My weight was the center-focus of my childhood. I was raised to view foods as either “good” or “bad” I was acutely aware that everyone in my life wanted me to lose weight.
We rarely had junk food in the house. I was discouraged from getting seconds at a meal and having any type of sweet was usually frowned upon.
From my mom’s standpoint, she felt that by stocking the fridge with healthy options, discouraging sweets and encouraging exercise, she was helping me to be healthy. Seemingly, she did most things right. From my perspective, however, the constant focus on food and exercise turned it into an unhealthy an obsession.
Fundamentally, food restriction encouraged me to sneak food and it increased the appeal of sugary junk foods. As with most things, knowing that certain things were “off limits” made them larger than life. Sneaking food quickly snowballed into overindulging, food obsession and bingeing.
I’m not a parent but I do understand that you don’t want food to be a free-for-all and you need to set healthy boundaries for kids. However, there’s a fine line between healthy boundaries and an unhealthy focus on food restriction and limitations.
Based on my own personal experiences and my educational and professional background in nutrition and health education, here are my thoughts on walking that fine line and raising healthy, fit kids free of food obsession and unhealthy relationships with food or exercise.
- As cliché as it is, lead by example. This goes far beyond making good food choices. This is about the way you talk about food, dieting, exercise and body weight. It can be just as damaging for your children to see you restricting, dieting down and stressing as to see you overindulging and constantly making unhealthy choices. Show your children that you choose healthy foods because you enjoy them and they fuel your body best. Show your children that you workout because it makes you feel strong and vibrant. Show your kids that you love your body – show them by how you talk, how you eat and how you move.
- Don’t use food as a reward. What adult can’t relate to thinking “I’m ordering pizza tonight because it was a long day and I deserve it” or “I’m stressed and the only thing that will make me feel better is ice cream! I deserve it!”. That is food-rewarding at it’s worst. If you want pizza, have pizza. If you want ice cream, enjoy every bite! But teaching kids (or yourself!) that food is comfort or reward is a very slippery slope.
- Get them involved in food and fitness choices. Encourage them to try new, healthy foods until they find one they really love. Avoid forcing foods on them just because they’re “healthy”. Involve them in cooking, or even better, in growing veggies, herbs or fruits in a garden. The more ownership they feel, the more likely they are to enjoy it. Similarly, let them try out lots of activities until they find one they really enjoy. Try not to force activities on them that they don’t look forward to.
- Relax a little. Food, fitness and exercise should not be the daily focus of energy and conversation. Kids need to be kids. Yes, they should absolutely understand the value of quality nutrition but let’s not stop the world over the gluten-containing cupcake your kid was served at school. Food is fuel. Can we all agree to please stop attaching strong emotion to it?
I don’t have kids. It makes me nervous. I don’t want my kids to be bullied the way I was. I don’t want them to feel ashamed of their bodies. I don’t want them to feel pressured to diet or lose weight in elementary school. I want them to love and cherish their bodies! I want them to understand that food helps us become strong, fit and capable. I want them to enjoy a cupcake without attaching emotions like guilt, shame or regret to it. It’s sugar and flour and butter. There’s no emotion in the recipe and I want them to keep it that way.
A couple weeks ago I had a difficult conversation with my mom. I wanted to let her know about the blog I had written and was planning to post about some of the difficult events in my childhood that led to my body image issues and disordered eating patterns. I needed to explain why it was important to share my story and let her know that I love her and I know she was only doing her best. [Edited to add: After Monday’s blog went up I called my mom. I could hear the sadness in her voice. She told me it was beautifully written. She also told me that she was profoundly sad and felt that she had failed me. I assured her that she had not even come close to failing me – she did the best she could with what she knew and I never doubted that her intentions were only the best.]
After I shared what I planned to write she was very quiet. I could tell she was sad – the idea of having hurt me or having been a part of something that was such a source of pain and isolation for me – I know that breaks her heart. She told me that her perspective was a little different. She had been very sick during her pregnancy with me and worried about my health and my weight before I was even born. As she talked about her experience it struck me that her perspective is just as valuable as mine. Her story is as valid as mine. I asked if she would share her thoughts for me to put up as a part 2 to my post. Below is an open letter from my mom to me and I think my story is incomplete without it.
I want to make it very clear that my mother was never derogatory or demeaning. She didn’t call me names. She never used words like “fat” or “ugly”. I think an important part of this message is that ANY kind of constant focus and attention on food, body weight or exercise can cause obessive thoughts or behavior in a child that may follow them for years.
With that, here are some thoughts from my beautiful mother. Thank you mom for being so open. I love you!
(The top picture is probably 8 or 9 years old. The bottom picture was taken last night. We laughed so hard…this picture captured our expressions as my cousin, who was taking the picture, said “I’m going to focus on Betsy [my nickname], the young, pretty one”. The expressions are priceless but I’ll have to disagree with Chris. My mom is definitely the pretty one!)
Elizabeth: Why were you concerned about my weight? I was a really healthy kid.
Mom: I knew that life was socially harder for an overweight child and as your mother, I want to do everything I can to shield you from pain of any kind. I also knew that eventually the excess weight would harm your health. Your health was definitely the secondary reason because you were extremely healthy – you never had ear infections or throat infections like all the other children your age. I also felt responsible for your weight issues because of my difficult pregnancy. As you know, I lost significant weight during my pregnancy and the doctors often warned me to expect a very underweight baby. Instead you were a beautiful, healthy baby! And as your mother, I felt it was my responsibility to keep you healthy and happy.
Elizabeth: Did you ever fear that you were creating or reinforcing insecurities and encouraging me to hide my eating?
Mom: Yes, all the time. I knew that I was failing you all the time. I felt lost. I felt powerless.
Elizabeth: When we talked about this on the phone, you mentioned your own personal pride. That’s not something you’ve ever mentioned before. What role did pride play in the way you addressed my weight?
Mom: I have not really thought about pride influencing my actions until recently when we talked about this weight journey. In reflecting on it, pride influences most of what I do. I take pride in my career and see it as a reflection of my worth. I take pride in my own appearance and always want to look good. I take pride in my family and am genuinely proud of everyone in my family. Specific to you, Betsy [my family calls me Betsy]…I was and still am, extremely proud of you. I talk to people, and always have, about who you are as a person and about your accomplishments – your singing and stage presence from an early age, your volunteering during high school and for Girls on the Run, your accomplishments with languages that brought you to Rome, your care for the poor when we went to Africa, your professional accomplishments in your career since college, your ability to fend for yourself, e.g. while at UNC getting money for food and getting to keep it in the cafeteria refrigerator, and on and on. And pride entered into the equation probably during your high school and college years because I never asked for help or talked to anyone (friends or family) about my concerns about your weight. It wasn’t that I was consciously afraid to ask for help but reflecting back, I think pride must have entered into it. I like people to think I have it all together and to my family, I want to be strong and in control. But it was never about not being proud of you, Betsy. You have always been such an achiever and such a beautiful soul from the beginning!
Elizabeth: If you could go back, would you change anything?
Mom: If I could go back….that is a question that fills me with tears! Maybe every mother feels the same way! There are million things I would do differently – and there are a million things that I would repeat.
We were an active family and we had a focus on healthy eating. From my perspective, you and Debi ate pretty much the same way and were equally active. Debi was thin and you were not. So I started to worry when you went to school. If I could go back in time, I would simply let it go and not worry. I do remember talking to your pediatrician about your weight when you were headed to school and he said not to worry because you were very healthy. I would just take his advice and let it go.
I would just let go of the worry and enjoy you without concern for what I perceived would be struggles in the future. There is so much more to this journey…your journey and my journey…that we cannot do it justice with just a few simple answers to a few simple questions. I look forward to sharing more of our stories so that we can help other families and help others to begin talking about these issues and getting help.
Sure, I doubt any parent sets out to ‘make their child fat’. I’m sure most parents want their children to be healthy and happy. I know that’s what my mom wanted for me. Her intentions were pure. Unfortunately, she had no idea how to help me and, looking back, no one can argue that her well-intended attempts to ensure that I was healthy were the root of my issues with food and weight that have followed me for my entire life.
Disclaimer: I love my mom and she loves me. I never doubted her love, only her acceptance. No one was teaching parents how to help their overweight child and she did the very best she could. We are able to look back now and laugh together over some of the things that happened. She understands that her approach was imperfect and knows that if one day I’m sitting on Oprah’s couch, her name is sure to come up! My mom is my biggest encourager and she’s so proud of me. I love you, Mom. Thank you for never giving up on me. Lastly: this is not about blame. I take full responsibility for my weight challenges. Part of that process, however, is identifying where they stem from, specifically the emotions that fuel my food obsession. This is a critical part of overcoming my battles.
I was a chunky baby. This came as a surprise to my family because my mom is so slight and she was pretty sick during her pregnancy with me. The expectation was that I’d be a scrawny little thing but nope, I was a brawler.
There’s never a time when I remember my mom not being concerned about my weight. It was an issue for her from my earliest memories. I’m not sure which of my memories marked the beginning, they all run together, but I learned to be ashamed of my weight before I was 5 years old. I knew my mom was monitoring what I ate and that awareness was the onset of sneaking food and feeling like I could only enjoy food in private. Sweets were naughty and off-limits which made them larger-than-life and unusually desirable in my defiant, young mind.
I’m sure it started rather benignly – extra encouraging to go outside and play or denial of seconds at a meal. By the time I hit middle school, in hindsight, things were pretty dysfunctional. My mom would have me weigh myself in front of her every morning. I can remember the daily anxiety and fear of what the number would reveal and if it would result in her being proud or disappointed. If I’d be praised or if I’d get a carefully worded lecture. I remember doing crazy things that only a young girl would think of in the minutes before getting on the scale, praying they’d influence the number. I’d spit repeatedly into a cup, jog in place while the shower blasted hot water and the room filled steam, I even cut my hair on a couple of occasions. I remember the first time the scale registered triple digits: 100 pounds. I don’t recall how old I was but I clearly remember my mom saying, “Well Betsy, just tell yourself that this is the heaviest day of your life”.
I remember the food scale. It sat in the kitchen and only weighed my food. Not my sisters’ – just mine. I remember walking into a Weight Watchers meeting as a 9 or 10 year old. A room full of middle-aged women complaining about their weight. Me and my thin mom. I’m sure I just assumed that food and weight obessession was normal as I sat and listened to women talk about their struggles with food obsession, binging and restriction.
God, then there was middle school. I was given an orange reflective vest and I would jog two miles verrrry early in the morning (it was often still dark out). Mom would follow me in the car (I think sometimes she would walk behind me). I remember hiding behind a street sign for a while, knowing I had a minute or two to rest before I’d be in her line of sight again. If I didn’t complete my jog, I’d lose privileges.
She “hired” my older sister to “train” me. She had an orange whistle she’d blow while I was encouraged to run wind sprints in the driveway.
She insisted I run on my middle school cross-country team. Those were some of the worst years I can remember. My sister was the #1 runner. She came in 1st effortlessly. Me? Last. Every single race (except the one when I got lost, cut off half the course and came in top 5, much to everyone’s amazement. I didn’t confess to getting lost). I’d hide in the woods during practice. I was embarrassed every.single.day.
I swear I had to have tried 15 diets before I was 15. I remember being in the grocery store the night before starting a new one, my mom encouraging me to go pick out a special treat to enjoy before launching into my strict new lifestyle in the morning. Even then I was either “on” or “off”.
I knew my mom thought I was beautiful, but all compliments were followed with “imagine how beautiful/amazing/unstoppable you could be if you met your full potential” which was code for “if you lost weight”. School shopping was so stressful because I was embarrassed to try on clothes in front of her. I knew what she was thinking. Another summer went by and I hadn’t lost any weight.
Through all of this, my shame and embarrassment grew. My dissatisfaction with myself grew. The only thing I felt control over was food. The only way I could rebel was to eat. I would sneak food from absolutely anywhere. I stole quarters out of the coffee can in our family RV and ran after the ice cream truck to buy as much as I could. I’d sit on a rock down the road and eat 3 or 4 ice cream treats plus a couple pieces of candy. There was a teacher at my school who kept candy in her bottom desk drawer. When the room was empty I’d sit under her desk and eat as many pieces as I could. My mom didn’t keep sweets in the house so sometimes I would mix butter, flour and sugar and eat it off a spoon. Food was so restricted and that made me increasingly drawn to it.
In high school, my guidance counselor called home to warn my parents that I was purging in the bathrooms. My mom never addressed it with me but I overheard her telling my step dad that it was just for attention. It was desperation. It was self-hate. I was out of control.
I never felt accepted. I always felt that food needed to be hidden. I felt different. I felt less than. I’m crying as I write this because even as an adult, I remember how badly I wanted to be fit and thin but my food obsession got stronger and stronger and my self-loathing increased everyday. I couldn’t pull it together.
I got into a series of really messed up relationships. Men who didn’t accept me. They didn’t value or cherish me. I apologized for who I was. I stayed in the relationships because I didn’t know any other feeling. I didn’t know that I could be accepted as I was. I didn’t expect anyone to treat me that way. I believed they were justified in the way they treated me because, afterall, I wasn’t good enough and I never had been.
In recent years, my mom has asked me what she could have done differently. I’m hesitant to answer that question. I don’t know how I would have turned out had things been different. I don’t know that there is a “healthy” way to intervene if your child is overweight. I can’t offer a solution to parents in her situation other than this:
Love your child fiercely. Make them feel loved and cherished AS THEY ARE WITH NO EXCEPTIONS.
If forced to Monday morning quarterback my childhood, here’s my honest thought: I was an incredibly active kid from a young age. I was a competitive swimmer. I was a good basketball player. I played on a traveling soccer team. I played AAU basketball through middle school. I ran cross -country. I played varsity sports in high school. As a family, we ate healthy. We played outside. If no mention was ever made of my weight, I think I would have grown out of the baby fat. I wouldn’t have known to sneak food or be ashamed. Those behaviors are learned; they aren’t innate. My weight was a result of my over-eating. My over-eating was a result of shame. My shame was a result of my mom’s negative attention and constant intervention.
When it comes to food obsession and obesity, food is rarely the problem. The emotional root of the problem is not something you are born with, it’s something you learn. Do NOT teach or influence your child to develop an unhealthy psychological relationship with food.
I can’t go back and honestly, as painful as a lifetime of shame and self-loathing is, I’m a strong, determined, motivated, focused woman now. I can’t regret the experiences I’ve had because at this point, I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished and I’m excited to help other people.
Mom – you did your best and you did it all because you love me and want me to be well. I love you.
**I did tell my mom I was going to publish this post. After discussing it, I believe she has a valid, important perspective. Come back Wednesday – I’ll be sharing her open letter to me on this issue**