Childhood obesity is much in the news these days, thanks partially to the First Lady. So I was thrilled to hear recently about a highly successful Stanford Hospital program to help children at risk of obesity learn healthy eating and exercise habits. Almost as exciting for me was the way the program assists parents in speaking with their children about weight and body image.
It seems that parents whose children are otherwise healthy and have high self-esteem are reluctant to speak with their kids about weight issues for fear of putting them at risk for eating disorders. Given the prevalence of these disorders, particularly among young girls and women, such anxieties are understandable.
But there are other, darker reasons parents do not speak to their kids about these issues. The experience of staff members at the Stanford program is that parents who are concerned about their own weight or are not happy with their own bodies are less likely to bring up these subjects with their children. This is perhaps not surprising, but it underscores the importance of adults dealing with their body image issues in order not to visit their plagues on their children.
I am sure no responsible adult, if questioned directly, would admit to being hesitant to discuss such an important topic with his or her child. But the feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing that come with body image issues are deeply ingrained and often subconscious. Such feelings can drive us to do things that we would never, if we were aware of them, dream of doing.
The approach embraced by the Stanford program is disarmingly simple. Parents are encouraged to talk about a healthy way of living for the whole family, not just the child. The emphasis is on lifelong habit change. Parents attend sessions with their children and learn along with them about how to replace some red light foods with green light foods and set weekly goals for play and sports.
The word diet is never used. I will repeat that. The word diet is never used. If adults take away one thing from this program, it could be that the word diet is a dirty word. One immediate and concrete way to improve one's relationship with one's body is to stop thinking that diets will fix anything. Whether or not we need to lose weight, the first step is to stop being ashamed of the bodies we have so that our children do not carry the burdens we have inherited into the next generation.