I’m not sure how many of you have been following along with the controversy around Weight Watchers this past week. Weight Watchers has decided to allow teenagers as young as 13 years old (with a parent’s consent) to take part in their program for free this summer. To say that it has caused controversy is an understatement – just type in #wakeupweightwatchers into your Twitter search. The hashtag started by fellow eating disorder professionals is being used to bring awareness to why this is so wrong!
However, it’s been met with a lot of backlash too!
It’s important to acknowledge that we are all living in the same culture…diet culture. Everywhere we turn we are encouraged eat healthier, move our bodies and lose weight. As adults, the pressure on us is bad enough, but what about the impact on our children?
Weight is genetically determined – just like height, eye, skin and hair color. What happens when your child’s weight or BMI is higher on the growth curve? Does this mean we have to change their body to meet cultural pressures? Of course not, but our culture has a lot of bias towards those in larger bodies. While we may think that children are immune to this, we know from research that children as early as 3 have awareness around body size and by 6 years old have a preference towards thinner bodies. Although, the American Academy of Pediatrics does NOT recommend weight loss in children because we know it causes more harm than good, it does happen. Sometimes it is encouraged by healthcare providers and other times by well meaning parents.
A well meaning pediatrician’s office sent this letter home with one of my friends recently about her daughter’s weight. The irony, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this little girls weight. While her mother was able to be pissed and send this to me (only because of the long conversations we have had about these issues), her husband immediately wanted to go into control mode. This meant he wanted to start controlling what and how much she would eat to try change her body. It was fueled by the fear of her not being healthy. Fortunately, for this family they trust me and trust that it wouldn’t go well if they attempted to restrict her. However, what about the families that don’t have the support to help me talk them through it?
While no parent is trying to intentially harm their children, we know parents who hear their child is at a higher weight are more likely to be concerned about what their child’s eating and weight. This typically takes on the role of trying to control how much a child eats or exercises.
However, children who hear they are at a higher weight feel flawed in every way—not smart, not physically capable, and not worthy.
So while critiques may encourage a child or teenager to lose weight to get healthy- at what cost does this come to for our children? Children who are in larger bodies often begin their journey to dangerous and restrictive eating. In a study by Lebow, et al in the Journal of Adolescent Health showed that 1/3rd of adolescents who presented for eating disorder treatment where categorized as either overweight or obese.
I have several clients over the past few years that have presented in this exact same way. In both cases, they were told by health care providers that they needed to lose weight and eat healthier. After years and years of hearing this they developed anorexia. Can you imagine how confusing this must have been for the child? They are told to eat less and lose weight, but when they finally do they find themselves in treatment to eat more.
Also, in another study (Shunk, J of American Dietetic Association) five to nine year olds characterized as being at risk for overweight (≥85th BMI percentile) say they eat only a little bit on purpose so they don’t get fat.
Children should be able to be free from worry about eating, moving, and weight.
As a parent if you are struggling to know what to do if your child has been told they need to lose weight? Maybe they told you they are fat or want to diet? What can you do to help without causing more harm?
Here are some steps you can take:
- Don’t dismiss their concerns if they come to you. If they are expressing how they are feeling to you, you want them to dig dipper. Get curious and ask lots of questions. Why do you think you are fat? Has someone said that you are fat? What does it mean for you to be fat?
- Be truthful about their body. If you have a child is a larger body and they tell you that they are fat – talk truthfully about it. Telling a child in a larger body they aren’t in a larger body won’t help. Try something like this, “Yes, you are right your body is different than some of your friends.” “What do you notice is different about your body?” Based on their response, “Yes, you are right your legs are bigger than your friend, but that doesn’t mean that anything is wrong with your legs, it just means they are different.” This is a great time to talk about how we are different (different hair, eye or skin color, different heights, etc…)
- Don’t talk positively or negatively about bodies in your house. This means avoiding, “Wow, did you see x, s/he has gained a lot of weight.” While we might think that complimenting people on their appearance will help – it doesn’t. If your child hears, “You look great, did you lose weight?” you are reinforcing that in order to look great you need to be in a smaller body. Rather than focus on appearance – focus on special qualities about people.
- Avoid negative or positive food talk. When children eat foods they deem as bad they feel more guilt and shame around eating them. What they hear is – this food is bad for me, therefore if I eat it I’m bad. This means serving all foods in the house – having structure and allowing your child to fill up from what is served.
- Lastly, don’t allow other people to talk about your child’s weight to them. If a medical professional or a family member has a concern – have them talk to you about it, not your child. Children who are told they are overweight or obese just once, have a significantly higher chance of developing lower self esteem, more disordered eating patterns and greater weight gain.
Helping your child to get to a place where they have a good relationship with their food and body is no easy task. For some families, it means finding a HAES non-diet medical provider (like me!) to assist you and your child. The one thing I can tell you though, if your child does come to you and tells you they are uncomfortable in their body – telling them to change their body is reinforcing to them that something is wrong with their body and that won’t help in the long run!
- Lebow J, Sim LA, Kransdorf LN. Prevalence of a history of overweight and obesity in adolescents with restrictive eating disorders. J Adolesc Health 2014;56:19e24.
- Davison KK, Birch LL. Weight status, parent reaction, and self-concept in five-year-old girls. Pediatrics. 2001;107:46-53.
- Shunk JA, Birch LL. Girls at risk for overweight at age 5 are at risk for dietary restraint, disinhibited overeating, weight concerns, and greater weight gain from 5 to 9 years. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004;104(7):1120-1126.