Today, two guest posts which are critically important contributions to the recent push for compulsory child weigh-ins and other interventions to supposedly reduced childhood ‘obesity’. The first by a Melbourne writer, (who asked that her real name not be used but who is known to me), who says poignantly: “When my parents started weighing me, I was already sensitive about my weight. Their efforts only served to create a punishing lifelong obsession”. The second is a re-print of another personal piece on the same issue – also profoundly expressed - by Elizabeth at My Spilt Milk.
To weigh, or not to weigh? In an age of fear and media hype about childhood obesity, it’s a loaded question. A parent myself, I understand anxiety about our children’s health. And in an image-saturated culture where ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ seems woefully antiquated, I fully understand how we turn ourselves inside out with worry about how the world will treat our precious charges.
In a recent post on Mia Freedman’s blog, ‘Obesity: Helping your family’s health by making them hit the scales‘, Freedman shares a story about ‘Val’, friend of comedian Wendy Harmer. After noticing one of her children has gained a few kilos, Val decides that getting each family member to regularly step on the scales is the best way to keep them honest, and trim. Freedman admires Val’s ‘no-nonsense’ attitude to weight control. I’m afraid I don’t share her enthusiasm.
There’s a world of difference between the way an adult with healthy body image might process that message, and a child who may be anxious about their weight. Then there’s the question of what each child’s ‘healthy weight’ actually is at any stage of their development. And then there’s the issue of how we teach kids about moving their bodies, and making good food choices – without making too big a deal out of it. And I’m quite sure that scales don’t have much to offer any part of the problem.
Most mornings of my life between the ages of eight and fourteen, I was weighed by my parents. Like Val, they felt I was gaining weight and worried that I’d get fat. Like most parents, they wanted to teach me about healthy eating and weight control, and save me from the cruelty that other kids can dish out. And they thought they could achieve all this by keeping close tabs on my weight.
They began to scrutinise every piece of food that came anywhere near me. Weigh-ins became a lecture or praise, depending on my result. At one stage, I was taken to evening weight loss groups, where my weight was recorded on a card and grown women smiled at me with sympathy. They told the eight-year-old me that it was good I was starting early: I wouldn’t get a boyfriend unless I was slim. But seeing as I was growing, not shrinking, and the number on the scales reflected this, I very quickly learned to see my weight as a measure of how badly I was failing at life.
It wasn’t that my family ate poorly. My father was a health fanatic, and my mum cooked good, nutritious food. It was just that my body was doing things my parents didn’t trust. And because I wanted to please them by producing a better number on the scales, I became anxious about starving myself whenever I could. I really wanted to have a better body, the right body: one my parents would like.
The more control my parents exerted, the more out of control my eating became. To curb my adolescent hunger at age 12, my mother took me to the GP for appetite suppressants. At one point, food was locked away. And then there were the occasional school weigh-ins. Those days I felt so sick with fear and burning shame I’d want to run away so I wouldn’t be forced to hand my peers more ammunition, or show them exactly how heavy a failure I was.
My eating was chaotic: starving to be ‘good’, then bingeing in secret, doused in self-hatred and shame. I’d eliminate fat, then carbohydrates, and meticulously record all calories and fat grams in neat columns. I’d calculate percentages of calories derived from fat and every day aim for decreasing totals of each. I’d obsessively exercise, chain-smoke and drink black coffee to avoid eating. I’d spit food into the bin instead of swallow it. And the scales became a punishing ruler: I’d weigh myself dozens of times a day, filled with fear over what the number would say each time.
When I finally reached ‘thin’, my parents’ control over my eating finally stopped. But when the nervousness in their voices told me it was time to stop, that I’d lost enough weight, I can’t deny a dirty sense of satisfaction. No, I’d keep going, thanks. This is what you wanted.
While it was true that age eightI had begun to gain a little weight, it was called ‘puberty’. Despite everything, until my mid-teens I was a healthy weight – if a bit heavier than most girls my age. That makes sense. I’m also quite a tall woman, muscular, broad-shouldered and physically strong. I look scrawny at 70 kilograms. And I often wonder what might have happened if, instead of reacting with fear, my parents had responded thoughtfully to my growing body.
If my parents had recognised that my body shape was more like my grandmother’s than my older sisters, would my weight have stabilised, found its natural place? If my parents had never let the scales dictate their emotions, would I never have let them rule mine? Would I have learned how to respond appropriately to the hunger signals of my growing body? I was never given the chance.
I’ve no doubt my parents thought they were doing the right thing, keeping tabs on the number on the scales, carefully watching every mouthful, joking about my fat knees and muffin top. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Parents have no way of knowing exactly how any child might respond to overt attempts to control their weight. In the end, we need to ask if the interventions we plan for our children are going to do more harm than good. We need to see the red flags ahead, and slow down. We need to respond, instead of react.
A recent Mission Australia survey indicated that body image tops the list of young Australians’ concerns – and this anxiety over our bodies is starting early. It would be the rare child that doesn’t listen up and listen hard to how our culture views people who are heavier than most. We mete out harsh and relentless punishments to those whose bodies don’t fit our mould, and we say we’re doing it for their own good. But we’re agonisingly slow to learn that shaming people about their weight and relationship with food just doesn’t work.
Despite my parents’ best efforts (and mine), I didn’t stay thin. And I’m quite sure my body didn’t turn out as it was meant to. I’ve now lost and gained weight over a sixty-kilogram range, and I’m still technically ‘obese’. In attempting to change my body shape to suit our cultural preference for thinness,’ I’ve told myself how stupid, worthless, hopeless, disgusting I am. I’ve starved and binged more times than I can count. I’ve had substances injected into me I can’t even identify. And all of this simply because I learned very early that my body was wrong, and needed to be controlled. I was taught to pursue a body type I could never achieve, nor maintain.
In a recent submission to US First Lady Michelle Obama, author and dietician Ellyn Satter wrote:
“Research shows that children who are labeled overweight or obese feel flawed in every way – not smart, not physically capable and not worthy. Parents who fear obesity hesitate to gratify their child’s hunger for fear s/he will get fat. Such labeling is not only counterproductive, it is unnecessary.”
I couldn’t have said it better. I am an accomplished woman, with gifts and talents I am very proud of. I’ve raised beautiful children, and fought my way back from post-traumatic stress disorder and post-natal depression. Every day I work hard to overcome the limitations these, and other traumas, have put upon my life. And yet
, there’s not one waking hour that I don’t obsess about my weight, my appearance, my body and the food I put into it. There’s not one hour that I don’t wonder how I can starve my way into becoming a more physically ‘acceptable’ human.
When my parents started weighing me, I was already sensitive about my weight. Their efforts only served to create a punishing lifelong obsession.
In subjecting her kids to a regular session on the scales, Val may think she’s making a light-hearted joke. She may not think she’s making a big deal out of her children’s weight and appearance. But will her kids perceive it that way? If they’re anything like me, they might just learn the damaging message that they’re only as good as their last weigh-in. They might get the message that their body is wrong, and needs to be controlled. They might learn to feel, like me, flawed in every way.
Now that I donate blood regularly, I am weighed a few times a year. This is the most frequently I have stood on scales in recent memory. It’s been interesting, to me, to note in numbers how my weight has altered (mostly increased) during this period of post-partum body adjustments, depression, medication and other health events. The number on the scale doesn’t mean very much: it is a number. It would seem very high to some, but then, I know that my dense body is heavy even when not particularly fat. So I don’t fret. But I can’t share that number with you here, as much as I would like to have that kind of fearless candour. It is still too early in my fat acceptance journey, perhaps. Or maybe it’s because I know what numbers mean to other people.
I know what numbers can do.
Like many people, high school Physical Education classes were not funtimes for me. I was labelled as unfit and unco-ordinated very early on in my school career and thereafter it didn’t seem to matter what I did. If I tried hard to improve my fitness, I was laughed at (mostly by other students: one notable time, by a teacher.) If I dawdled and wheezed, I simply confirmed the stereotype. If I listened too hard, I heard the slurs whispered behind my back as teams were picked or we lined up at the swimming pool, bodies exposed to scrutiny. Sometimes the hostility was overt.
A few times, we were weighed in class and those weights were listed publicly. I remember the trembling shame, and the flooding relief to not be heaviest. I remember the knowledge that I would never be popular until I was thin. But my body doesn’t do thin. It didn’t do acceptable in those formative years any more than it does now.
Kate Moss was it-girl of the moment (how little things change!) and my body, my unwaif-like body, was never going to make it onto the ‘hot’ list. And because I am obstinate and strong, I decided to just bide my time until I could choose to be around less-judgemental peers. But that wasn’t an option for everyone – fad diets were a weekly event for some of the students at my boarding school and I sporadically joined in. I remember telling a friend, mid-diet, that she was perfect how she was, and being laughed at. I was a fat girl, a lost cause, what would I know?
I feel like I need to say here that I wasn’t that fat. I wore straight sizes. I was active. I may have been in the D grade team, but I played sport. But it was apparent to me that in the eyes of my adolescent peers, and also my family, my body was outsized, unattractive and out of control.
My stepmother wasn’t generally big on body shaming but she did worry about my weight. Inconsistency raised me: my parents encouraged me to restrict portions one day, indulge the next. They loved me with food because physical and verbal affection were generally out of their range. And they singled me out from my siblings by making me do extra exercise. A lowlight was when my stepmum publicly informed a few other mothers from my primary school that I had graduated up to adult sizing (something that frequently happens quite suddenly to girls about to hit puberty). They were audibly shocked, no doubt thinking, gosh, I’m glad that hasn’t happened to my daughter yet. It’s twenty years later but their judgement still smarts.
It wasn’t that I didn’t try to control my body. I documented my first serious attempt at a diet in a notebook. I drew up tables and stuck them on the fridge, indicating which days I would be allowed to have dessert. I was eight years old.
Eight is the same age of the daughter of one of the commenters on this post by Mia Freedman about weighing children, and about the age at which most girls are beginning to be aware of their weight. In her post, Freedman asks: “We’re obviously keen not to give our kids any complexes about their weight but does that mean turning a blind eye to weight gain for fear we might say the wrong thing?” Apparently, Freedman accepts the premise that the growth of a child’s or adolescent’s body requires commentary, and that such commentary could actually control that growth.*
The problem with these types of arguments about weighing children to ‘fight childhood obesity’ is that they show little understanding of how diet–weight–health interact: that is, in a far more complex and non-linear way than is popularly believed. A number on a scale doesn’t shout to your body: hey, stop growing as you wish to grow (largely due to genetic factors) and fit neatly onto this chart, dammit! But it may say to the adults around a child: start putting undue scrutiny on this child’s appetite, start singling her/him out for ’special’ exercise or food, start making her/him feel less than for not looking the right way.
What infuriates me most about the idea of frequently weighing children and adolescents – or publicly weighing them – to keep them ‘on track’, is that it singles out the fat kids, and the solid kids, and even the underweight kids. It perpetuates the disproven notion that weight and health are intrinsically linked. I’m all for improving the health of young people. I think reducing our reliance on processed foods and increasing people’s activity levels are admirable goals. But when you aim these goals almost solely at vulnerable people who are already singled out by their appearance and who are already at risk of low self esteem, you do them a huge disservice. And actually you do everyone a disservice. Because thin children need nourishing foods and plenty of fun exercise in the fresh air, too.
More than that, we all need to stop buying into the lie that a single aesthetic ideal is a virtue to strive for, or the answer to everything. It has taken many years to overcome the damage done in PE classes, but finally I don’t much care what the scales tell me. They can measure how much the fluids and tissues of my body weigh. They do not know if I am strong or healthy. They also do not know my worth.
Concerned parents, teachers, public health authorities and popular culture commentators with successful blogs take note: We must not make the mistake of letting some children think that they are worth less — worthless — because they weigh more. Numbers on a scale are not nuanced, they are not intelligent, they are not loving, they do not listen. They are no substitute for real information about health and wellbeing and they are not a parenting tool. Our children deserve so much more.
* N.B. It is common sense that where sudden weight gain is large or coinciding with other symptoms (other than puberty) then that is a good reason for a health check with a good GP, and subsequent discussion. But for a typical increase in chubbiness? For heaven’s sake, children ought to be allowed to just be happy in their bodies. Bombardment with fat-shaming media is never far away so parents aren’t actually required to join in. Besides, shaming children into restricted eating and/or exercising will not make them lose weight – unless it pushes them to starve themselves. For more information on how children can regulate their own food intake and body size, Ellyn Satter is a good starting point.