“Miss Piggy,” kids called her, says Denver mom Mary-Katherine Fleming, remembering a piece of her early childhood. Fleming recalls reaching out to teachers, but their responses showed that they didn’t disagree with the characterization.
“That was the first time I became aware that that was how the world would look at me,” she says.
Decades later, Fleming’s daughter stopped eating lunch because fellow kindergartners made body-shaming comments.
“These messages about eat less, workout more, be smaller, they start so young,” she says. “[Parents] aren’t necessarily aware of the ways that we are modeling it, either.”
Encouraging produce-packed plates and plenty of active play is part of many parents’ efforts for healthy lifestyle education; however, what if kids are still learning the makings for disordered eating and exercise?
“Diet culture—and, particularly relevant for Colorado families, ‘health culture’—can play a powerful role in the development of disordered eating,” says Dr. Jennifer Gaudiani, a certified eating disorder specialist (CEDS) who runs an eating disorder treatment clinic in Denver.
Changing this culture is complicated and challenging, but body-positive experts from family medicine to sports training say it starts with examining your own relationships to food and exercise. Then, you can involve your kids in practices that promote health and celebration for all bodies.
Recognizing health motives
Exclusive body ideals show up in broad social contexts as well as intimate family interactions. Fleming, now a running coach and founder of The Fitness Protection Program, created a six-episode roundtable called Lighten Up! in her Running Life podcast, joining therapist Jummy Olawale and dietician Dalia Kinsey to address specific parent habits such as hiding sweets, using exercise as a punishment for eating “bad” foods, or praising friends and family for losing weight.
One of the ways parents can unlearn shame, restrictions, obsessions, and fears when it comes to health, according to the Lighten Up! hosts, is to expose diet and beauty culture’s roots in elitism, classism, and racism.
Take a look, says Gaudiani, at characteristics deemed healthy and successful: thin, muscular, young, able, cisgender, and lighter-skinned. When these are upheld systemically in limited clothing options, accessibility in buildings, or stereotyping in media, body positivity goes far beyond insecurities.
Parents can examine their relationships to body ideals and privileges and consider the effects on themselves. What time and space in their lives is being taken up to live up to or maintain those standards?
“The one-size-fits-all approach [to health] takes a moralist view that your size is a result of the work you have or have not done,” says Fleming. “Educating yourself really is the first step in making sure that you have a broader system of language for yourself to use to describe the difference between healthy and unhealthy.”
A study in the Pediatrics journal found that 84 percent of the top-grossing kids’ movies released between 2012 and 2015 promote weight stigma. When you notice these patterns ask your child questions like: Do you see characters in your shows or books with different body types? How do you feel when they all have the same body shape? Do you feel like you have to look like them? When you hear people talking about largeness or fatness, how do you feel? What does it mean? Is it okay to comment on someone’s body? Why or why not?
Reframing food language and rules
When discussing health with children, to help avoid weight-related issues including obesity and eating disorders, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises medical providers: “Do not encourage body dissatisfaction or focus on body dissatisfaction as a reason for dieting.” Rather than talk about weight, the AAP suggests covering ways to facilitate healthy eating and activity at home.
“The more rules you have around food, the more of a danger zone you’re creating for your kids, and confusion as they grow when it comes to nutrition and health,” says Fleming. “Once you realize how you’re making decisions about how to set up the food environment in your house around the fears you have, maybe the environment isn’t as safe as you think it is.”
Well-meaning parents might characterize food as “healthy” or “junk,” or turn to “eat your vegetables first” while keeping strict rules around sweets. This may backfire, however, and teach kids that vegetables are something to be endured and make sugar a “forbidden fruit” to overindulge in while at school or a friend’s house.
Instead, says Dr. Lynn Stiff, a family doctor in northern Colorado who also has a nutrition education business, “I try to talk about the nutrients or the nourishment of foods, because all foods can fit into a healthy diet.”
Nutritionist, family therapist, and author, Ellyn Satter’s work is often referred to for guidance on how to approach feeding children at different stages. In her model, the parent’s job is to decide when the family will eat, what will be available, and where dining will take place. The child decides if they’re going to eat and how much, thus building their own competency around food choices.This intuitive eating approach encourages individuals to respond to internal cues of hunger and fullness rather than external cues of specific meal times, events, or social influence.
Teaching kids a more sophisticated relationship with their hunger starts with dialogue. You might allow your child to pick what they want for a snack, then ask follow-up questions about why they chose that snack and how they feel. At dinner, you might say, “I’m going to eat vegetables because they make me feel good. If you want some, I can give you some.”
When you first transition to this kind of approach, says Stiff, it’s not uncommon for a child to eat in a way you do not approve of. The idea is that over time, they’ll know how they feel after eating and start answering their body’s call for different foods and the amount that will satiate them.
Dr. Reginald Washington, chief medical officer of the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children, suggests that parents talk about “healthy” versus “unhealthy” foods, and says that kids are generally able to regulate their needs. “If a child has several healthy food choices, I’m a believer in letting the children choose the kind of variety they want to eat,” says Washington. “It’s been shown that they will eat a lot of fruit a couple of days, and then they will eat vegetables for a couple of days, and then they may eat protein for a couple of days. So over a span of a month or so, they have a balanced diet, but every individual day it may not be so balanced.”
Parental guidance may vary depending on family culture, child development, and specific biological needs. There are a million ways to do this, says Gaudiani, so long as there is no body or food shaming and children are generally trusted to have good intuitions about what they need.
Moving for overall health
When children eat satisfying, nourishing food that meets their energy needs, and they move according to their ability and interest, says Gaudiani, their size and shape will settle where it should.
Jaime Fraipont-Daszkiewicz, founder of HER Grace and Grit training and life coaching, sees this in her youth fitness and nutrition practice. Clients set goals to experience joy, manage stress, and move in ways that feel good to them; some don’t lose weight but improve in biomarkers such as blood pressure, resting heart rate, cardiovascular endurance, regular bowel movements, and better sleep.
Licensed clinical psychologist and sport and performance psychologist Trent Claypool, who specializes in the treatment of athletes, eating disorders, and trauma at NeuroAthlete, tells parents to never make comments about their child’s body type, no matter how constructive they might think it is in enhancing sport performance. “Your body will look like what it’s going to look like as a byproduct of what you’re asking it to do,” Claypool says. “Whatever that looks like, we need to be accepting of.”
Body-positive reasoning cautions against forcing movement, whether it’s a certain intensity or type of exercise or sport. One doesn’t have to be HIIT circuiting all the time or bracing themselves for a session at a gym called Obsession. Founder of More to Love yoga Rachel Estapa says wellness is supposed to be about fulfilling what you need rather than comparing it against a checklist.
Parents participating in a sport or activity that they love doing is also a good model. Stiff couldn’t imagine running not being in her life, and she is glad her kids see this as something she enjoys while benefiting from the mental and physical health aspects. A totally different dynamic develops when kids hear parents complain about going to the gym or choosing exercise out of guilt or to reach a certain weight or size goal. If a child never sees their parent being physically active, they’re also likely to pick up on that habit.
Plans and accessibility
It’s easy to tell a family to have three servings of fruits and vegetables every day and to exercise an hour a day, says Washington, but living in a food desert or unsafe area means limited access to those things. Location, education, job possibilities, public policies, and more drive poverty and affect health.
Changing policies and public opinion is one important part of the fight; another is a personal decision to take small steps for health. “The big thing we have to work towards is having the parents believe they’re worthy of being healthy and they can be healthy,” says Stiff. “Focus on one thing you can truly do and that is important to you.…You can literally just take your family to the park every Saturday and walk paths for an hour. That’s showing and living a healthier lifestyle, and showing your children that that’s important and you can all participate.”
Stiff recommends budgetbytes.com for recipes and tips to eat well on a budget; Fraipont-Daszkiewicz suggests prepping nutrient-rich foods so they are ready to go and easy to grab, on days where there’s little time to sit down.
Body diversity advocates also point to weight stigma in the doctor’s office as leading to patients avoiding or not receiving needed care. One study on children and adolescent experiences recommends pediatricians improve practices for unbiased behaviors and language in their clinics while also advocating for education about weight stigma in medical schools.
Stiff says weight focus was ingrained in her medical education. Her current practice, however, focuses on lifestyle components and links to a variety of health biometrics. Washington says pediatricians should not use height/weight charts to cause unnecessary anxiety. They are to be used in the context of the individual patient (rather than in comparison with others), and with their own history of growth—only spikes in each category would be cause for concern/investigation.
Finding worth within
Perhaps the most enduring way to prepare children for a world with diet culture and bullying is to instill a sense of internal validation. Stiff encourages parents to lift their kids up in a way that helps them determine their own worth. For example, instead of telling a child they look good or asking if their friends liked their talent performance, see how they felt wearing that outfit or sharing their gift.
“When children’s self-worth comes from within, comments from other people are less harmful,” Stiff says. “But if their self-worth is based on what others say about them or validation from others, then they’re more likely to be affected by those comments.”
Through it all, Fleming reminds parents to “grab yourself a little bit of grace. You are not the problem, it’s the messaging that’s been embedded in everything that you touch since the day you were born. If you’re having this dialogue with yourself, congratulations. That is amazing.”
Rewriting the Fat-phobic Narrative
Body diversity and intuitive health advocates flip the script on beauty and wellness ideas.
- “Next time someone asks you if you should be eating that, ask them what they have done to dismantle white supremacist heteropatriarchy lately. Cuz that’s what’s hurting people (not cookies).” — Virgie Tovar, author of You Have the Right to Remain Fat and The Self-Love Revolution
- “I think it’s lazy for me to just say I’m body positive at this point. It’s easy. I would like to be body-normative. I want to normalize my body. And not just be like, ‘Ooh, look at this cool movement. Being fat is body positive.’ No, being fat is normal. I think now, I owe it to the people who started this to not just stop here. We have to make people uncomfortable again, so that we can continue to change. Change is always uncomfortable, right?” — Lizzo, music artist
- “When you grow up in a culture that keeps trying to have some new study and some new expert is going to tell you, ‘Eat these things and you’re going to feel amazing, and this is going to change your body this way,’ what we end up doing is we abdicate our own relationship with our body over and over and over again.” — Kathryn Hack, “Beloved Bodies” artist/teacher/advocate
- “The word fat is not inherently bad. … The only negativity that this word carries is that which has been socially constructed around it; our aversion is completely learned.” — Jes Baker, author of Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls
- “Fat people don’t have to be clear of all health issues to be deemed worthy enough to love ourselves. … So enough with the ‘bUt yOUr hEaLth’ already. Because if it really was about my health, these same people would let me take a break from fighting for my rights for once and start doing some advocating for fat people as well.” — Meg Boggs, athlete and author of Fitness for Every Body