“Mommy, I know I’m going to be fat when I grow up,” said my 3 year old daughter.
“Oh, really,” I sputtered. “Why do you say that?” “Because,” my daughter replied, “I’m fat already.”
Fat, fat perception, fat bias. These are tricky and emotionally-laden topics. But they’re important to address during the Eating Season. Our cultural obsession with weight and body image peaks during this time of year. I’m sure you’ve noticed.
I can’t show you a picture of my gorgeous, healthy and quite skinny child because I don’t post photos of her. But trust me here. Not only was she not fat, but my husband and I had never talked about weight with her or in front of her. Remember, my mother died of obesity-related illnesses when I was pregnant. I’m scrupulous about this. But yes, she had a baby belly.
“Your belly sticks out like that,” I explained, “because you have a lot of things like your stomach and intestines to fit inside your body and you’re still so little.” And then I began to wonder where she got this idea.
Fast forward 12 years.
“Do you think I have a positive or a negative body image?” I asked my now-teenage daughter.
I admit, I was ready to pat myself on the back. Seriously. I knew I had done a good job in this department.
- “You have a negative body image.”
- “Oh, really,” I sputtered. “Why do you say that?”
- “Because,” my daughter replied, “you never like the way clothes look on you.”
It’s true, I do have a negative body image. It’s just that, in an effort to make sure my daughter developed a positive body image of herself, I thought I had hidden my self-criticism from her. Apparently not.
Psychologists Phebe Cramer and Tiffany Steinwert:
The importance of perceived body self, as compared to actual body size, has been clearly demonstrated in several studies of children’s self-esteem. Consistently, over the age range from 3 to 12 years old, it was found that actual body weight is not related to self-esteem. Instead, it is the perception of self as fat, or the presence of negative feelings about appearance, or the belief that parents have negative feelings about their body size that predicts lower self-esteem in children.
Cramer and Steinwert wrote this in 1998. New research confirms their findings: Fat bias begins as early as age 3.
What can you do?
Besides being careful about what you say in front of your children and, perhaps, confronting you own body image issues?
- Discuss cultural body image ideals.
- Sensitize your children to how these messages are transmitted on television, books, magazines, on the Internet and in the toys they play with.
- Make clear that body image (or perceived body image) is NOT related to a person’s character.
- Combat weight bias with the same intensity you combat racism.
If you think your child is too young for this discussion, remember your child is NOT too young to develop a negative body image.
When negative influences start young, the counter message has to start young too.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~