Sunday, September 29, 2013

It’s OK to talk to your daughter (and son) about weight

Over the summer a blog post “How to Talk to Your Daughter About Her Body” made its rounds on Facebook. Many friends posted it, others reposted or commented, “this is great” or  “loved this”. I understand it was a very sweet message encouraging parents to have their daughters climb mountains, embrace teamwork and cook with 6 sticks of butter. But the advice for talking to your daughter about her body came down to this “don’t talk to your daughter about her body except to teach her how it works.”

Hmn, this is actually good advice for very young girls. When I speak in preschools and Kindergartens children embrace how their bodies’ function- what helps to heal boo boos and what’s good for the sniffles. Sadly, children (girls and boys) leave the cocoon of boo boos and rainbows and receive messaging about their bodies. At a certain point, saying nothing or as the author advises telling your daughter she looks “healthy” or “strong” isn’t going to cut it. And there’s more, I often hear from mothers who say, “she gained some weight but I don’t want to say anything”.  And you know what? The adolescent or teen tells me “my mother thinks I’m fat.” So much for silence.

Talk less, listen more
It’s difficult to give blanket advice regarding children and weight. I recall a meeting at my older son’s school. It was the summer before many children went off to sleep away camp. I was advised to “have the sex talk with your son before he hears it from his peers”. I bought the suggested books, psyched myself up and started reading with him. Two pages in he said “mom, is it ok if I play basketball now?” He wasn’t ready. Trust your instincts. I find a great way to glean information is to ask, “what are your friends saying about” (fill in the blank). This is a way to take a pulse. “Are any of the girls talking about clothes?” “Do boys comment about who is good at sports.” “Do you agree?” You don’t have to say much.
Car rides a great place for these conversations. There are no distractions, it doesn’t feel forced like the dinner table (a terrible place for weight-talk) and if your children are young and in the backseat, they aren’t looking at you. “Do kids say anything about who’s taller or shorter or heavier or thinner?” “Do your friends focus on healthy eating”? Starting with easy to answer questions paves the way for more touchy subjects. Sometimes, you don’t even need to “go there” your children will if they want to talk about something.

Use the D word
I am a fan of realistic advice when it comes to both nutrition and parenting. I know there are parents who don’t curse in front of their children or don’t let them watch the news. Perhaps these same parents nodded along when they read the bloggers (credentials?) advice to avoid the “D” word (that would be diet) and to tell your children that their thick thighs are good for running marathons.
In my NYC office, parents are so scared about “creating eating disorders” that they fail to have important conversations. Tell your children what a diet is, whether it’s a “nut free” diet they may be familiar with from allergic friends or the silly diet someone on a tabloid may have been rumored to try. Show them images before and after airbrushing so they know that most of us, even models and celebrities, have parts that aren’t perfect. And if you’re concerned with eating disorders, shift your concern to connecting with your child. How are they doing socially, academically? In my younger son’s fourth grade class they interviewed each other “what are you scared of?” was one of the questions. Knowing the answer to this is way more valuable than any nutrition facts panel or calorie concerns.

Make Family Style Adjustments
In many families children lie on opposite ends of the weight spectrum. One mom told me she had a “bipolar pantry” with items for her super skinny son on one shelf and others for her newly pudgy pubescent daughter. While we shared a laugh and I understood the mom’s intentions, we need unified family rules. Less sugar, more greens, slower eating and better hydration, to name a few, should be goals for everyone.

None of this is easy. We can dumb it down all we want but kids are smart. They live in the same world we do. As parents or teachers or mentors, let’s guide them with honesty and information rather than glossing it all over.
Have you talked to your children about weight? How have you approached topics of body image, weight and the media? Do you think it's a taboo subject?


  1. I like your post. Water is a good diet to reduce weight.

  2. Reactive, great word. And without the fear that healthy isn't fun or talking about bodies or weight creates problems. I too grew up in a mostly-homemade house but meals weren't necessarily veggie-rich or healthy per se.

  3. great thoughts. I agree with leading my example but also feel it's ok to not set the perfect example every day and not only with food. Maybe mom or dad doesn't feel their best after a weekend of unhealthy eating. I think it's ok to mention this. The "never say diet or fat or anything negative" wouldn't work for us. I love your idea of showing youngsters the connection between food and mood. I am better at connecting exercise and mood for my kids "mom's medicine". Thanks for your comment.

  4. Absolutely, if we feel sick from something we ate we would always share that. Moms, Dads and even Aunts, Uncles and Grandparents all occasionally will indulge, resulting in the feeling of disgusting - more often than not. Open communication is key.
    I will say the same goes for drinking. Kids learn by example. Although not totally familiar with the history of families with alcohol abuse and addiction and the role that plays I know from my own experience growing up and now even hearing from my grown kids now 24 & 27, their friends that drink excessively so do their parents.
    If it's ok for the parents to eat or drink a certain way, why wouldn't it be for our kids? We need to be the example.

  5. I love my mom but she has never been the greatest cook. Back in the day everything was frozen foods, packaged products, etc. and tv dinners on the weekend when my folks would go out to dinner. Worst of all but still my favorite when I go to her house (she's 91 now) is her freezer it's always filled with candy bars, hot fudge sundaes from Baskin Robbins and cheez-its and such in the cabinet. I almost always still have to look and take a little bite of something. That's how I grew up. I was skinny and one big black and blue mark that was sick quite often. NO WONDER! In her defense, nutrition wasn't talked about the way it is today and we certainly didn't have the internet. I'm sure if my folks knew then what we know now they may have made different choices.

  6. (This is going to be long...sorry in advance.) Love this post so much and wish I had it in hand this weekend. I get my 2 female cousins 3 or 4 times a year. Their mom left the family when the girls were babies and they are being raised, incredibly well, by their dad and grandfather. They come to me for girl time. We talk about bras and friendships and boys and nail polish. I love it, and I had them this weekend to go homecoming dress shopping.

    The girls are now 16 and 14. The older is tall and very thin, but very athletic. The younger is tall and curvy, and also very athletic. They are both very confident and smart girls, so I was a little surprised to hear them talk about their bodies in such negative ways. Trying on clothes, both of them were so critical about their bodies and appearance. The older one is trying so hard to gain weight, so is eating a lot of junk and drinking a lot of soda. The younger one wants to lose her curves because doesn't see how lean she is. I kept reminding them that they are healthy, naturally gorgeous, and still changing.

    We went to the mall to shop for homecoming dresses. We ran into a bunch of my students who took us to a homecoming dress fashion show at Nordstroms. I was thrilled to see so many different body types and a wide diversity of faces modeling dresses. My students and my cousins all talked about how all the models were so confident regardless of size. My older cousin commented to me that of my students, the prettiest/most popular/most stylish/most confident was the curviest one. And they all commented that they wish they had more confidence in their appearance. Sigh...

    At home, we looked at different websites for fashion, and I also showed them girl-positive blogs like Rookie and Smart Girls at the Party. We watched the Rick Owens fashion show that featured the step teams instead of models. They showed me pictures of girls at their school of all different sizes. Each time they showed me a pic, they talked about body size and what was cute or not. I countered with working with what you have, health, and confidence. Fortunately, neither girl talked about their appearance in terms of how boys see them. They both get a lot of male attention, and seem they handle it really well.

    Their grandfather recently had heart surgery, and the girls want to cook to help. We talked about healthy eating and how cooking good foods could help them with their goals of being healthy while also helping their grandfather get better. I showed them how to make a few easy recipes and they took home some of my favorite healthy cookbooks. I bought them a Eating Well subscription. We made some easy healthy dishes together, like smoothies for breakfast and a clambake for dinner.

    We talked about a lot of other things too. They live in a small southern town with very conservative parents. Yet both are very open to gay marriage, inter-racial dating (which is radical in their world), different religions, and feminism. The younger one is pretty liberal and is vocally pro-choice. The older is pretty conservative but evolving. So it kind of kills me that they are so thoughtful and open-minded about everything BUT what a woman's body is "supposed" to look like. I'll keep trying, but it's like swimming upstream all the time.

  7. Not sure why this almost made me cry in terms of what you are offering them, exposing them to, opening their eyes to. I sort of wish I had an adult point out that I was negative about my body at that age. And I love cooking as a vehicle to improve how you feel no matter what your goal. I am almost envisioning a resource pack with websites, cook book information for young girls. One thing didn't surprise me was being liberal with things other than body size. I'm sure your cousin may say she "approves" of many body types but does that mean she celebrates hers? Not so sure. What would you do with my boys if I shipped them to you for a weekend?

  8. I wish, too, that as a teen I had an adult in my life who was supportive about my appearance regardless. I think that's why I try so hard with these girls. I made my rambling response here into a blog post. The responses are really great.

    I'm not sure your boys would like nail polish and homecoming dresses. Teenage boys are such different animals.

  9. I talk about the foods we eat with my son (he's only 7) in terms of whether they are healthy and we should eat them a lot of the time or not so healthy and we shouldn't eat them very often. That seems to work so far, although I realize even boys may develop body issues at some point - or at the very least we'll have to have conversations to make sure he's sensitive to other people's issues later on (i.e., teenage girls). I have told him that if you eat too much, say, ice cream, it might make you fat eventually, but mostly we focus on the fact that your body wouldn't feel very good after eating too much junk food (bellyache, etc). And he plays a lot of sports, so we talk about what kind of foods are good for giving him lots of energy for practice, games, etc.

  10. Andrea@WellnessNotesSeptember 30, 2013 at 7:00 PM

    With the kid (who is almost 6) we talk a lot about how food and exercise make us feel. We also talk about how we feel when we don't exercise enough or eat things that don't sit well with our bodies (I can't tolerate eggs well but had a almond meal cookie that I made with an egg and I talked about how I felt because of it a bit).

    The older kid always ate well at home but gained quite a bit of weight at some point in college. I did address it with him. He knew he wasn't eating well and wasn't exercising. We talked about how he could change what he was doing. I think talking about it was helpful for him and got him "unstuck" from what he was doing. It took a while (and I didn't bring the topic up again), but he did change what he was doing eventually, and I think he is feeling a lot better now.

  11. I think talking is better than not talking and I'm sure your son is grateful for the conversation Andrea

  12. Jen- yes, important comment that we need to also teach out boys/talk to them about how to be sensitive to girls later on. The sports connection is a good one, I think (you and Andrea mentioned) just that body awareness. Our bodies are more than thin or fat and more importantly we can control feeling energized, uncomfortable etc.

  13. Initially I tiptoed around this subject but then took the lead from my friend who is totally open and honest with her kids about what they eat and how they look and will look in the future, as a result.

    I'm sure you know that I am incapable of glossing things over. I try but fail. Glad I'm not failing in this arena at least...

  14. Great post Lauren & I absolutely agree that "talking is better than not talking'. Encouraging open communication with our kids, whatever the topic, is one of the best things we can do as parents. We talk a lot about healthy body image, the importance of lifelong sports & exercise & balanced eating to feel good at our house, but I also love your point about talking about all the other stuff too-friends, academics, what's happening in the bigger world around us-that's so important too!

  15. Right, so talking about food/our bodies important but "issues" with food have more to do with control, fear and "everything else" wouldn't you agree?

  16. wait, wait I'm worried about "how they will look in the future" is there such as thing as too honest?