Recently I've been thinking a lot about kids and weight and body image, partly because I had--and still have, to an extent--a pretty negative body image growing up. And as I go to the gym more and more and find that I actually enjoy it, sometimes even while I'm there, it makes me realize that I never had a positive view of physical activity while I was growing up. Even team sports like soccer that were supposed to be fun just weren't, in part because I was always the most out of shape kid on the team and in part because I felt that I had to do it in order to lose weight, not that I was choosing to do it because I enjoyed it.
I don't think there's a magic way to deal with weight and kids. I come from a long line of people with big bones and weight issues. My endocrinologist tells me it's mostly genetics, that most people eat unhealthy foods and only some people pay for it in the form of being overweight. I know that my parents hoped for me to avoid the issues that plagued them both, and I know that everything they did to encourage me to lose weight as a teenager was very well-intentioned. They wanted me to lose weight, and they wanted to--and did--lose weight themselves.
But I absorbed it in a warped teenage way, as a fragile girl still finding her self-confidence while surrounded by thinner peers that I perceived as prettier, and that my male classmates also perceived as prettier. And I developed negative feelings about my body, and about being fat, and about any attempt to discuss being fat, or to stop being fat. When I went to college, things got a bit better--I was more comfortable with myself, I was focusing on things other than my body, I was making great friends, I was casually dating. But I still didn't like to discuss weight, or my own issues with it, even in a broader societal context that had nothing to do with me personally.
As I joined Weight Watchers and people started noticing that I was losing weight, I had to deal with the fact that I was going to have to talk about it. For the first time, commentary directed toward me about my weight was positive, and it came as a shock. Obviously, as you can tell from the personal and relatively open nature of a lot of my posts about weight and weight loss, I have learned to open up about it. But it wasn't an easy process. And the only reason that I feel that I can talk about it is that I feel like I have justified my own excess weight because I'm in the process of doing something about it. I can't be blamed for being overweight because I'm trying to fix it, and my attempts are successful. People who try to lose weight and don't succeed still seem to be at fault, in the eyes of society, for their own weight issues.
It seems to me that being fat is one of the last personal issues that it is acceptable to stigmatize in society, and it's because we hide behind the issue of health. We can pretend it isn't because we think that fat people are lazy, or ugly, or that they remind us of ourselves and our own insecurities. We can say, Oh, I don't think it's good to be overweight because it's so unhealthy. Designers shouldn't make clothes in bigger sizes because it encourages unhealthy behaviors. It's ridiculous to assume that someone who needs to lose weight would do so only to fit into more clothes, and if they could find stylish clothes in their own size, they wouldn't bother losing weight. Fat people know they're fat, and they know that they shouldn't be. But the societal attitude, the pervasive judgment, goes way too far.
I guess it shouldn't be surprising that the backlash, in the form of the fat acceptance movement, is also extreme. The fat acceptance movement preaches more than just accepting people of all shapes and sizes. It actively tries to cast being fat as a positive thing, to the point where members of the movement get pushed out if they lose weight. I find that equally problematic, but I can see where it stems from--the level of pushback is usually directly related to the level of stigma that exists in the first place.
The thing is that being overweight or obese is unhealthy, because it is highly correlated with other unhealthy conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart problems, joint problems, increased likelihood of certain types of cancer... the list goes on. Fat people are more likely to die young--which you can see independently just by looking around and noticing that there are very few fat old people. It's not good to be fat, because it's not healthy to be fat.
But I don't see how a focus on weight as an indicator of poor health solves the problem. How do you lose weight? You eat right and you exercise regularly. Both of those things improve your health, and not just because they help you lose weight. They're good because they nourish your body correctly, they give you more energy, they improve your bone strength, they improve your heart health. Weight is just an indicator of those other health issues, and it's not always accurate. Some overweight people are in very good condition, and some thin people are not.
So that's what I want to do with my kids. I want to raise them to be aware of health. I want to teach them about nutrition, and about making healthy choices. I want to give them a varied diet of all sorts of healthy foods and meals with lots of different flavors. I want them to grow up used to healthy foods, whole grains, all sorts of produce, healthy portions. I want them to enjoy using their bodies, and enjoy playing sports. I want them to spend time outside, running around. I want them to value their own health and learn to preserve it.
But I don't want it to be in a context of weight. I don't want to ever tell my child that they need to lose weight--if they are overweight, it's because of unhealthy behaviors, and that's what needs to be corrected. I never want my child to be embarrassed to wear a sleeveless shirt because she hates her arms, or feel like he has to join the basketball team in order to lose weight. Part of not discussing weight includes not talking about my own weight, and especially not in disparaging terms. If they see pictures of me pre-Weight Watchers and say something, I'll be open about it, but I'll talk about in terms of health, because that's what it's really about.
I recognize that I can't control the comments that they will hear from other people, and if they hear something that upsets them related to weight, I will discuss it with them openly. But I will always try to re-cast the conversation in terms of health, and teach my children that their bodies are beautiful sheerly for what they are capable of doing and how they are capable of being stretched. That's something that I didn't learn early enough, and it's something I want to make sure my kids never forget.
What about you? How did your family deal with issues of weight and health when you were growing up? And how do you think it affected you, both then and now?
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