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The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating Acceptance and Self-Care

NEW LESSON: SUMMER 2011

Become aware of how you speak about your body in front of your children. The way they feel about their own bodies is strongly affected by the messages of important people in their lives.

Children are born into the world without preconceived notions about thin and fat. They find joy in the pleasure of their body and its capacities. Yet sooner or later they will be exposed to the cultural messages that they must stay thin to be accepted. How they respond to these messages is strongly affected by what they learn at home.

Imagine the following scenarios. As your child watches you try on your new suit, you comment that you love the way it looks on you, rather than saying that it makes you look fat. When your child sits on your lap and cuddles into the rolls on your stomach, you say proudly, "Doesn't mommy make a good pillow?" instead of commenting that you are going to have to lose some weight. When you eat a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie, you announce how delicious it tastes, rather than stating it's going to go straight to your hips. What you say in front of your children about your body has a strong influence on how your children will view themselves.

If you say that your stomach is too fat in front of your daughter, she will become self-conscious about her stomach. When it shows signs of changing, such as the natural pudginess of young children or the natural increase of fat during puberty, she will take these as signs that there is something wrong with her. She will believe that it is bad to have a stomach that is not completely flat. Although these physiological developments are beyond her control, she will begin to wage war with her body. This is a drain of her mental energy and can lead to the start of the never-ending diet cycle.

Even more difficult for children is when their parents begin to comment to them directly about their size. Many adult diet survivors can recall a single remark that initiated their preoccupation with their body along with the start of their dieting behavior. These comments range from being told not to eat a particular food because they would get too fat to being told that no one would ever want to date them if they didn't watch their weight. Such statements are extremely hurtful and create feelings of shame that are not easily resolved. As a parent, you cannot protect your child from what other people may say. But, you can make sure that you are not the one to inflict this harm. Furthermore, if you remain accepting of your children's natural body size, you can become their greatest ally and advocate if other people in their life criticize them because of weight.

What should you do if you feel concerned about your child's weight? First, keep in mind that genetics plays a major role in children's shape and size. If they are developing in a manner similar to other family members, there is a good chance that this is what is natural for them. Also, make sure you are providing a wide variety of foods and that they seem to be in tune with their natural hunger. Do your best to guide them in this direction if it is new for your family to think about eating in an attuned manner. If they seem to be using food to deal with boredom or other feelings, focus on this as the issue, rather than their size. Try to encourage physical activity for pleasure and health, but be respectful of the fact that children do have different energy levels. If your child is physically active, focus on the physical and emotional benefits, rather than viewing exercise as a means to lose weight.

If you believe there is a medical or psychological issue that needs to be addressed, seek the advice of a professional. Try to find a health provider who understands that diets do not work. Beware of any plans or programs that focus on restricting foods for weight loss. Remember that every diet works in the short run, but at least 95% of people will gain back the weight, and often end up at an even higher weight than if they had never gone on the diet. This applies to children as well.

We understand that you want what is best for your child, and sometimes it feels that what is best is to help them lose weight so that they can fit more easily into the culture. If it worked that simply, your decision would make sense. However, since the odds are that they will gain back the weight and develop all of the issues of a dieter, in the long run, diets are not in the best interest of children.

Instead, teach them different values. That who they are on the inside is deeply valued. That they can look beautiful at any size. That the goal of commercials and ads is to sell products by promising the "perfect" body if you use their product. That these "perfect" bodies don't exist, but are the result of hours of professionally applied make-up as well as computer effects to create these images. Make sure that your children have clothes that they like and that fit properly, no matter what their size. Teach them to respond to comments about their weight, just as you would if the comments were about their religion or race. If you are aware of unfair treatment based on body size, assert their right to be treated fairly. If you model the concepts of size diversity, acceptance, respect and fairness, children will be better able to reject the cultural messages and not turn the body hatred toward themselves. There is no guarantee that they will be immune from cultural messages, but having parents who accept, admire, and support them will go a long way in increasing their self-esteem and giving them confidence to live well in the world at whatever size they are meant to be.

When you berate your body in front of your children, you are expressing feelings that are very real to you in the moment. We do not intend to make you feel guilty for saying what is on your mind. At the same time, we want to raise your awareness of the affect this can have on your children because this awareness may lead you to make different decisions about what you say in front of them. Just as there are other issues that you would consider "too adult" to talk about in front of children, consider thinking about negative feelings about your weight as one of those topics that children are better off not hearing. If you are unable to say anything positive about your body in front of your children, try not to say anything at all. If you can find some positive feelings to express about your body in front of them, think of that as a wonderful gift you can give to them. Modeling good feelings about your body has the potential to break the cycle of body hatred that in recent times has begun to be passed down from generation to generation. As a parent, you are constantly transmitting values, attitudes, and behaviors to your children. This is a powerful position to be in. Think carefully about what you want them to carry with them. Help them to live peacefully in the bodies they were born into.

Activity: Transmitting messages

Consider the following questions:

How would you like your child to feel about his/her body?

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What messages do you give your child about his/her body?

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How do you speak about your own body in front of your child?

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Are the messages you give your child about his/her body, and the messages you give your child about your own body, consistent with the way you want your child to feel, as answered in the first question?

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If not, what would you like to change?

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Can you list some ways to change your message (e.g., what can you say instead, what behaviors do you want to model)?

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What we desire our children to become, we must endeavor to be before them.
– Andrew Combe