Would you put your child on a diet?
Dara-Lynn Weiss wrote a story about putting her 7-year-old daughter, Bea, on a strict Weight Watchers-style diet in the April edition of US Vogue.
It's been almost a year now since the notorious article in American Vogue was published - the one in which a woman chronicled her struggle with her daughter's weight. Depending on your point of view, Dara-Lynn Weiss was either a concerned mother determined to help improve her 7-year-old daughter, Bea's health, or a shallow, image-obsessed pariah, determined to project all of her hang-ups about body image onto her offspring.
Given that childhood obesity is reaching epidemic proportions, both here as well as the US, the fixation on our children's weight is no considered longer the taboo topic it once was.
At the time, Weiss kept her mouth firmly shut but she's now decided to talk about the experience. Also, because, she has a book out. Called The Heavy, it documents in detail Weiss's struggle with her daughter's weight. Weiss says she was made to feel bad for doing the right thing but she also admits to making a lot of mistakes. Ultimately, however, sees herself as a good parent, albeit one with her own body image and weight issues. And it's these, not so much the child's weight loss or gain, that people have been so critical of.
With the book now on sale in Australia we though it would be a good time to re-run a piece we did on the on Weiss' article at the time. We asked nutritionist Joanna McMillan and counsellor and author Elly Taylor about the best way to approach the delicate issue of weight around children.
Mothers are absolutely right to be proactive in thinking about their child's weight, but it needs to be handled very carefully. Many parents do nothing as they are worried about setting their child down the path of an eating disorder, but if they do nothing they risk setting their child up for a life long battle with their weight, not to mention the risk of bullying that often happens to overweight children. If we are to truly slow down the rate of childhood obesity in this country we cannot turn a blind eye to overweight children.
All that said I never advise putting a child on a diet. The goal is to allow them to grown into their weight, or if very overweight to lose that weight slowly by making appropriate changes to their diet and lifestyle. I advise parents to talk to their kids about the importance of eating well and couch it in health terms rather than appearance. Talk about how food affects their vitality, ability to concentrate in the classroom, their energy levels for sport and only if the child raises it talk about appearance. I stress the importance on building good self-esteem and body image in kids. If kids eat the right foods and enjoy a nutritious diet, their weight will naturally fall to where it should be for their body. Children need to be taught the difference between eating for hunger and eating because you feel like eating - eating for boredom or out of habit. Behaviours can be changed by teaching them how to recognise when they are satisfied with a meal - not simply eating quickly until the plate is empty.
Teach them in age appropriate terms about nutrition so that they also learn that food is about more than body weight, it's about obtaining nutrients and fuelling the body in the right way. I encourage parents to get kids involved in grocery shopping, cooking and preparing food without it being a masterchef performance! It's simply about understanding the role of food in life. Encourage them to enjoy mealtimes and not use food as an emotional outlet. Finally be a good role model. If you don't eat meals with your kids and they never see you exercising, they will follow suit. Be active as a family, walk when you can, get out on bikes or other active pursuits rather than leisure activities being screen based.
If a mother is concerned about her child’s weight gain she should first address some frank questions to herself before she brooches the subject with anyone else: questions along the lines of who, why and how.
The first is: whose issue is it really, hers or her daughter’s? As parents, we feel so close to our kids we can often confuse our needs with theirs, our feelings with theirs, our issues with theirs. Sometimes they are the same, but others not. Sometimes they are in conflict with each other as was so graphically represented in the Vogue piece. Disentangling whose problem it really is may change our course of action, so it’s important to do this step first.
If it’s more Mum’s issue, the second question is why? Is she embarrassed by her daughter’s appearance? Worried what people will think? These are normal, human reactions but linked to a person’s own sense of self-esteem and that’s what needs more attention. Is Mum overly anxious about the issue? Trying to control the behavior of someone else is one common way of regulating our own anxiety. Or maybe it was an issue for Mum as a child and is she simply trying to protect her daughter from the same thing. If so, there is still potential to go overboard. Leftover issues from childhood are nothing to be ashamed of, we all have them to some extent, but the less conscious we are of these issues the more potential there is to unknowingly pass them down to children, sometimes with damaging consequences.
With the Vogue article in mind, I would also be asking some hard questions: Is Mum happy in herself? With her life? We can preoccupy ourselves with other people’s problems when we are trying to avoid our own. Sadly, I have seen many parents in unhappy marriages hyper-focus on their children as a distraction from the problems between them. If any of these are the case, Mum (or Mum and Dad) need to resolve these things first because they will affect how the issue continues to play out and can potentially create body image or other issues for their child.
If it is simply an issue for the child, I would also be asking why. Children can overeat for a variety of reasons: boredom, anxiousness or self-soothing for some reason. All of these have an emotional component and working out a child’s emotional motivation will determine the best course of action. There’s a great book called Your Child’s Emotional Needs by Dr. Vicky Flory which can help with this.
Then we can move on to how. I would first enlist a partner’s co-operation, especially if one parent thinks it’s more of a problem than the other. If you don’t, there is the potential to get into a power struggle or undermine each other and send mixed messages to the child.
Focusing on one child can create rivalry among siblings or make the targeted child self-conscious and lead to self-esteem issues which can then fuel obesity. So I would advise taking a whole-family approach to the bigger picture of health and fitness, part of which is good eating habits. Everyone in the family should be exercising regularly for their physical fitness, mental health and emotional wellbeing and eating nutritious food to sustain energy and focus to perform well at school or work. Eliminate junk food from the fridge and pantry, stock up on plenty of healthy snacks, involve kids in food preparation (it’s fun and good family bonding) to educate them about healthy eating habits and most of all, set a good example for them to follow – that’s how kids learn best.