I was having a rant recently, those who know me know that this is not a rare or isolated event. Anyway this particular rant was at one of my kids soccer matches and one of the mums asked me what I do, and then asked me “do you work with kids?” and then “how do you talk to kids about their weight?”
My elevator pitch answer to this is “you don’t”. But that’s not really good enough is it? Weight, weight change up or down, and body shape, good and bad foods, good, bad, clean, guilty, toxic, poison, the enemy…….. blah blah blah is a common topic of conversation. So to give your kid a blank stare when they say “am I fat?” or “grandma says I’ll get fat if I eat lollies” or “she eats so much but she’s so skinny” isn’t really going to cut it.
Can I just point out whilst it is common, it is not normal! It’s nowhere freaking close to normal how obsessed with weight and food we are as a society. I think maybe it reflects just how safe we really are that we can worry so much about something like gluten or carbohydrates. And it is beyond bad manners how much we talk about other people’s bodies, but I digress.
It’s critical that we are sensitive and kind when talking about bodies in any way. Our own body, our child’s body or any body. Whether we talk about hair, eyes, bum, eyebrows or feet, it is essential to be respectful and compassionate. An insult or criticism is an attack on a body and we all get but one precious body to call home for life, however long may that be.
So how do we talk about bodies, particularly body size and weight? I’ll tell you how I do it…
On a day to day basis I stick with first principles and don’t talk about bodies per se. I might talk about what is happening to or being achieved with or done by the body but conversations comparing, admiring or discussing appearance are a no-no in our house. It’s a habit. Magazines that promote diets or feature starlets and their latest diets on the cover do not come into our house, and if they do they go in the bin, discretely.
TV shows often bring up body commentary, my girls are getting older now, but even shows they watched when they were younger were not free from body talk. Peppa Pig likes to have a crack at Daddy Pig’s big tummy. If I hear body talk that doesn’t sound kind I’ll call it out, and say “wow that was not very kind, how do you think that person felt? Why do you think that character said that?” My girls are 6, 8 and 12 and they’re surprisingly good at reading the intent and emotions experienced in these scenarios.
We’ve had a few clangers despite my best attempts at having a weight neutral household. One day last year driving to school my youngest daughter said to my middle daughter “look at your fat tummy” with the malevolent glee that a 5 year old can muster. After not crashing the car, and taking a breath to calm myself, I asked her “did you say that to describe your sister’s body? Or did you say that to be mean?”
There are fat bodies in our world, there always have been and there always will be, it’s part of the wonderful human diversity. You cannot tell how healthy someone is by looking at them, you can’t tell what they eat or what they do. And if you have some assumptions that says more about you than it does about them.
‘Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me’ – but sometimes they do..
Little children are quite unaware of the power that the word fat has and will often use it as the adjective that it is, like tall or curly. And that is how it should be, however it isn’t a word without baggage. There is brilliant work being done by the fat activist community to neutralise the stigma around the word fat, however not everyone is there yet. So it can be helpful to talk about all the ways that you can add to the description of the person. Kind smile, hair colour, accessories, height, relationship to someone eg Jacks mum, outfit. Again I digress…
So my youngest child’s answer to my question was that she said it to be mean. It’s funny, I have the urge to describe my children’s bodies, and explain that the comment was inaccurate, but it is irrelevant to the message. My response was that “we must never never be cruel about someone’s body, that it is their special and precious home for their whole life, they only get one and it does everything for them, and it is miraculous”. I invoked the kids school’s Christian ethos and dragged God into the conversation (well why not call in the big guns?) as well, I snuck a look in the rear view mirror and miss 5, was looking very sorry, oddly miss 7 seemed to have been oblivious to the whole thing! As an aside Miss 7 (now 8) knows she is stupendous and has done since the day she was born, she has a total sense of steadiness in her that is hardwired. You know your child best and what tone of conversation is going to work to deal with this tricky topic. Empathy is a great thing to teach from day 1.
So our body conversations are always compassionate, curious and come from a place of body trust, “your body knows what it’s doing and what it needs”, that all bodies are good bodies and all bodies deserve respect. My puberty discussions have essentially been “things are about to get weird, keep looking after yourself and hang on for the ride”. My message is “your body has a plan, this is all normal, you are going to grow in new places, get hair in new places, there’s lots of really important hormonal changes happening, you need to eat, sleep, drink water, play, rest, keep yourself clean and you’ll come out the other side. It’s ok, we’ve all done it.” On the inside I’m having little heart attacks (my babies are growing up arghh), but on the outside I’m doing my best to model acceptance, compassion and self care.
What do you say in relation to your own body?
What you do and say in relation to your own body is so critically important to your child’s sense of peace in their body. I would suggest that your biggest impact will come from sorting out your own body stuff (more on that in my next blog – “put on your own oxygen mask first”) Take care of your own backyard, so to speak and it will have a ripple effect. I have written this as if you just “do it” you might find this change really difficult. Most people do. So reach out for support, this is the work I do week in week out, and I have a network of colleagues around the country who do the same great work.
Observe the internal and external chatter you have about your body. If it is critical or downright mean this is something to work on.
Observe how often you talk about other people’s appearance. Family, friends, strangers, celebrities. Whether it is positive or negative it reduces the person to their appearance or their outfit. We are all far more multifaceted and interesting than that. Try to refrain from commenting on appearance, rather than “hi, you look great, have you lost weight?”, “hi, it’s lovely to see you” is a good start, “you have the best laugh, it always puts me in a good mood” is a lovely compliment I overheard. It gets easier and more natural the more you do it.
How do you talk about food and eating?
Drop the judgemental words – good, bad, junk, healthy. They’re unhelpful and they really don’t mean anything to kids. Party food has less of a negative connotation and also gives some context to when we might have cake, soft drink, chips etc. Sensory words like crunchy, sweet, juicy can be helpful in expanding your own sense of what you enjoy, it also improves your children’s vocabulary and helps them connect with the act of eating. Talk about the foods you really enjoy and why, why do you love cheese and onion crisps or shepherds pie or a cup of tea in the afternoon. Bring the language of body sensation to eating. It’s a wonderful thing to help us connect with all the ways food changes how our body feels, energised, comfortable, focussed, calm, sleepy, warm, or conversely uncomfortable, agitated, bloated, nauseous. It’s all lessons to be filed away for future eating experiences, everything enhances your understanding of yourself.
What are your beliefs in relation to movement/exercise?
You might find your self talk and beliefs around movement are equally black and white or maybe moralistic. If exercise feels like penance or punishment and if that’s how you talk about it, your kids will pick that up and their natural intuitive joy of moving will gradually be lost. If exercise is something that only has value for weight control it’s beneficial to try and broaden your view or maybe even step away for a while to reflect on what you enjoy most. Exercise like eating is not a moral pursuit. You aren’t a better person because you exercise, and you do not HAVE to pursue health, it’s your body, your choice. If you notice your mood is lifted, or you feel more organised, calmer, kinder or you have fun when you’re moving then these words are all ways to keep the conversations about movement positive. “I was so sluggish before I went for a walk and now I feel like I’ve blown all the cobwebs away” will have your children asking about the cobwebs!! “I need to go to the gym to work off last nights dinner” will have your children wondering what you mean but starting to learn the idea that food and moving are trade offs, this idea can become really unhealthy. The wonderful exercise and fitness specialist on our team can take you deeper into this space of joyful movement.
Stay Calm… Foster and maintain body trust, food trust, self respect and self compassion.
Try to stay calm and not be dragged into panic about your child’s weight or weight comments related to your child. It is really essential that you are feeling safe, steady and trusting of your own body. If you have struggled with weight and dieted a lot, the temptation can be to try and “get in early” to prevent weight gain in your child. A lot of mums I work with are desperate to spare their child the body misery that they experienced. Dieting is not the answer, restricting a child’s food intake is a dreadful idea and in almost all cases backfires with dire consequences. The child either develops sneaky eating behaviours and horrible shame about their body or may develop disordered eating. The answer is to foster and maintain body trust, food trust, self respect and self compassion. We can only do this for our children if we do it for ourselves too. More on this next time.
Thanks for reading, these are controversial ideas and are often highly emotional. I’d really appreciate your questions if this has brought up stuff for you.
Until next time xx