“My daughter is fat, isn’t it my job to tell her?” a well-meaning father wrote to me after reading one of my recent articles about children and body image.
Here’s some news: you don’t have to tell her she’s fat. She already knows.
The list of people who have beaten this father to this particular conversation include: school bullies, frenemies, medical professionals, the aunt who gasps audibly when his daughter asks for a second piece of birthday cake, the grandparent who tells her how ‘big’ she’s gotten, strangers who raise their eyebrows every time she eats in public, and every time she looks at the TV, a magazine, newspaper or movie.
And, more than likely, nobody judges her body more harshly than she does.
But it’s not surprising that this father thinks it’s his job to inform his daughter about her weight. After all, this tough love approach is the prevailing wisdom of governments, doctors, TV shows and even First Ladies. While we’re told to tread carefully where skinny children are concerned to protect their developing self-esteems, fat kids are fair game.
But what a daughter really needs from her parents — particularly her father, since he’s the first man that loves her and sets the standard for the way she’ll expect men to treat her in the future — is unconditional love.
When you tell your child to lose weight, she will most likely interpret that to mean that you will love her more if she’s thinner. In other words, you will love her when she’s different from how she is now.
What she really needs is for her home to be a safe haven, where she feels loved, valued and respected no matter what.
“Talking to children about their weight is harmful. Nothing good can come of it,” says Dr Rick Kausman, author of If Not Dieting, Then What? and fellow of the Australian Society for Psychological Medicine.
“The research is quite clear that focusing on weight does not result in weight loss. In fact, it will mostly likely result in weight gain. It’s also the most common pathway to an eating disorder, particularly with kids,” says Dr Kausman who has 25 years experience running a weight management and eating behaviour clinic.
Asking a child to lose weight is setting them up for failure. On average, only 5 per cent of adults who diet are able to keep the weight off long term. This means that you’re asking a child to do something that 95 per cent of adults are unable to do.
It’s also important to remember that children, especially girls, need a certain amount of fat to fuel their bodies as they develop.
“Girls in particular need adequate fat composition as a prerequisite for puberty,” says psychologist and Director of BodyMatters Australasia Sarah McMahon.
“Indeed, fat stores need to increase to progress through this remarkable biological accomplishment. Typically girls’ bodies actually do know what they are doing,” McMahon says.
What should parents do if they’re concerned about the health implications of their child’s weight?
Dr Kausman says that the first thing is to forget about appearance, since weight isn’t a good marker of health.
“Even though you might think that your daughter is a higher weight than her peers, there is no way of telling just by looking at her if she is above her most healthy weight. You need to look at behaviours,” says Dr Kausman.
“Have conversations about the types of foods that are healthy to eat, but use language that is morally neutral. Talk about everyday food and sometimes food. Talk about exercise in terms of having fun, and find ways for your children to move their bodies in ways that they enjoy,” he says.
If the goal is weight loss then your daughter is failing at it every day, which will be crushing her self-esteem. But if the goal is living a healthy lifestyle, such as eating well most of the time and being active, then that’s something she can control and succeed at.
Sarah McMahon says that parents have a role to play in reducing their child’s body shame.
“One of the biggest determinants of physical and psychological health is engaging in regular physical activity. Body anxiety around puberty results in a mass exodus from sporting activities by girls — particularly those sitting at a higher weight,” she says.
Given all the messages about weight and childhood obesity, it’s not surprising that parents think that the worst thing that could happen to their child is to grow up fat. It’s not. It’s far more damaging for a child to grow up feeling ashamed and unloved.