I don’t often talk candidly about my personal life anymore aside from writing-related stuff, the occasional cool thing my kids did, or something about my part in the LGBTQIA+ community. I’m taking a moment to post about something else: body size, weight, and “health.” It’s long, but please read it.
A Thing happened the other day. My kid brought home an assignment from school for her Home and Careers class. (Note: this is what us folks over age 40 called Home Economics or what some folks in between called Family and Consumer Science [FACS].) No biggie, right? Yeah…
She was supposed to provide her weight and BMI, assess her activity level, keep a food diary for a day, and calculate how many calories per day she needs. She was also supposed to draw herself “according to what [she] ate yesterday” (i.e., tired, ugly, sad, and “unhealthy” for eating “bad” foods and alert, attractive, happy, and “healthy” for eating “good” foods).
Some important points: My kid is 11. Unless a child that age is under the care of a doctor, nutritionist, or other health professional, and a problem has been directly identified, here are the things they should not be doing (and absolutely NOT EVER under the supervision of a school teacher):
- Count calories
- Use BMI as the measure of how they should be eating
- Attempt to lose weight
- Attempt to gain weight
These things are bad for growing minds and bodies. Doing them is linked to future actual obesity as well as all manner of disordered eating patterns and diagnosed eating disorders. Children should not be frightened or shamed into eating “correctly” or getting physical activity. They should be provided with information about what makes foods good for a body, such as nutrients. It’s helpful to know that some foods are very low in those nutrients rather than assessed to be “bad,” “unhealthy,” or “dangerous.” Giving them simple recipes they can make at home, teaching them how to select foods in the school cafeteria, helping them learn how to make less appealing but nutrient-dense foods more enjoyable, giving them opportunities to explore many kinds of physical activity—all those are good.
But food- and body-shaming tactics? Not. Ever.
Let me lay it out, since I hold not one but two degrees in health fields and have, in the last three days, had some lay people try to “educate” me on the use of BMI (specifically, my child’s teacher, who claimed that the lesson “could not be changed” as it was part of the curriculum, and a few concern trolls who thought I was inviting their private messages). The measure itself is nearly 200 years old. Until sometime in the 20th century, it was not used as a singular, individual measure to see if a person was “healthy.” It was a fad for a while, but health educators have been warning against this misuse at least since I was in graduate school 15 years ago. At the very least, it is not a tool for growing children, whose bodies change far too rapidly for it to be accurate, let alone useful. It is not a “baseline” for anything. It’s a measurement primarily used to collect aggregate data. For an individual, all other factors have to be assessed to determine optimal health.
Reinforcing: Children do not need to determine their “ideal weight” so they can attempt to change their bodies with diet and exercise. Do not project adult issues around weight and health onto pre-pubertal youth. BMI is not even how an adult should determine their next steps. That simply is not its purpose.
Here’s the thing. A lot of us know what it’s like to grow up having our bodies and our food monitored by other people “because they care” or simply because they think fat people are ugly and deserving of scorn. We know how it feels to be adults who continually get our hands slapped. (For another great post on this, and what it’s like, please go read my colleague and friend Deb’s post on it. But do not comment if you’re going over there to pass judgment or otherwise be a hateful butthead, okay?)
That kind of fear and shame keeps a lot of us locked into thought patterns which are even more unhealthy than our bodies. Here’s where I get real personal: I do not eat in front of people other than family if I can help it. Even then, there are some people who make me feel very uncomfortable. I worry about every little choice. It looks like this:
♦Sometimes they serve cake at church for special occasions. I usually don’t take any, but funnily enough, it’s actually not because of the food shame. I don’t really like it. Last time I had some, I scraped all the frosting off because I think it tastes bad. But you know what I was worried about? Having someone think I was scraping it off to try to make the cake “healthier.” That’s a thing I’ve been complimented for doing in the past because I’m assumed to be “counting my calories.”
♦If I choose to eat a salad or just some fruit for lunch, on a normal day, that’s no biggie; I’m home alone. But if I’m out with people, I always wonder if they’re secretly cheering me on for not eating the hamburger (which I probably didn’t want anyway—I do not eat restaurant hamburgers). If I ask for dressing on the side (because I want to actually taste my greens, so I put hardly any on) or refuse croutons (I’m allergic to garlic, so I can’t risk it), I get comments about how “healthy” or how “good” I’m being. On the flip side, I sometimes get comments on why I don’t just enjoy getting something “bad,” as though my choice to eat something I find tasty is really about dieting.
♦I like most foods. I’m not that picky, aside from disliking frosting and peas and my garlic allergy. Heck, I even like stuff many people hate, like Brussels sprouts. But there is no way I’ll ever tell most people that I think something is yummy. Everything from an apple to a French fry has moral value attached to it. There’s no way to win when it comes to picking things other people might use to evaluate me.
♦I have lost track of the number of friends who have sent me weight loss stuff or asked if I wanted to do a body challenge with them. (I don’t.) When someone who is far thinner than I am, and very attractive, talks about “feeling fat and ugly,” I don’t know what to think. I’ve been called both of those for most of my life, and that’s how I was bullied in school. It makes me wonder what they are thinking when they look at me, and then I can’t eat in front of them because I don’t know whether they’re adding up the calories in my food and calculating my portion size or what I should eat instead. I don’t know if they look at me and see a troll, or if their negative self-talk is truly not a reflection on me or people with my body type. If a naturally thin person who has never been considered overweight (by society or the medical community) believes themselves to be “too fat,” then how do they see me? How do they view someone much bigger than I am? I’m not in their head; I don’t have that data. And when they combine that with doing diet and exercise challenges (and inviting me), well, I can only guess what they think of what I’m doing.
♦Being out with friends can be stressful just by itself, even without food. In a group, there’s always at least one person who likes to lean over and whisper about someone else, “She’s really gotten fat, hasn’t she?” As though it’s my business (or theirs), as though I care, as though I want to discuss anyone else’s body.
♦There is no possible way I can relax and enjoy a treat. If a skinny person is consuming chips and beer, most folks probably assume they’re splurging or they’re going to go work out later. If I eat them, then I run the risk of having it assumed I eat like that every day. It doesn’t matter whether I do or not—the mere fact of my body shape and size leads to that conclusion.
I’m not exaggerating that last point, by the way, and it’s also different for boys vs. girls. My 13yo is 6 feet tall and so thin they don’t make men’s pants in his size (but he can’t wear boys’ pants because he’s too tall). He eats like a moose. Or rather, he eats like an athlete, which he is: he’s a dancer. People try all the time to give him extra portions, even of treats. No one blinks if he has a huge bowl of ice cream. They assume he’ll burn it off in the studio. They don’t even consider whether they could be overfeeding him when they offer extra food. Comments about how teenage boys eat abound. My daughter, on the other hand, is short and round, like me. She is also a dancer but takes fewer classes. She does not generally eat like food is going out of style; she’s appropriate for her age and activity level. But she’s already had other kids say things about her body or her food choices. No one ever offers her seconds or extra treats, and plenty of people like to talk about how great it is that I’m teaching her healthy habits now so she won’t have to worry about it later.
Every single one of us who doesn’t have a “beach body” (and heck, even most people who do) have had our food and our bodies monitored and evaluated. Fun fact: If you add disability into the mix, it invites even more harassment. I developed fibromyalgia a few years ago. Until then, I was active, happy, and healthy. It began subtly, but I thought I was just in need of more exercise. So I worked out more, but it only made me sicker. Instead of support, I got “advice.” Diet advice. Weight loss advice. Exercise advice. “If you just got rid of some of the excess, you’d feel better.” No, damn it. I would feel better if my body weren’t in pain all the time and I didn’t have to choose between working out and doing my paid job. I’d feel better if I didn’t wake up every morning wondering what degree of pain I’ll be in when I stand up because long hours of not moving (i.e., sleep) makes it all worse.
So now you know. This is why we cannot teach young children to view their bodies as the enemy.
My daughter’s response to the assignment was perfect. She drew a picture which she said is what would happen from this lesson—a child concluding they need to stop eating or go on a diet in order to be pretty and healthy. Her message at the end is a good one:
Love yourself the way you are. Don’t change anything about yourself. You’re BEAUTIFUL. Remember that.
Right on, kiddo. Someday, I’m going to write that story. I’m going to write a book about a beautiful fat person being awesome at life and not giving a crap anymore what other people think of their body. And they’ll be allowed to eat what they like, dance up a storm, and fall in love, and no one will tell them they need to be thin.