The recently-released Weight Watchers “Kurbo” diet app for kids has received a lot of well-deserved criticism. The company’s responses–that the app is about promoting healthy choices, that it’s not a diet–have been terrific examples of diet culture’s current re-branding from prescribed restriction à la Jenny Craig to an illusion of abundance: you can eat as much as you want, as long as it’s “clean.” But anything that presents certain foods as “good” and others as “bad” is a diet.
I believe dieting is harmful, not to mention ineffective. Dieting splits you into prisoner and guard, so you feel like you’re at war with yourself. Dieting alienates you from your body as hunger cues become threats, and cravings suspicious. Dieting takes eating, an essential part of life, and turns it into a mine-field of shame as you try to make “good” choices and avoid “bad” ones. Dieting reinforces–with every single bite of food–a belief that your body is less valuable when it’s bigger and more valuable when it’s smaller.
We live in a culture that is afraid of fat bodies. Consider: if you recoil at the sight of a fat person eating fast food with thoughts of, “Ugh, how can she do that to herself?” do you also recoil at the sight of a thin person eating the same meal? No? Even though you have no further knowledge of either person’s health? It’s understandable: we’re socially trained to judge fat people. We can question it and try to unlearn what we’ve been taught, but most of us fall into that trap of equating weight with health.
It doesn’t help that fear of and bias against fat bodies is present in medical care. This is backed by research (e.g., 1, 2), or you can ask nearly any woman who is or was ever fat and she’ll probably have an anecdote about a doctor dismissing her symptoms or concerns by stating she should lose weight first and then come back if that doesn’t solve the problem.
So what can parents do when their teen or tween daughter is anxious about her weight? In particular, what can moms do when their daughter is uncomfortable with the size and shape of her body?
First: be honest with yourself about your own relationship with your body. Does your daughter hear you making disparaging remarks about your body? Does she see you dieting? If asked, would she say you accept your body as it is? If the idea of accepting your body as it is right now feels impossible, ridiculous, or terrifying to you, take some time to reflect. Be kind to yourself. Body acceptance is hard if you don’t happen to have a genetic disposition for the culturally preferred body shape and size. Body hatred feels natural if you’ve grown up with the message that fat bodies are ugly, unhealthy, and bad. Do some reading (Health at Every Size is a good starting point), practice mindful appreciation of what your body can do (yoga and similar physical activities can be great for this!), or work with a therapist to explore your beliefs and assumptions around body size and worthiness. If you are in/near Longmont and this is resonating with you, I would LOVE to help you shift toward self-acceptance and body-positivity.
Second: challenge your daughter’s assumptions around weight, beauty, health, and food. Make sure she knows Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female.” Watch movies and TV shows that depict diverse body sizes without centering bigger characters’ stories on weight loss–like Shrill, Isn’t It Romantic, My Mad Fat Diary, Drop Dead Diva, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Be aware of the language you use around clothing: “That dress looks great on you!” is a more body positive statement than, “You look great in that dress!” (because clothes should decorate our bodies, rather than our bodies existing to be mannequins for clothes).
Banish any thought of ever saying, “You’re not fat–you’re beautiful!” If your daughter calls herself fat, you can say something like, “I know you’re feeling uncomfortable with your size, and that’s normal for a teenager. Our society teaches us that ‘fat’ is a dirty word, but it’s not. You are lovely and lovable.” Talk about how human bodies–especially cisgender girls’ bodies–change before and during puberty. Many girls have some weight gain early in puberty, before they reach their adult height and the accumulated body fat gets distributed. It may feel disorienting to suddenly carry extra body fat, so go ahead and acknowledge that these changes are often hard, but they don’t make her ugly or unusual.
Talk about hunger and the importance of listening to the body’s cues. Remove the words “good,” “bad,” “healthy,” and “unhealthy” from your vocabulary around food. Talk about nourishment–giving the body the building blocks it needs to feel good and function well–and pleasure. Talk about mindful eating vs. inhaling food, and practice eating slowly together so your daughter can learn to stop eating when she feels full (not because eating beyond a full stomach is morally wrong, just because it’s uncomfortable and not what the body needs). Talk about how different foods make you feel (energized? sleepy? nauseous?). Learn together about intuitive eating.
Above all: teach your daughter that food and weight are morally neutral.* Society will pummel her with unrealistic, harmful, and false expectations for her weight, appearance, and eating. Give her the tools she will need to discern for herself how best to take care of and nourish her body.
If you are concerned your daughter’s weight-related anxiety might warrant therapy, or if you would like to have these conversations within a context of family therapy, please contact me. I am passionate about protecting young people, especially girls, from the toxic effects of diet culture.
*I know, I know, there’s a lot to discuss around accessibility of nutritious foods, environmentally-friendly agriculture, humane treatment of animals, etc. etc. etc. In that sense, food is not morally neutral. But let’s take this one step at a time, OK?