I was in line at a cafe the other day behind a young mother with a little girl in a stroller. She was taking ages perusing the minimal menu.
“Is any of this, like, low fat?” She asked, waving her hands around the display of delicious looking baked goods.
“Umm, not really,” the girl replied
She sighed, “I didn’t think so. Well what’s the soup?”
“Roasted carrot with honey,” replied the girl behind the counter. “It’s super good.”
” the honey in the soup or is it drizzled on top? Like, can you get it without honey?”
“No it’s in the soup. But I don’t think there’s too much.”
“Yeah, but, sugar is sugar, right?” She laughed nervously. “Never mind then. I’ll just have the toast to go. Does the peanut butter have sugar in it?”
“Umm, I think a bit, yeah.”
“Oh,” she sounded disappointed. “Ok well I’ll just have toast with butter and a latte. A non-fat latte.”
“Ok,” the girl rang it up on the register.
“Oh no, wait wait wait,” the woman said excitedly as if she were about to stop a terrible disaster from occurring. “No butter, no butter. Just dry toast.”
“No jam or…anything?”
“No, nothing. You got that the latte is non-fat, right?” She double-checked.
I watched her pay and wheel her stroller away. She was petite and thin by anyone’s standards; if I looked like her I certainly wouldn’t be so worried about peanut butter. I had to wonder if her daughter would grow up considering dry toast a sufficient meal and fearing the terrible natural sugars in honey; if she would spend agonizing minutes looking over menus and seeing every item as dangerous and fattening, opting to eat nothing instead of making a decision that would throw her into a turmoil of guilt and regret; if she would grow up thinking no matter how good she looks she could always look better if she were thinner.
We’re usually quite conscious about setting examples for our kids in the way we talk and act; we don’t swear around them, we say please and thank you, we try not to make negative comments about peoples looks. And we’re careful like that because we know kids are kind of spongy; they soak up what they see and they internalize it, and that’s how they learn how to be in the world. This certainly holds true when it comes to food and eating habits.
No problem, you think. I don’t have an eating disorder, I would never tell my daughter she weighs too much, or tell her not to eat the occasional treat because it’s fattening, or put her on a diet. I’ll teach her to love her body and who she is inside and out.
And doubtless you will do that. But, as parents find out time and again, when it comes to young children actions speak louder than words. If you’re “watching what you eat,” then guaranteed your child is watching you watching what you eat. So much of what children learn occurs at the subconscious level, so although you might not be verbalizing your stress about eating certain foods or amounts of food, if every meal provokes anxiety and guilt in you, it won’t go unnoticed by your little one. And if you’re allowing your child to have what she wants while denying yourself, your conflicting messages will be confusing and distressing, and, unable to make sense of it all, your child could very well default to mimicking the behaviour she sees.
That may explain why some studies have found girls as young as 4 and 5 exhibiting disordered eating habits. She’ll notice if you put a plate of food in front of her for lunch and you sit down with nothing for yourself. She’ll hear you if you say to the host at a birthday party “The cake looks delicious, but no sugar for me until I get rid of these 10 pounds!” She’ll observe the change in your face when you go from enjoying a cookie to panicking about the calories you just consumed.
There is a lot of pressure on women to always be dieting, and extra pressure on moms to lose weight after having children. It’s hard to be impervious to that. And if you do have more serious issues around food and body image, they probably run deep and it will take you time to work them out. That’s understandable.
Be conscious of what you’re projecting, and remember, they’re paying attention. As they grow, your kids are going to have to fend off all the unhealthy and negative messages about their weight and appearance that are so prevalent in the media. To do that, they’re going to need a very solid and secure attitude towards eating and food. You have the opportunity to provide that for them. And in doing so, it will not only help them, but it may help you as well.

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