I had no idea how easy it could be to give your kid body image issues
I’ll preface my story by saying that I don’t fit into skinny jeans, and on any given day, I average around size 18 (depending on the time of the month). I haven’t always been this size. In fact, I used to be very physically active in my teens and twenties. But my less than rabid determination to stay fit fell away after 30. And after experiencing postpartum at 36? I gave up on most forms of exercise entirely, and have more or less embraced the huggable me.
I can’t say I love my body — as countless articles online tell me I should — but whether size 12 or 18, I’ve accepted it. Frankly, I look around at the store or walking around on the street, and I feel like I’m fairly average.
But I’m also aware that I’m probably not doing my heart much good, to say nothing of the possibility of other issues like diabetes, and the host of health problems that come with too much fat around the middle. The tiny voice in my mind, that sounds remarkably like my mother, was again reminding me that as a single parent, I had a particular responsibility to take care of myself and be around for the long haul.
All of which brings me to an afternoon a little while ago. I was cleaning up the kitchen when my 10-year-old daughter — who, according to her doctor, is on the edge of underweight thanks to her ADHD medications and their appetite-suppressing side effects — walked in and scooped up a second ice cream cone from the freezer. I spoke up.
“Nikki, that’s your second one!”
“I know, but they’re soooo good!” she replied.
I rolled my eyes and said: “Well, you better watch how much junk you’re eating or you’re going to end up with a butt like mine!” She shot me some tween disdain and I laughed. A few moments later though, I was nursing some regret about my choice of words.
Like most parents, I’ve read quite a bit about body and food shaming, and I didn’t want to scare her into an eating disorder. I just wanted to teach her that her choices, when it comes to food, which lean more towards simple carbs and sugars with just a smattering of fruits and veggies, could have consequences. But given the eye-roll I got as she left the room, ice cream cone in hand, I also assumed that my comment had missed its ill-advised mark.
You know what they say about assuming? Yes, that! In the days that followed, I began to notice some subtle changes in her behaviour. While it would be an exaggeration to say that she became "obsessed" with her appearance, I started to see signs that she was thinking about her body more.
I caught her jiggling the flesh on her leg several times when she was sitting, pinching the barely-there flesh. I watched her check out her profile in the mirror, fingering her neck for the double chin that won’t materialize for decades, if ever. One day, she asked me what a "good" thigh gap looked like, and I realized that maybe I had hit the mark after all.
Perhaps my phone was listening in to my conversation with Nikki, or maybe it was a matter of coincidence, but a few days later, I came across a post by Dr. Yoni Freedhoff. He summarizes the results of a study that showed a correlation between weight-based teasing and an increase in BMI in children at risk for obesity.
Freedhof writes that if teasing did push kids to lose weight, we'd notice because there would be "dramatic reductions in childhood obesity rates" since weight is what these kids are being made of fun of for both at school and at home.
He went on to add, “if you're worried about your child's weight, instead of burdening them with it, ask yourself what you as a parent can do to help, where if nothing else, one thing for certain you can do is to make your home a safe space where weight is not something anyone's welcome to joke about or comment on.”
Of course, he was right. Even in just joking about my own behind, by focusing on appearances, I was showing Nikki that her looks mattered more than her mind, her sense of humour, her kindness and her courage. She has never been subjected to bullying about her size at school — though apparently the shape of her nose has caused consternation in her tween peer group — but I nevertheless wanted to shape her thinking about her own appearance, to ensure that she was not judging anyone else for theirs.
So, I began ignoring most comments Nikki made about physical appearance, whether it was about hers, mine or that of other people. Instead, I move the conversation to topics like taking care of her health, more than worrying about the size of her thigh gap. It’s an ongoing conversation, but I’m glad we’re having it now.
And because you can’t really talk the talk if you’re not going to walk the walk, we’ve been working together to choose healthier foods and meal ideas, to get off the sofa and exercise (a little!) and to generally pay little mind to our behinds.