elementary school, even though I was always athletic and good at every sport I played. Now, I look back at pictures and wonder why I ever thought I was fat. I did eventually gain a great deal of weight in high school and college, though.

    In my adult life, I’ve lost a lot of weight, and gained a lot, and right now I’m at my heaviest after 2 kids.

    People say it’s more difficult with girls, but I’m finding it’s an issue with boys, too. My 6yo son comes home from school having learned that “fatty” is a good pejorative. I generally just tell him that, yes, some people are bigger than others, but it doesn’t mean that they are any less of a person — and one shouldn’t call others names, no matter what those names are. It makes it harder that I’m overweight, in that it just seems like I’m defending myself, rather than telling it like it is.

    And, of course, I do worry about my boys becoming overweight, and desperately hope they inherit their father’s metabolism.

  24. I have sons and one of them came home from kindergarten announcing that he couldn’t eat dinner because he didn’t want to get fat.

    Sigh. The “all-or-nothing” culture had infiltrated our home.

    So my husband and I grew up outside of the US, and thus our relationship with food and health and weight is a little different than the majority here. The concept of yo-yo dieting or individually-wrapped cheese-like products is still a bit exotic to us. But since our kids are growing up here, we’ve had to deal with it.

    I don’t have the answers — my kids are little still, and I don’t know if our approach is working — but we explain to them the difference between growing food (ie — real food) and pretend food.

    We don’t call sweets a treat, they’re definitely not a reward. They’re also not forbidden. We have dessert every night. What we don’t have are candy bars or processed snacks.

    We explain that food doesn’t come from brightly colored boxes. That carrots come from the ground and have greens attached to them. When we go to McDonald’s (of course we do) we talk about how the burgers all look exactly the same, and how the ones we eat at backyard barbecues not only look different but taste better. We talk about food products made by machines and food made by people. Why machines make food sometimes (convenience) and why we make our food (because we like to eat, and food made by people just tastes better).

    But more than anything we remind them that they are growing and getting stronger every day, and that as long as they feed their bodies and run and jump and use their brains they’re going to be OK. It’s also OK to eat fake food every once in a while. It’s just not meant to be lived on.

    1. You are very much like us–especially Nate, who is excellent about talking about food and food sources and farmers and why they put a toy in Happy Meals. Desserts are not a reward, but with two picky eaters, we do tell them that the balance in their bodies has to be more food than sweets, so if they don’t have dessert it’s because they didn’t eat well enough that day. Not sure if that’s right or wrong–but we did end up with one sugar crazy girl, and one who couldn’t care less. So I wonder how much of it is us anyway.

    2. I’m curious, why not call sweets a treat? That is how I grew up and seem to naturally do that? Wondering about this school of thought in earnest….

      1. I can only speak for my house, but we consider sweets just sweet food — a treat implies a reward, or something you get to spoil yourself. We spoil the kids in other ways, just not with cake. We don’t want it to be a forbidden fruit, or something special. It’s just cake. Delicious cake.

        So in the way we think, dessert and fruit and juices are sweet food, and there is also salty food, and we just try to balance it all.

        1. That’s a really interesting perspective Roxanna. You put a lot of thought into that–I think it makes a lot of sense. And come to think of it, I don’t think we call it treats either. Just sweets, or dessert.

          (And mmmm….cake.)

  25. Incredibly powerful post and comments.

    My mind is all over the place as I try to succinctly organize my thoughts… leaping and darting through decades of time and space from my own childhood in the 50’s and 60’s, to my own 2 daughters who are now grown women, to my 2 11-year old granddaughters.

    My Mom will be 87 next week. I am her only daughter, sandwiched closely between 2 brothers. I have such beautiful childhood memories of my Mom… of her in our tiny living room, exercising to Jack LaLanne on our black & white television set. Jumping rope in our small California back yard. Grabbing my hand and running into the waves of the Pacific Ocean, laughing, laughing. Of her lovely cotton dresses that fit so perfectly… just like Jackie Kennedy’s. And her high heels. My Mom wore little red, yellow, green, orange (you name the color, she had one) sarong tops that she made herself on the sewing machine that she kept in the corner of my parents’ bedroom.

    My Mom loved to be active, decades before it became the rage. She used to tell me stories of her Dad taking her to the track and racing with her 2 brothers. She played basketball at her local recreation center. And she didn’t grow up economically privileged. She was the 2nd of 7 children of Irish immigrants, the daughter of a Boston Fireman and homemaker. She would grow into a not-quite-5′ dynamo of a woman.

    My Mom was my hero. I wanted to be HER. She was the most beautiful of all the Moms I knew. But I never remember ONE instance of her remarking about food or fat or skinny, or admonishing anyone, anywhere, for how they looked. She baked cookies and cooked incredible dinners for our family… all the while holding something IN that she wouldn’t put a name to until 1995.

    I will never forget the moment. My daughter Audrey had written an investigative journalism piece for her high school newspaper… it would go on to win 1st place in a journalism competition… that highlighted the hidden secret of anorexia among female athletes at her high school. The piece was so raw and honest that it was nearly censored by the high school administration, but finally went to press at the urging of Audrey’s faculty adviser. My Mom was so proud of Audrey. But while reading the piece, my Mom turned to me and said, “THIS is what I had. THIS is what I have.”

    THIS turned out to have a name. Anorexia. She told me of her struggles with food and eating and starving at age 18 to the point of losing her menstrual cycle for 5 years. She didn’t remember why she felt this way. She told me of eating only mashed potatoes for who-knows-how-long. She told me of one physician telling her she would never have children. She poured her soul and heart to me… but with such relief that this THING had name. She told me of how she MADE herself eat, but substituted exercise and activity. CONTROL over SOMETHING.

    Exercise became her life. My Mom also researched healthy eating and I always remember a family diet of lots of fruits and vegetables and grains, even when “grains” weren’t so mainstream. But my Mom never, ever put any of this on me, even when I stopped growing at age 12 or so and gained weight. It was my Dad who told me one night after dinner that I should be careful to be more like my Mom…

    By then, it was the 60’s… Twiggy, Cher, glossy magazines with skinny cover girls. I wasn’t an athlete, but I followed my Mom’s lead and exercised every night… in my living room. None of my friends did this, but I enjoyed the feeling of it. My Mom went on to things like bowling and golf, but she rode her stationary bike for 30 minutes every night. 30 minutes gave her the CONTROL of her life that she needed and craved.

    My Mom had silently figured out a way to live with her thoughts and control and eating fears without pushing them onto me, her only daughter. I am forever thankful for this. I can only imagine the strength it took.

    But unlike today, there was really no “glorification of skinny”… as one of your commenters wrote. Every magazine didn’t have a diet for this and a diet for that. “Fitness” wasn’t a multi-billion $$$ industry.

    I have no answers. I worry for my 2 granddaughters AND 7 grandsons. I worry about information that may or may not be accurate. I worry about THEM being worried about their bodies. I worry about pre-teen girls in skimpy bikinis and pre-teen boys who judge them. I worry about our unnatural food supply. I worry about who is telling them WHAT AND HOW about their beautiful, blossoming, growing, changing bodies.

    And I thank my Mom for not having me count calories in my ice cream cones at the park. Discovering my Mom’s struggle and especially her great strength has made me a better Mom, a better Grandma, and a better daughter… a woman with mindful experience.

    My Mom still, to this day, walks a mile a day up and down the halls of her senior citizen complex. She is a marvel to her peers and an example of how exercise impacts our lives in a powerful, healthy way… even if for that little piece of control.

    But she will always know that she is one of the lucky ones, whose control did not rob her of life.

    I know I solve no problems nor offer any solutions… but share my Mom’s great strength in listening to her physician way back when, of going on to the dream of having children, and most especially NOT trying to make ME, her daughter, perfect.

    That is the best lesson of MY life.

    1. Sharon – I love your mom. To have lived with that demon in her soul all those years and to have NOT projected that on you – well, that’s a mother’s love for you…….. She rules, as do you!

  26. Like another commenter, I don’t know how to handle the comments about appearance and eating. I think I need to drop the politeness.

    It seems like 4/5 people who are trying to break the ice with my almost 3-y.o. daughter will make 3 comments about her appearance (including attire). This has been happening since she looked old enough to speak in response. This simply doesn’t happen to my son. The most maddening thing is that this also happens with her grandparents (my MIL and FIL) who each see her twice a week. And whenever we are eating together, they watch every single bite she takes. but not my son. And they comment repeatedly during and after the meal about whether she’s eating/eaten the correct amount of the correct type of food. but not my son. And they wonder why she refuses to eat.

    And when we have gatherings at their house, every woman in that generation will comment on my weight. in front of the kids. And my weight is incredibly unremarkable. I wear a size 12. Save pregnancy, I’ve been the same weight +/- 5 lb for the 15 years they’ve known me. And yet they have *nothing else* to say to me? There is nothing about me that is more interesting than my size? And there is nothing more interesting about my daughter than how she looks?

    *gritted teeth* *fighting urge to punch someone*

    1. My mother always pointed out (she’s so smart) that we tell girls “well aren’t those shoes pretty!” and we tell boys, “wow, I bet those shoes make you run fast.” So I work super hard not to do that–although I catch myself from time to time.

      Someone (probably here) once taught me that a great way to strike up a conversation with your kid’s classmate is not over her hair ribbon or dress, but ask her what her favorite book is these days. I loved that.

      1. I probably saw it, too, because that’s exactly what I’ve been doing!

  27. Well. Girl Child is that skinny girl. For example: she got really worried after fall fitness testing at school because the PE teacher weighs the kids with a scale/body fat thing. She said, “Mom, I’m not in the Healthy Fitness Zone for body fat.” After I picked my mouth off the floor, I asked, “Well, what IS healthy?” She said, “The healthy zone is 17% body fat and I’m 16%.”

    I told her, “Honey, you look exactly the way you are supposed to look for who you are right now.”

    These conversations are hard. What we’ve done repeatedly for both kids (we have a son, too) is model the behavior we want to see FROM them. So, we exercise, we eat healthy food but allow ourselves treats, we don’t put down our bodies in front of them, and we kick them outside to play every chance they get.

  28. There are so many conversations we practice for – the “where do babies come from” talk, the “why is the sky blue” discussion, and maybe even the “how come that man is sleeping in the doorway” conversation. But kids can shock you with with the things that come out of their mouths.

    My 12 yo is thin and active and healthy and smart and funny and all those wonderful things. She has tons of friends and is generally happy, so I was not prepared when she broke down in tears about not being pretty. ( I wrote about our conversation here: http://bit.ly/HkYHBr )

    The mom above is right, eventually we have a smaller and smaller influence on our kids than when they are in preschool. Hearing mom and dad say she is beautiful is not enough. Focusing on the inner beauty and saying that is the only thing that matters is not completely true. They will need to feel that their outer beauty is fine too. (of course, the reality is that we start putting on make up over that natural beauty, but that is a whole other topic for another day.)

    Thanks so much for the thoughtful topic! This is such a great place to come and share in the community.


    1. Thanks so much for your own thoughtful comments, Jen. You’re welcome back any time! Coffee’s on me.

  29. I have a 12 yr old skinny boy who needs to gain weight, and a 7 yr old daughter who looks normal to me, but her Dr suggested she lose a little. In my mind, she still has some “baby fat.” You know: those little dimples on the back of her hands, and a tummy that sticks out beyond her pants button. She skis all winter and swims and plays soccer. She loves food and is an adventurous eater. Her brother does all the same activities, and is served all the same foods, but he’s 12 and has a hummingbird’s metabolism, and he just doesn’t eat enough (medication side effect). So when they start comparing their sizes, I jump in & try to change the subject.

    My thoughts are jumbled on this one – I struggle to feel comfortable with my own size. I want healthy, happy kids like everyone else. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

  30. About having to be thin to do ballet….when I was an overweight child my mother enrolled me in ballet class. I was the biggest girl in the class, and on the first day they took measurements for our recital costumes. One person measured us and yelled the numbers to another person who wrote them down, in front of the whole Class. I was mortified at being bigger than everyone else. That overweight girl became a morbidly obese adult who then decided to get healthy and lost over 85 pounds on weight watchers and then worked for WW for a while. So In my house we talk about how mommy used to be very overweight and unhealthy and decided to live a healthier life so that I will be able to be Around for the kids for a long time. My husband and I are both very active and we do road races and triathlons and our kids are all very active, too.

    But I worry all the time that I am too concerned about what my Kids eat and whether they will have the same struggles that I did. My beautiful, smart all-around amazing 8 year old daughter was caught sneaking pieces of candy from her candy bag. We were very angry about the lying, but my stomach churned at the possibility that she would turn out like I did (the high school student who stopped for French fries and a milkshake on the way home for dinner). It is a very tricky road to walk along…I know that she snuck the candy for different reasons than I used to and am satisfied that she doesn’t have any problems with food now. But I still hold my breath and wait…

    1. Oh Angie, I so feel you. This is very much the story of the childhood friend I mentioned. I think it’s just amazing that you’ve turned your life around. A lot of people don’t.

  31. when i was pregnant w/baby #1, i didn’t gain weight. people oohed & aahed over my still svelte form (okay, svelte-ish). I felt weirdly proud of myself b/c I was STILL THIN despite eating like a farmhand. Here’s the thing: I was thin because my baby wasn’t growing (he was delivered 2 months early, and weighed less than 2 pounds). No one knows why it happened but I swear to god part of why I didn’t notice is because I was feeling so good about the being-thin thing. Can you say “really fucked up?” Pregnant ladies aren’t supposed to be thin–if someone could tell Hollywood celebs, that would be great. Now, as mother of two (skinny) boys, I wonder about their body images and how (when, if) they will feel the pressure to conform to certain external standards. And, I confess, while most of the time I have a little pang about the fact that I don’t have a daughter, when I consider the nightmare of navigating a girl-child through the incredibly intense world of body image (much worse now than when i was a kid, I think, back in the paleolithic era)…when I think about being a girl, now, I am grateful for having boys who mostly worry about their next Star Wars: Old Republic video game battle.
    Wonderful post (as usual) Liz…

  32. Holy moly, I am so glad to hear I’m not the only person worried about this. I am so afraid of one of my daughters being overweight when they are older, not only because of the reasons you mentioned, but also because I don’t know how I should handle it. Do I encourage her to lose weight in a positive, healthy, supportive way, or does that send her the message that there’s something “wrong” with her? Do I tell her she’s beautiful just the way she is, and ignore the potential health and social problems she will inevitably run in to? At a certain age, she’ll stop believing that line.

  33. Ugh…This is a difficult question. I have to say that I am glad that I have a son in this regard. There’s lots of other issues, but body image isn’t one of them. Check this out: Four of my mommy friends have girls who are the same age as my son (3) and weigh about the same as my son. Each of their pediatricians had a discussion with them at their 3 year old check ups about their daughters’ weight being in the 75th percentile and watching what they eat. At my son’s 3 year check up, he is in the 85th percentile (I should add he is also at the same height as the girls). What did my pediatrician say? He said what a healthy developing boy he was. Not a second was giving to discussing watching what he eats because of his weight. Need I say more?

  34. As a person who’s always struggled with her weight, this is something I thought a lot about pre-child, and continue to grapple with a now 8-year-old (who’s skinny as hell and not biologically related to me). We keep fat talk out of the house (my husband has to watch his weight, too) and we talk about healthy habits – eating healthy foods (used to call them “grow foods,” as opposed to “treats” when she was little), and about how to enjoy and incoporate not-so-healthy foods. I want to set my girl up with pride in her own body and the skills to manage food on her own. I’ve followed Ellyn Satter’s feeding advice since the get-go – making healthful choices readily available and letting her feed herself. It’s worked out well, although she eats a much less varied diet than I’d like. We don’t have food struggles, though, and we all take pleasure in enjoying delicious food together, often – hopefully building a strong foundation for her future.

    1. I love “grow foods!”

      We talked a lot about eating well so that Sage would grow tall enough to ride the rides at Disney. She missed by 1/2 inch, dammit.

  35. Perhaps a visit to an art museum and various depictions of the human body over the years. Right now, skinny is in, but curves used to be. Maybe you can explain how healthy is not the same as skinny and how curvy can be full of muscles and very healthy.

    But after a week with my 10 yo (fat) niece who has genes against her but also bad eating habits, I feel like I need to discuss this again with my boys. But having a close name in the conversation is going to make it considerably harder than the hypothetical.

    As a preschool teacher, we’ve always encouraged eating the “growing foods” first and then any treats from the lunch box afterwards.

  36. Such an important topic. Thank you so much for writing a post about it. And the comment thread here is amazing.

    I think the reason we struggle about how to address this with our kids is that many of us struggle with how to address it with ourselves. I have been working very hard to get healthy and lose weight, and I go back and forth between appreciating the body I have because it’s mine and it works, and chastising myself for not being thinner. Since weight is an element of ourselves many of us have direct control over all kinds of judgment gets thrown in there, from outside and from within.

    I will say, though, that being a parent has caused me to look at my own body differently. If my own children with their perfectly lovely adorable bodies were as hard on themselves about how they looked as I am on myself it would break my heart. But I am someone’s child too. And my mother looks at me with the same love and pride that I do with my own children. So I try to see myself the way she does and cut myself some slack.

    In the meantime with my children, two seem skinny no matter what they do, and one is like me and has a baby fat look even though she’s very enthusiastic about the idea of eating right and she enjoys being active. She seems blissfully unaware that the society around her might want her to be thinner and I hope she stays that way. Because she’s fine. And on good days I can agree that so am I.

  37. Great topic! I’m interested in how we can amor kids with self-esteem and defenses against body image pressure. I recall from gender and race psychology studies waaaaay back in college that some African American girls don’t go through the the self-esteem drop that many white girls have in junior high and that stays with them for too long! They are taught by their parents to stick up for themselves and not to value other’s judgements, as a defense against racism. Pardon the arm chair psychology here. I wonder how that kind of armoring can be applied to girls across many races and cultures. I suppose as parents we must really believe it ourselves when we tell our girls that there are many kinds of beauty, that how they look is not as important as what they do, that people who say different are not to be trusted, etc. And live as an example for them.

  38. Each morning three faces stare back at me, already they represent vastly different mindsets and appearances. Lanky to athletic, sentimental to combative, indifferent to food and devoted to food. I have tried to discipline myself to not assume that they will have my issues; to not overcompensate to avoid tendencies toward eating disorders. Just because I was embarrassed by my height and strength does not mean I have to drill in to my off-the charts daughter that her body is a good thing. Or need to constantly explain that they are going to be built differently, as if they aren’t perfectly content with their forms as is.

    I think threading the needle between avoiding personal ruts and equipping them for the media they’ll face and contradictions they’ll encounter, sometimes we risk not giving them quite enough credit to reach their own opinions. And yes, when we are talking about very young people, we do need to offer certain structure. My approach has been to focus on ability, the power of our bodies and our minds, the value of the fuel we put inside. I do worry though that in attempts to protect them, there are times when I might just be treading on independent thought.

    All reason goes out the window when my MIL insists that dessert every night is fine, that veggies need butter and strawberries need sugar.

    1. Are we the first generation to be so wildly self-conscious of our bodies, and of media portrayal that affects body image?

      I just had this revelation that maybe that’s why these issues crop up, the personal ruts you mention. Not that our own mothers weren’t aware of diet and exercise, but they certain didn’t grow up with gym memberships, pilates Groupons, pro-ana message boards, and “The Biggest Loser.”

      Just a thought.

  39. Just a quick note to say that — unlike commenters who say they try to keep words like “fat” and “thin” out of their homes — I’ve worked to desensitize myself to the word fat, to allow my four-year-old daughter to use it as a descriptor without (my) flinching. We do tell her that talking about what other people look like can make them feel self-conscious, so it’s bad manners to do so unless you have something sweet to say, but I don’t signal out any particular features as especially unmentionable. And if she does describe something/someone as fat, I work hard to respond nonchalantly — not to signal in any way that fatness is something embarrassing or shameful. Her grandfather and her favorite female cousin *are* fat, and I want her to perceive that fact in as neutral a context as possible.

    That said: this strategy won’t work forever. I think of it as laying a foundation of resistance to what she will one day (soon, probably) recognize, which is that the world at large thinks fatness is embarrassing and shameful. At that point we’ll need to talk about where that misperception comes from, and why it’s so hurtful. But in preparation for that moment, I actually *welcome* her use of the term fat — to describe the man she drew, Santa Claus, my belly when I bend over like that, whatever — because it’s one more chance for me to respond in a way that treats fatness (or thinness, for that matter) as a value-neutral quality.

    Oh, and: as a former anorexic and bulimic, I think of these practices as only distantly related to my desire to preserve my kids from disordered eating — that, I believe, has far more to do with anxiety and unhappiness and genetic predisposition than it does with food, per se. My mom never dieted or bugged me about what I ate or looked like, and yet I still discovered in starving and binging and purging a mechanism for controlling otherwise unmanageable feelings.

    1. Thanks so much for this perspective. I think it’s really interesting. I wonder if it’s possible to reclaim the word as a descriptor, when it’s so often in the culture used as a pejorative. Great food for thought. (No pun intended.)

  40. This is a hard one for me. Because I’m a big girl. Have been since puberty. Part of it is genes and part of it is freaking PCOS…that no one realized I had until last year. However, I was an average kid. I didn’t get made fun of until HS. I see the way people look at me on occasion. I stopped caring long ago. I had too. Plus, strangers are no worse than the things my step-mom said and did when I was a teen.

    My girls are super skinny. In fact, they at times get made fun of for being super skinny. We’ve also had dozens of rounds with doctors because they both fall about 4% on the weight chart. They get that from their dad’s side of the family and I, to be honest am glad they did. They are tall and skinny. My son, well he’s a miniature version of his dad. Tall for his age, athletic. I can close my eyes and know exactly what he’ll look like as an adult.

    In my house we talk about food instead of weight. I make weight as much of a non issue as possible. Everyone is a different size just like everyone has different colored eyes and hair. I will not stand for them ever making fun of someone for weight. Or any other physical differences actually. But…I really have sweet sensitive girls. And the boy…well he’s three. He still points out everything LOUDLY! He won’t be three forever though.

    With food, we talk about which choices are good for our body. The foods that make us strong and healthy. I try and leave it more that route.

    I’m not a mom who doesn’t allow junk food either. (Hi 4% on weight chart daughters. Ahem.) But moderation is what I go for. I think it’s an on-going discussion. I think all you can do is be honest with Thalia (and Sage) and just keep helping her understand as she grows.

  41. I have two girls, ages 7 and 4, so this is a subject I think about often. In our house, I’ve decide to separate the issue of health and weight, since what matters is how healthy you are not what you weigh. We talk about eating healthy, but that no foods are “bad” – just “sometimes” foods and “all the time” foods. We also talk about the importance of being active and strong. And the word fat is not used. My oldest has asked me if she weighed too much (she’s taller and bigger than most kids in her class) and I told her she was “Katie-sized” – the perfect size that she was supposed to be.

    I wish that the whole issue of being against childhood obesity would be dropped in favor of being for childhood health. Those two are not equivalent. You can be healthy at any weight and unhealthy at any weight. Being overweight may be correlated with a number of health issues, but there hasn’t been a study yet than can prove weight caused those issues – a big difference. What’s important is health markers like blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose, not a number on the scale. The focus on weight clouds the issue of health and increases the chances of kids hating their bodies and in essence, themselves. And why would you take care of something (i.e. your body) that you hate?

  42. I have boys, but I can remember as a boy having my own body image issues, and I was generally considered an pretty attractive kid. But I worried I was too skinny, and too short. And I thought my ears stuck out too much. But I agree it it a hard balance, we want are kids to be healthy but not judged and judging of appearance. I try and teach my kids to eat healthy and exercise and I try and teach them to be good people. Hopefully those too things help on both sides.

  43. I have three daughters. The oldest one (she’s nearly 13) is overweight. The other two (9 and 10) are skinny minnies. My oldest loves to eat but it’s about more than that now – emotions, boredom, etc. I try and remind myself that just because I’m afraid to talk to her about her health, doesn’t me I shouldn’t. I talk about myself and my own struggles over the years with my body image. She shares with me her insecurities — and then I try and get the junk food out of the house, provide protein at breakfast, and take a breath before I say something like, “You don’t need that,” or “Stop eating,” or “Didn’t you just finish lunch?” I’m not perfect (who is?) but we’re trudging a road together, as casually as possible, and seeing results. I think she always be a big girl but she can also be a healthy one, too.

    Thanks for this post.

  44. Such thoughtful writing and parenting going on here! In our home, my husband and I made a rule when our first child was very youg- we (parents and kids) don’t talk about other people’s bodies. Having both come from homes that were WAY too focused on how other people looked and how heavy so-and-so was and how thin so-and-so was, we came to the conclusion that this talking about other’s bodies was judgmental nonsense. The body has so little to do with who we really are. And guess what? This is a rule we never have to even mention, because our kids never seem to talk about other people’s bodies. They have never heard us talk about people’s bodies, and they never do it either. And the few times people have commented on my daughter’s (thin) body, we talked about how that felt to her. It didn’t feel good. So she learned why focusing on and talking about someone’s body could make someone feel bad. Maybe we are extreme, but imagine a world where we didn’t focus on body and weight. I’d like to live there, so that’s what I created in my home.

  45. I think that adult reaction to kid’s sentence is pure panic overreaction. Kid simply stated: you can not be fat IF you are going to ballet. She was just expressing healthy opinion that if you are fiscally active, you don’t become fat. Simple as that. I was actually surprised by rest of the reaction, that I had to go back and read the kid’s sentence again. Do we as parents see danger in every little comment? Or is this society just shifting the focus from being weight-concious to being kid-sentence-hyperanalyser? I don’t think that is good, it is actually worse, we have to measure each ounce of our and kid’s speech and edit out the facts that are not pleasant to say. Yes, saying that somebody is overweight is a fact, not a judgement. Deriding somebody down because of weight is insult and has to stop.
    On flip side, I’ve seen a LOT of girls clearly overweight going to ballet/gymnastics/tennis and struggling with it – as nobody thought that pointing out the weight as their limiting factor for ballet was PC. Yes, I get the point of appreciating and enjoying our bodies no matter the size/shape (I was constantly teased for being extremely skinny, I know very well how it feels), but then, in country and century where obese is way of life, speaking about healthy weight has to be part of life.
    Including innocent comments on “one can not be fat if physically active”.


      That pretty much describes me perfectly. I might have to change my tag line.

    2. Again, as the mom of a fairly highly competitive skater, I try to be careful with the “too heavy for sports” talk, especially at levels where the sport or dance should be geared at being recreational and instructional. Not every child is going to be an elite ballerina or figure skater or gymnast or – yes, it’s true, sorry 🙂 – World Cup soccer player. It’s also true that to progress beyond a certain level, a certain body weight or height or build is an advantage, and outside of that weight/height/build the sport/activity could become more challenging or even physically dangerous.

      But for the majority of children, the point is the activity and challenging themselves to learn to gain control over their bodies and obtaining skills in a supportive atmosphere. Yes, rigor and discipline are important, as is learning to be physically fit. However, parents and coaches needs to be realistic and not push kids to the point of losing complete faith in their abilities and love for just moving their bodies around through space. Yes, elite athletes and dancers need a different level of commitment and more of a reality check. But again, there is time for that. Even with the sports/activities that have a short competitive shelf life for girls.

  46. My daughters are 10 and 13. One is so naturally thin that it brings out the Italian grandmother in me (“Eat! EAT!) and I’m not even Italian. The other is more naturally big-boned and athletic build. She will never be a skinny-mini like me. However, as you know, my 13yo is a competitive figure skater. The fact is that over a certain weight, women cannot land jumps without destroying their hips and knees. Heavier girls can jump, but it’s the landings that are crushing. So, I do talk to her more than just about healthy eating and need to head into healthy eating to maintain an specific activity safely. It’s a tricky business. But the fact is that for her sport, too thin won’t work either. Too thin, and you’re not strong enough to participate at all. (This is also true in ballet.)

    Social commentary aside on body shape/size, I try to focus on just that: can your body do what you want it to do safely and comfortably? Is your body being fueled properly so that is strong enough to do what you want it to do? I try to use this kind of language, as well. “Strong enough” for me is being able to get a basic required exercise in, being able to hike and skate to the extent I like, being able to rest comfortably and maintain a healthy immune system. The focus is on what I want my body to be able to do, not what I want it to look like.

    1. And as you probably know, being a skinny mini means nothing if you aren’t a healthy skinny mini. I think it sends a loud message to my girls that even though I look fit, looks don’t matter if I’m coughing up a lung a minute into a one mile jog. I work out, I make sure to fuel with carbs and repair with proteins and get my greens in for extra protection. I talk about food that way at times. Although, I also make sure to not make food sound like a chore – I loves me some butter.

  47. I think I can really relate to you …I am also concerned about my kids in terms of their weight…I have to make sure they are also eating healthy…

  48. This is a fascinating discussion. I’m a former skinny minnie (108 pounds at high school graduation) who was always miserable about being underweight–which only goes to show that focusing on weight as an indicator of appearance, no matter whether over- or under-weight, is unhealthy. So I’m determined not to have my slender 8-year-old girl feel the same way.

    But I actually have a bigger, related concern at the moment, and I’d love the group’s collective wisdom on it. My daughter has reported receiving negative comments from girls in her peer group related to other aspects of appearance, like the way her hair is styled, or the thickness of her eyebrows. I’m trying to explain to her that these are not nice comments, and it’s not nice to say them, but I feel totally inadequate in empowering her to shrug them off and–even better–finding a response that would end them. It’s not quite bullying, so … what is it?

  49. It’s hard being a girl these days, we’re encouraged and trained early on to focus on what doesn’t matter- physical appearance. The pressure can be intense from our peers, from the media, and it seems like we lose control over our daughters the older they get. I always thought that enrolling my daughter into sports activities at an early age, such as soccer, gymnastics, and karate, would prevent her from obsessing about her weight was a bit naive. After all, anyone, whatever they do, can succumb to the pressure to look a certain way, in order to find love (a fallacy). However, I found communicating, asking questions, being firm with their diet choices, as well as encouraging (firmly) them to be engaged and involved in something they love, to take focus off the exterior. I know when I am engaged in something I am passionate about and love to do, I don’t even worry about how I look, and most importantly, I start to love myself, flaws and all.

  50. Part of the challenge is not only to avoid using “fat” as a pejorative, but also to avoid using “thin” as a positive judgment. The next time someone tries to compliment you by telling you how thin you look, don’t accept the it on those terms. Say: “I’m feeling well, thanks.”

  51. I was extremely obsessed with my weight in high school and college. I tended to be on the thin side (still am), but I exercised A LOT at times (and then not so much at other times — I may have yo-yo-ed on occasion — like oh my goodness I put on weight so now I need to exercise some more!). I think somewhere in junior high or high school my dad gave me a book as a gift — it was called something like Eat to Win. I had completely forgotten about that til just now. I’m sure that probably contributed to my obsessiveness. And while it wasn’t intentional, I actually lost weight my freshman year in college, especially the first quarter — due to stress (ironic as I’m now far more likely to EAT, than not eat, due to stress). While I was pleasantly surprised, I also remember asking my mom if she thought I had lost too much weight. To this day I still occasionally obsess about my weight (as a control freak, I think it’s in my nature), I’d like to think I’m a little more at peace with my body now (perhaps it helps that I’m at a size — a number — that makes me feel happy — though even so, some days I don’t always like I what I see in the mirror).

    I’ve already had some discussions with my son (he’s 7) — he’s had some questions about why we eat what we eat. I focus on eating healthy and all things in moderation (our bodies still need some fat and it’s okay to indulge on occasion). We also grow vegetables in the summer, and we have discussions about processed foods. In our house we have two designated treat nights a week (mostly so that the kids don’t ask every night if we’re having a treat), but we have other random treats, too. Just because. Like hot chocolate when it gets particularly cold out (which could be just about every day in winter since we live in Wisconsin).

    I haven’t really talked with my daughter (she’s 3) about these things yet. Though she may have been around to listen to conversations I’ve had with her brother.

    We play outside a lot. And when the weather doesn’t cooperate, at some point we usually find ourselves running around in the basement. And the kids know that dad goes to the gym to exercise and that mom has a workout DVD and uses the elliptical in the basement.

    And I don’t talk negatively about my weight or any body issues I might have in front of them. And yet, I have days when I try on multiple outfits in the morning before I settle on something because of the way I see myself in the mirror. I don’t comment on it, but I wonder what my kids think (though most of the time my daughter is already off to daycare, and my son seems to be pretty oblivious to what I’m doing, and I don’t really care to draw any more attention to it, but I still wonder). What kind of message am I sending?

    Blech. Still working on that being at peace with my body thing 🙂

  52. Beautifully written 🙂 I have a 7 year old daughter who has started to talk about not wanting to be “fat” and worrying about her looks and making snarky comments about how she feels she’s much more of a “teenager” than a first grader these days. Honestly, it all scares the heck outta me because I grew up with eating issues, too.

    The only thing I know how to do is get real with her– as real as I can. Telling her she is beautiful & perfect just the way she is doesn’t really change her mind. But I’ve found that if she knows we’re in this together, that like everyone there are things I love & love-not-so-much about my own body too, and that diversity & self-awareness are the real gems to be celebrated, then somehow we hear each other, we bond & it’s all okay.

    At which point one of us usually tells a fart joke or dances around and “shakes a tail back & forth” like the Chipettes and I forget my fears for the time being & smile at our resiliency 🙂

  53. I was a serious dancer from age 5 to 23. First ballet. Then later, modern. You can get away with being a size 6 easier as a modern dancer. (I know. Gross.) I spent my life in a leotard. In front of a mirror. Comparing myself to other girls in leotards in front of the mirror. Fucking up my ankle while trying to get my MFA was for me the cop out that I needed.

    I was damaged. Not to the point where I would label myself as anorexic, but my self esteem was shot. Completely. And pregnancy did nothing to repair it.

    I struggle with the dance piece. Would I have been better off as a pianist? As a singer? Should my mom have pushed me in a less psychologically traumatizing direction? I attribute 90% of my body image issues to my career as a dancer. But I also attribute my sense of discipline, stick-to-it-iveness, love of the arts, and deep understanding of my body to my career as a dancer.

    I’m not suggesting that you or other moms should pull their daughters out of ballet. But I am suggesting that negative self worth is insidious and difficult to counteract. I’m 36 years old. I’m still struggling to love my body. I’ve spent so much time hating it. Hating myself. It’s sad, you know? For me, watching Bill T Jones’ company and Mark Morris’ company and some of the other companies that embrace a wide variety of body types has been really comforting. I wish I’d had that exposure earlier as a young bunhead.

    1. I started ballet at 4, but fell in love with modern dance not too long after, dancing and choreographing straight through college. I’m lucky that it was never serious enough that any body issues were imposed on us. Probably why I have such amazingly fond memories of dance. But I also know it’s not like htat everywhere. Thanks for the reminder.

  54. Such a hard topic.

    I have struggled with my weight for about 7 years. I was a skinny child but my mother was very nitpicky. She somewhat gave me a complex about my weight before I even had a real issue. She was always on my case about what I ate and how much I ate and physical activity. It really hurt my feelings, even though I know she didn’t want to.

    I have never really been bullied as a result of my weight gain. But I am my own worst enemy. I struggle every day when it’s time to get dressed. I feel guilty for every bite of food that goes into my mouth. I hate myself when I skip using my elliptical for a day. My weight is honestly something that consumes my thoughts all day, every day, and it keeps me awake at night too.

    This is something I REALLY never want my children to have to experience. So I just want to say, I very much appreciate this discussion, because now I at least no where you begin.


    1. Thanks for sharing this Danielle. I wish you well with your struggle. I’d imagine just the fact that you’re so aware of it means you’ll do good by your kids. Hang in there.

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