Our kids will likely one day ask about diets or feel bad about their bodies. Will sharing our own struggles help or hurt? Experts weigh in.
My 8-year-old daughter Mila has the most loving, uncomplicated relationship with her body. I'm in awe that I've never once heard her compare herself to other girls. She gasps in horror at the mention of the "F word"—fat (though she gasps at the other "F" word too) and loves to tell me how everyone is beautiful in their own way. She particularly loves her own long hair and hazel eyes. She's never once asked me if what she's wearing is flattering or if eating a few extra cookies (her favorite dessert) will make her gain weight. 5 Things to Do When Your Child Says, 'I'm Fat' I hope she stays in that positive, confident, all accepting headspace. And more than anything, I hope that I'm able to help keep her there. My daughter marvels that I look like "a grown up version" of her. She's never pointed out when I've gained or lost weight—and I made a really conscious choice to never share when I'm feeling bloated or upset at the number on the scale. I never say "diet" or "fattening" in her presence. I should also mention that Mila was just shy of 3 years old when I had weight loss surgery. At the time, she was much too young to understand the real reason mommy spent the night in the hospital—but she wasn't the only one who I hid the truth from. In fact, it wasn't until recently that I openly told friends and family that I was so unhappy with my health and weight that I took control with gastric sleeve surgery. That is why it does concern me that my daughter does notice I easily get full, often complain "I shouldn't have had that last bite," and that I rarely clean my plate or have room for dessert. My weight still fluctuates—even post surgery. So far Mila hasn't probed further but I expect with her inquisitive and empathetic nature that it's coming, making me wonder—should I tell her about my surgery too? Allison Chase, Ph.D., CEDS-S, regional clinical director at the Eating Recovery Center, suggests if (and when) Mila asks questions that I "very matter-of-factly and clearly" answer by telling her that I'm focused on my health and trying to take care of my body the best I can, which means figuring out what foods and how much my body needs. "If she asks no more, then no need to answer more until she keeps asking—and only if she wants to know." 6 Lessons in Body Positivity to Teach Your Child by Age 5 Explaining a Complicated Relationship With Food to Kids I'm not alone in figuring out how much to share about my relationship—past and present—with food, dieting, and my body. Pam Moore, an intuitive eating coach and freelance writer in Boulder, Colorado, is the mother of two girls ages 9 and 11. When her girls were younger, she went on a diet and lied to them about it—with mixed feelings. "I didn't see it as a diet at the time. I saw it as a 'lifestyle.' But it had me measuring, weighing, and tracking everything, according to directives from an app," Moore says. "It was 100% a diet. I told my kids that I was being 'healthy' when they asked why I was measuring out portions. It wasn't healthy at all. My goals were purely aesthetic and I became obsessed with and stressed about food. I lied because I didn't like the example dieting would set for them. I wanted them to have a healthy body image and I didn't see how I could promote that if I admitted I was dieting to lose weight." Ashley Moser, LMFT, CEDS and clinical education specialist at The Renfrew Center, agrees that parental attitudes and behaviors surrounding food can have a profound impact on children. "That's why it's incredibly important to be conscious about the conversations around our relationship with food and body," she says. "Sharing information about dieting, body dissatisfaction, and labeling foods as 'good' or 'bad' should be avoided to prevent even well-intended discussions from being negatively interpreted by a child which could impact their own feelings about their bodies and food." It's why Olivia Dreizen Howell, co-founder of Fresh Starts Registry, made a very strong decision upon becoming a parent not to pass on the generations of dieting and body trauma she endured to her boys, now ages 6 and 9. "My sons are very aware that we live in a diet culture world. We talk very openly about it," she explains. "I teach them that they are in charge of their stomachs and bodies, and they can decide what to eat, and when they want to stop eating. We talk about the fact that there are no 'bad foods' and that a 'bad food' is a food that has gone bad!" As a result, Howell's found her sons to become moderated eaters. "They never feel the need to binge on something because I simply don't make it a big deal," she says. "We talk about how I grew up in a culture of dieting (widely), and that I believe dieting is harmful to one's mental health and ownership over one's own body." Sharing information about dieting, body dissatisfaction, and labeling foods as 'good' or 'bad' should be avoided to prevent even well-intended discussions from being negatively interpreted by a child. — ASHLEY MOSER, LMFT
Sharing 'Before' and 'After' Photos With Your kids I went on my first diet in the sixth grade. Before that, I would describe childhood photos of myself as confident and fearless—wild bangs, long legs and a toothy smile, my arms flailing above my head in my signature "look at me!" pose. My doting grandmothers fueled that nascent self-esteem with compliments that made me feel like a movie star: "People would pay for your nose" or "You have eyebrows that even Brooke Shields would be jealous of!" In those early photos, I was free from the notion that gaining weight was bad and "thinness" was the holy grail. Then puberty started creeping up on me. My mom was (and still is) a size two with impeccable willpower. But I remember coming home in tears after I couldn't fit into anything in the "trendy" section while back-to-school shopping. My mom came into my bedroom with a beat up photo album from her college semester abroad. I saw photos of my mom smiling and happy, posing in front of landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben. She pointed out that she "ate so many croissants" that summer that my grandparents hardly recognized her at the airport. Looking back, I appreciate my mom sharing and being so vulnerable in that moment. But even so, I'm quite selective about the photos I allow my daughter to see from my tween/teen/college years—and even into adulthood (aka before my surgery in 2017). I don't want her to pick up on the sadness and loneliness on my face. I fear maybe she won't recognize me or make an innocent comment about my body—I've been every size from a 2 to 20—that could refuel my shame. But my mom was onto something by sharing her photos. Moser agrees that yes, sharing "before and after" pictures can have negative implications and reinforce diet culture messages that idealize thinness. But when shared with the right intention, those photos are important for our children to see. "If the intention is connected to important memories, experiences, and relationships, regardless of your size at the time, share!" she says. "What is important is the experience and emotion—not your size." Jennifer Kelman, LCSW, a JustAnswer mental health expert, reinforces that children generally don't see size. "They just see the people around them that love them," she says. She suggests sharing older photos without commentary. "If your child is curious and says, 'Mommy you look bigger there,' you can simply say, 'Yes, I was a little bigger there.' The more you overshare with stories of size, food issues, fat, dieting, etc.—the more chance your child may struggle, too." How to Recognize Body Dysmorphic Disorder in Teens The Delicate Decision to Diet Around Your Kids Growing up, my family's pantry was stocked with fat free, calorie-free, and taste-free snacks. In the '80s/'90s, our family dinners were so low carb, we didn't know how ahead of the times we were. The higher fat, higher calorie treats were hidden away in overhead cabinets or buried deep in the recesses of our freezer. I became a master at extracting contraband sweets, Mission Impossible style, in the middle of the night and then carefully placed them under my bed for midnight snacking. My "mission" today, as a parent, is never to make food—or diets—a thing. I let Mila choose the snacks she wants in the pantry. We encourage her to have fruits and vegetables with every meal but if she reaches for an extra helping of say, chicken nuggets, I'll never suggest that she "shouldn't eat that," or put any doubt into her head that something isn't right for her "diet." I attempt to keep mealtimes low-key, without making it a big deal that my meals (I try to maintain a low carb, high protein diet) sometimes look different. A local mom friend has had tremendous success with intermittent fasting (under doctor supervision) and recently lost 40 pounds. She has three daughters under the age of 7, who've not only noticed the changes in her body, but also noticed that "mommy no longer eats snacks or sweets." My friend has a simple explanation. "I say I'm working hard to be able to run around and play with them," she says. "I couldn't ski or run around the yard. I got winded so quickly from just walking. I knew long term my health was at major risk when I wasn't comfortable in my clothes." Kelman agrees with this approach around your kids if you must change your diet for any reason. "Many people enjoy different things around mealtime, so it can simply be that. Kids should never hear about what you are cutting out or what latest diet plan a parent is trying," she explains. "Kids aren't really interested in what and how their parents are eating so keep that healthy boundary and leave out the conversations about food, dieting, and weight loss." But if your child does notice or ask questions, Dr. Chase says it's important to tune into their curiosities, and even body language. "And then, respond using the 'golden rule.' You can say, for example, 'I noticed you made a face when I was eating something different than you, do you have a question?'" she explains. "If they say yes, then give an explanation about taking care of your body and its needs. If they ask further questions, keep answering clearly and succinctly. They'll navigate how much they can handle." If they say they feel fat, explain that fat is not a feeling. Explain that people of all ages tend to focus on food, weight, and dieting instead of focusing and getting in touch with their feelings. — JENNIFER KELMAN, LCSW
Talking About Body Image Ashley Austrew, a mom of two in Omaha, Nebraska, grew up in a very body-focused household. Her mom modeled before having kids and put Austrew in beauty pageants. "I was not born with the standard model/pageant queen body, so I was always treated differently in my family because of how I looked. This resulted in me being obsessed with trying to change my body from a very young age," she explains. After having kids of her own, Austrew made an intentional choice to create a body neutral household. "The body confidence my kids have so far amazes me. And I know it will get harder," she says. "I know that no one makes it through the teen years without body image woes. But I really feel like giving them the tools to understand more about our cultural relationship with body size and where some of these harmful messages about health and body size come from has been a benefit. I don't regret starting the conversation early. We do live in a diet-obsessed world that prioritizes thinness over everything, and so these are conversations that are so important and that never really stop." I love and applaud this approach as I worry that the self-confidence, body positivity, and body acceptance my daughter so proudly flaunts today will wane as she gets older. I remember all my friends' baby fat melting away, while mine held on for dear life. When I had a big falling out with my seventh grade clique, they made my ousting official by dropping a wadded up note in my lap outlining all my tween-age transgressions. My eyes darted right to the bouncy signature at the very end: "From, The Skinny Ones." I could pinpoint that note as the moment that dieting became my lifelong struggle. I started out every new plan determined, motivated, and convinced this would be the one I could stick to, but inevitably failed. Even weight loss surgery wasn't the fix I expected. While I can't keep my daughter locked up in a bubble, I want to at least try to create an environment where one nasty comment won't deflate her self-esteem in one fell swoop. Kelman says if you notice your child is struggling with weight and body image, talk with them to gain a sense as to what they're feeling about themselves. "If they say they feel fat, explain that fat is not a feeling. Explain that people of all ages tend to focus on food, weight, and dieting instead of focusing and getting in touch with their feelings," she says. "Go on to explain that when people lose weight, there's a temporary boost in how they feel about themselves, but those same old feelings tend to creep back in. Focus on your feelings and remember our bodies, in all shapes and sizes, are wonderful."