Trigger warning: this post will include mention of diets and eating disorders. This is in keeping with the general tone of the piece and does not promote diet or weight loss, but please proceed with caution.
Children are our future – preach it, Whitney! – and in order to create stable, self-loving humans who are going to carry our world forwards in positive ways, we need to begin to lead by example today. Studies have shown that children as young as five years old are suffering with concerns over their body image, while many seven year olds have already tried to change their eating patterns in order to alter their own bodies. This is unacceptable. As the people who taught them how to walk, talk and tie their shoes, I say its time we stand up and teach them something infinitely important: how to love themselves as much as we love them.
Firstly, unless you are a trained nutrition you are not qualified to decide to put your child on a diet. While you can be quite familiar with the modus operandi of dieting as a fully-grown adult, you do not know which vitamins your child needs and at which particular times. For example, children who are going through a growth-spurt may need vital nutrients that you have just cut from their repertoire. I know a woman who cut meat and carbs from her own diet, and decided to do the same to her 11-year-old daughter because she was ‘getting a bit of a belly’ – I cannot express how damaging this is, not only physically but mentally. Eating Disorder Hope describes the danger of putting children on diets by highlighting the impactful action of mentally separating foods into ‘good foods’ and ‘bad foods’, introducing anxiety, guilt and pressure to a young mind that is just beginning to learn about its own body. Children begin to associate the selection of ‘good’ foods with their parents’ approval, thus developing an emotive relationship with their food intake and a dangerous pattern of controlling food selection. This can also lead to the adult anxiety that has caused many to have a hateful relationship with their bodies, reinforced by a media that reaffirms the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, attaching those ideas to our bodies themselves.
Additionally, preliminary research at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior has shown that dieting from an early age is actually incredibly counter-productive: women who were made to diet as young girls are more likely to experience a number of side effects including obesity and, worryingly, a 79% chance of engaging in alcohol abuse. As a Bo-po Warrior, I understand that fat does not equal unhealthy, and that it certainly does not equal ‘bad body’ – but if your insistence on putting your child on a diet rests on the assumption that you are doing so for their health, please conduct some research on the actual long-term impact of your actions.
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We engage in so many behaviours on a daily basis that we don’t even realise our sinking in to our children’s minds, let alone potentially causing them long-term issues. Aviva Braun is a private psychotherapist in New York City who specialises in eating disorders, and in a piece written for Parents.com back in 2013 she described the repeated instances of seeing young women with diet or self-esteem issues which stemmed from growing up in homes where certain foods were off-limits and had negative associations. Further to this, the majority of Aviva’s patients were pre-teens who had grown up in homes where the parents – particularly mothers – had a negative body image. Her first piece of advice is to be a body positive role model – and though I don’t agree with her insistence that we should tell our young children that their clothes are ‘flattering’ their bodies, I do agree that we need to stop talking about dieting and referring to bodies using negative words. A study conducted by The Telegraph in 2009 shows that 66% of teenage girls have heard their mothers complain about their weight. Remember that when you are with your child and you look at photos of yourself and say “oh god, look at my arms!” or suck your stomach in when you look in the mirror, you are teaching him or her that your love and respect is dependent on size. Show your child that you love and respect your own body regardless of its size and shape, and allow them to learn that you will love him or her regardless of their shape and size too.
It is our responsibility as parents to ensure our children are happy and healthy, and when you begin to see behaviours that suggest poor health – for example, getting out of breath sooner than his or her friends – it is easy to panic. First of all, ask yourself why you are worried. You have learned that increased mass is equal to poor health, but is that necessarily true? Are we simply forcing our own aesthetic ideals onto our pre-teens? Instead of placing your child on a knee-jerk diet, instead try and source positive activities that you can enjoy together. Bodies change and fluctuate for all of our lives, and there is no reason that your child’s body needs to be a source of stress or anxiety for him or her. Instead, think of some activities that you can do together such as trips to the swimming pool, taking a couple of tennis rackets down to a local park or just having them being outdoors and getting their knees muddy. It is even more important to remember, though, that weight is not equal to health and it is most definitely not equal to worth – it is of the utmost importance that your child knows that his or her weight is not attached to how much value should be placed on them. As long as your child is living a happy and fulfilling life, there is no reason for you to have any concerns.