We don't use the F-word in my family. And by F, I'm not talking about the F-bombs, because those get dropped from time to time. I'm talking about the word "fat." The word is banned from my house with the same vigilance that racist language would not be tolerated. Extreme, perhaps, but I have a husband who went through a chubby stage and still bears the scars of his prepubescent ridicule. I also have two tween children with very different body types and low thresholds for teasing. Mention weight or body shape among my family and the reaction can be nuclear, unleashing a tsunami of tears, screams and "I hate you!"
Extreme body awareness and the barf-starve-smoke-yourself-to-thinness regimen is hardly new for teenagers and young women. But the age at which the obsession is starting seems to be creeping even younger. Today, according to the Duke Center for Eating Disorders at Duke University, more than 40% of all 9- and 10-year-old girls have already been on a diet.
The National Eating Disorders Association reports that 40-60% of children between ages 6 and 12 are worried about their weight and 70% want to slim down.
Maybe this isn't so surprising given the aggressively narrow proportions in girls' clothing these days in trendy skinny jeans, Lycra leggings and unforgiving clingy tops that are all the rage among the under-12 set. It's no wonder that young girls are more aware than ever of their own mini-muffin tops or "baby fat" as grandmas call it. Compound clothes with the omnipresent camera phone, photo stream and "selfies," and it's a recipe ripe for self-loathing.
We know that there is a very real childhood obesity epidemic in this country plaguing entire communities and it is one of the most significant health issues of our time. Our snack food nation is chock full of overstuffed soda-coma kids who play outside less and eat more. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010, more than one-third of children and teenagers in the United States were overweight or obese. The number is alarming. It's a national crisis that everyone from first lady Michelle Obama on down seems intent on tackling.
In fact, my daughter's elementary school participated in an amped-up fitness program this year. The program included cardio and flexibility tests, weighing the children and taking a body mass index. The results were printed with color-coded columns that red-flagged danger zones for kids at risk in various categories.
I happened to walk into the school on a morning when some fourth-grade girls were being herded into a corner next to a scale and weighed by the physical education teacher, who then typed the children's weight into a laptop. As the girls waited to be weighed, some looked like they were about to burst into tears and others like they were going to throw up. One of the tiniest girls in the grade stood next to one of the largest, in a painfully awkward scene that seemed stolen from a Judy Blume novel.
For the next few days the chatter among the girls was "What do you weigh?" My daughter came home stressed; she, like many of the girls, didn't want to share her weight or even step on a scale. The whole ordeal was mortifying, even among a group of average-sized girls. I told my daughter she didn't need to tell anyone her weight, and if pushed, I said she could lie.
Having just been to the pediatrician for my daughter's annual physical, she and I knew exactly what she weighed and that she was perfectly healthy. But the number on the scale startled her. On the cusp of puberty, many of the girls' bodies are changing, and emotionally they are more fragile than ever. I told our school principal that I didn't want my daughter weighed. Even at age 9 or 10, regardless of the number on the scale, it just felt like a public shaming.
"We're very concerned about some of the children's anti-obesity programs and messaging that's happening now," said Claire Mysko, manager of the National Eating Disorders Association's Proud2Bme program. "They are well intentioned, of course, but when the focus is on BMI as an indicator of health and when kids are getting weighed at school and comparing notes, it can really be a trigger for kids who are already feeling vulnerable. There is research out there that these programs may be backfiring. The kids are coming home more anxious. The goal is to shift the conversation away from BMI and talk about what makes your body feel good."
A few years ago there was a public outcry when Dara-Lynn Weiss documented in Vogue the severe diet she put her 7-year-old daughter on. The article was part confessional about Weiss' own body issues and struggle with food, as well as her yearlong quest to slim down her daughter. Weiss got the mother lode of scorn heaped on her by the blogosphere and even the media. But after Weiss learned that her daughter was obese at 6 years old standing 4 feet 4 inches and weighing 93 pounds, didn't she have to take some serious intervention?
My daughter enjoys a good meal, especially if mac and cheese is on the menu. So when she went to sleepaway camp at 8 years old, I had prepped her ahead of time about making healthy food choices: Make sure to eat lots of fruit and drink plenty of water. Stay away from all the white and creamy ranch salad dressings. Choose the clear ones that look like vinaigrette, I told her.
One of the first letters she sent home that summer was all about what she ate for dinner.
"Mommy you'll be so proud of me, I didn't eat the white dressing. I ate the clear one!" she wrote.
The letter had me laughing and a little worried. At 8 years old, had I started the beginning of a life-long eating disorder or am I just making for a conscientious and healthy eater?
"As parents you have to set boundaries but you don't want to make certain foods off limits or shameful. You also don't want to set it up that every time you have the chocolate cake that it's indulgent or sinful," Mysko said. "We don't want kids thinking about calories or fat grams and stoking that fear. And shame is not a motivator of healthy behavior."
Some children hit the genetic lottery and don't have to worry about their metabolism or weight, but many more, boys included, feel the embarrassment of being the bigger kid.
Experts say that the key for parents is to not obsess about the number on the scale and also to look at their own attitudes about food and weight. If every time you walk by the mirror you're scrutinizing yourself, you're sending a dangerous message to your own children.
"Weight is a fear that so many parents have. But we have to shift the focus away from weight and BMI. It's less about making sure kids don't get fat or that fat kids get thin," Mysko said. "The conversation should be about how can we make all kids healthy and feel good about themselves."