Teach your kids to treat food as a fun friend – not a mortal enemy
“No,” she said, turning away from the chocolate cake being sliced up to celebrate a friend’s birthday. “I can’t eat cake. I will get too fat.” She stopped for a second, looking stricken. “I think I already am,” she said sadly.
I would probably have thought nothing of this – my friends tend to say this sort of stuff every time we eat out – except that this young lady was all of six. Yes, six years old, and already full of self-loathing for her body and weighed down with an unhealthy relationship with food. And this, despite the fact that she was not in the slightest bit chubby (let alone fat).
All of us present turned accusingly – as you do – towards her mother, unspoken rebukes all too apparent on our faces. She turned a bright red and stammered, “I really don’t know where she gets this from. I have never told her that she is fat. Or that she can’t eat cake.”
And you know what? I believe her. Knowing her as I do, I am pretty darn sure that she could never be so insensitive as to say such things to her daughter. And yet, that is the message that her daughter has picked up from her.
Sometimes it’s really not about what you actually tell your children. It’s about how you behave around them. It’s about non-verbal clues that they pick up from hanging around you at the dinner table. When Mummy sticks to salad and soup for dinner because she has put on weight that tells her daughter two things. One, that it is not A Good Thing to put on weight. Fat is bad. Thin is good. And two, that food is the enemy.
You probably know girls like this as well (yes, for some reason, it is mostly girls who fall prey to body dysmorphia). Children who have internalized the message that fat is bad and that – as Kate Moss so famously said – nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.
How could they not? We live in a world that venerates skinniness as some sort of divine attribute. The media are awash with airbrushed picture-perfect images of thin women showing off their washboard stomachs and toned behinds. Film actresses and other female celebrities are routinely slagged off when they put on a few kilos, even if it is after a baby.
Remember the bad press Aishwarya Rai Bachchan got when she arrived in Cannes carrying a bit of post-pregnancy weight? And the praise showered on her when she did her Cannes call last year, looking like her old svelte self? That is the kind of size-ist nonsense that passes off for media commentary these days.
There really is no way to protect our children from this stuff. It is all around them all the time. But to counteract that it falls upon mothers, much more so than fathers, to send out some positive messages. Because like it or not, girls are more at risk, and it’s their mothers they look to as they try to navigate the world.
So, for all the mothers of young girls out there, who want their daughters to grow up with a positive body image rather than eating disorders, here are some do’s and don’ts.
• Don’t fetishize food. Don’t get into fad diets in which you give up entire food groups claiming an intolerance or a food allergy. The message you pass on your child is that food is the enemy.
• Instead, teach your daughter to treat food as a fun friend. Get her to help you in the kitchen, giving her age-appropriate tasks. Teach her how to lay the table. Make the dinner table a place of family conversation, laughter and the happiness of eating together; not a minefield which may blow up in your face if you end up mixing proteins and carbohydrates (no, I don’t know what that’s all about either).
• Serve up healthy food by all means but don’t restrict your menu to exclude all ‘treats’. That just turns them into forbidden fruit, which – as we all know – becomes all the more attractive for being verboten. It makes much better sense to serve up the odd sugary treat or French fries so that they seem like just another food choice.
• If you must obsess about your weight, don’t do it within her earshot. She doesn’t need to know that you were ten kilos lighter before you had her. And how hard it is to get your pre-baby figure back. She thinks you look perfect anyway. Don’t tell her any different.
• Don’t compliment other women by saying how much weight they have lost or how thin they look. The subliminal messaging that goes through to your daughter is that losing weight is what matters. That you can never look good unless you are thin. And that starving yourself to achieve that goal is perfectly okay.
• Don’t ever use the word ‘diet’ within her hearing, even if you append it with the politically correct ‘healthy’. If you must, use the phrase ‘healthy eating’. Or better still, ‘healthy lifestyle’ which involves eating well, and getting enough exercise.
• Do tell her how lovely she looks. But never make it contingent on how much she weighs. Beauty does not lie in a particular shape or size; as the old saying goes, it lies in the eye of the beholder.