Earlier this week, while enjoying a breakfast date with my 20-month-old son, a woman came over to us and commented on how cute he is. She continued to comment on how well he eats, how much he eats, and how tall he is. We continued to make small talk and I mentioned he eats a lot more than my 4-year-old daughter, who eats nothing–meaning she is a picky eater. She responded, “Let’s hope she stays eating nothing.” I laughed it off, out of wanting to be polite, but more so from being in shock and not sure how to respond. After she left, what she said began to register with me and I became increasingly angry.
Why should anyone hope my daughter eats nothing?! I have tried so hard to teach my daughter healthy eating habits from day one. We struggled with breastfeeding, but made it work until my daughter self-weened at 14 months old. When she started eating solids, I made sure all of her food was organic and I made most of it myself. She used to love peas, black beans, hummus, edamame, and of course any fruit, carbs, or cheese. She ate a lot and she ate everything. Then fast forward to age two, when the independance and stubborn genes kicked in. She had opinions and preferences about everything, especially food, just like any other two-year old. If it were up to her, she would have cheese pizza, peanut butter and jelly, or mac and cheese for every meal. She still loves fruit and hummus, but we have struggled with the vegetables just like any other family with a four-year old. We don’t forbid foods, but rather teach her about moderation and that desserts are special treats for special occasions (or when visiting Grandparents and they always have peanut butter cups). Even though she has a strong will and mind of her own, she now does well choosing (fairly) healthy food (with some guidance).
Why should anyone be concerned with my daughter’s size besides her doctor. Even though she is a “picky eater,” she clearly eats enough because she is thriving and growing. When we started breastfeeding, it took us awhile to get into the groove. Her doctor was very concerned with her weight even though she was a healthy six pounds, six ounces at birth, but by the time we got home she was barely five pounds. That is the time to be concerned about weight and size…when it is medically necessary, and then only by a doctor, not a stranger. We struggled so much to get breastfeeding down, but after a lot of trying, crying, and swearing, whatever we were doing clearly was working. My daughter gained a healthy amount of weight and so many adorable rolls. As she became an incredible active toddler, the rolls faded–although if I look closely I can still see the sweet remnants of her babyhood in her arms. She may have inherited my short gene, but even through her picky eating phase, she is still a healthy weight.
Hoping our girls “eat nothing” perpetuates the societal epidemic of eating disorders. I have struggled with various eating disorders almost my entire life. At six-years old, I remember being in my ballet class, comparing myself to the other girls and thinking my thighs were too big and my stomach too fat. My body image and eating issues continued through adolescence and college. I experienced enough to know that I never want my daughter (or son) to experience the same. Instead of commenting on children’s eating and size, we need to focus on teaching them to be healthy and confident.
Here are 7 ways we can support health and confidence (which is so much easier said than done):
- Eat healthy, but don’t force it, rather make it fun. Eat healthy foods in front of them, but also get them involved in choosing foods and cooking. We have Family Fun Fridays, where the kids choose dinner to make together and the parents pick a movie to watch together–picnic style in the living room–so it’s extra special. Dinner is usually pizza (easy to eat on a picnic blanket on the floor), but we let everyone pick their toppings. My daughter refuses to eat the veggies, but we keep doing it in front of her and having her try it…in hopes that one day she’ll love it.
- Make exercise fun too! As active as my kids are, sometimes they need new activities to keep them engaged. Take their lead in their interests. My daughter has expressed interest in, and then tried, swimming, gymnastics, ballet, dance, soccer, and karate. The only activity she has stuck with is swimming (the jury is still out on karate), which she absolutely loves, so we go with it. She wasn’t comfortable in the other activities, so I didn’t want to push it (or waste the money). A nice free activity we have always loved is yoga. In addition to Yoga Kids DVDs, I fell in love with Cosmic Kids on YouTube, which combines stories (like Frozen) and yoga. My kids both love it and it’s even a good session for me too!
- Do not negatively comment on our bodies in front of them. They are sponges and pick up on even the most subtle comments. As a part of my own body image acceptance, especially after having two children, I wear a swimsuit, sometimes two-piece, for their weekly swimming lessons. I force myself to be confident in front of my daughter, even though I’m half naked in front of an entire pool full of teachers and parents. If I want her to maintain her confidence, I need to model confidence as well.
- No clean plate club! Instead of eating until your plate is empty, we say to eat until you are full. It helps teach kids to listen to their bodies and prevents overeating habits. If there is (salvageable) leftover food, we just save it for later, instead of wasting it by throwing it out.
- Do not over focus on percentiles. Every time we go to the doctor, the growth charts are interesting to see how fast they have grown compared to the last visit, not to other kids. The height measurements are not even that accurate as babies wiggle and it is almost impossible to get them completely stretched out.
- No body-shaming. Yes, being called skinny, tall, or short count! When I was losing weight from binge eating issues in college, a friend constantly called me skinny and made fun of my size. Those words hurt just as much as being called fat. I was FINALLY becoming healthy and excited to get back to my natural and healthy weight, but that happiness and pride was ripped from me every time I was called skinny. We are better off using positive words like healthy, strong, beautiful, growing etc. These are the types of words we should use to describe our own and our children’s bodies. “You are beautiful and I’m so proud of how healthy and strong you are growing.” Better yet, throw in compliments that are not body related. “You have such a great imagination and I’m so proud of how much you like to pretend and tell stories.”
- Stop comparing sizes. I am so guilty of this because my children’s sizes are completely opposite. My daughter is petite for her age and my son is almost the same size as her even though he is two years younger. She wears size 4T, he is already in some 3Ts. I need to remember that they are individuals and just because they share the same parents, doesn’t mean their bodies should be the same. Also, just as with adults, sizes do not mean much because clothes are cut differently and fit different body types differently. My son may also be in some larger sizes because he wears cloth diapers, whereas my daughter is potty trained and doesn’t need diaper room. Sizes vary so much, from brand to brand, from style to style, from fabric to fabric. They are just clothes meant to protect a healthy body.
Instead of laughing off “Let’s hope she stays eating nothing,” I should have said, “Let’s hope she stays healthy.” My journey with food and body image has not been easy, but I really hope my efforts will help my daughter (and son) become healthy, confident, and balanced children and adults. Namaste.