Don’t bring talk of diets and losing weight into the family home. I can’t stress that enough.
Obviously, our culture currently places a very strong emphasis on the ‘health & lifestyle aesthetic’ and many of us fall into the trap of believing that to be healthy, we need to look a certain way.
The diet industry rakes in $64 billion each and every year based on their fear-inducing marketing tactics that sell us the idea that we’ll be better lovers, friends, mothers, wives, and people in general if we’re thin. And particularly with the emphasis in magazine culture of celebrities “getting their pre-baby body back,” mothers can be especially prone to diet culture.
Most mothers I speak to are acutely aware of the dangers of diet culture and strive to have their daughters (and sons!) not fall into the same traps that they have. Yet despite that awareness, if they’re still emotionally invested in dieting and the goal of being thin, the awareness sometimes isn’t enough in of itself to stop them from participating in the very culture that they want their children to avoid.
That says less about their parenting skills and more about their personal insecurities around their own self-image. Sadly, when insecurities aren’t addressed and give way to damaging behavioral cycles, it can be hard to break those patterns unless specific body image work is done.
Many mothers who actively engage in dieting/the quest to be thin will openly discuss their diets and/or weight in front of their children. It’s important that most don’t bring up these discussions in a malicious or derogatory manner, and instead try to emphasize that it’s important to eat a balanced diet and engage in movement.
However, given the parents’ emotional investment in dieting, those discussions often don’t come out quite as ‘balanced’ as they perceive them to be and additionally, aligning these conversations with children and teenagers around weight and the way a body looks gives them the wrong idea (at a time when developmentally, they’re forming identities and worldviews at an astonishing rate).
Studies repeatedly show that comments parents make about either their own weight or their child’s weight is linked to a child’s risk of developing an eating disorder or having a dangerous obsession with weight, food or fitness.
Research has found that girls who weren’t obese but dieted in the ninth grade were 3x as likely to be overweight by 12th grade compared to girls who didn’t diet. Additionally, young people who severely reduce their caloric intake and/or skip meals are 18x more likely to develop an eating disorder.
In fact, even just ‘moderate dieting’ increases a teen’s risk of developing an eating disorder by 5x.
Parents should be mindful to center health-based conversations around community, fun and feeling good in your body. Where possible, encourage family mealtimes that bring positive conversations to the food environment. It’s important to encourage kids to be active, and the best way to achieve this is through discussing their interests with them and encouraging them to suggest ways of moving that might be fun for them.
It can be tempting to push kids into competitive/team sports, but this can be detrimental if the child is at genetic risk of developing an ED or experiences developmental delays around processing emotion and approval (for instance, if a child sees your approval as a parent as conditional on them participating in a sport that makes them feel bad in some way, they may force themselves to continue and learn to associate movement/exercise with feeling negative).
Letting kids decide for themselves and supporting them to try new things if they don’t find themselves enjoying one particular food/sport will encourage autonomy and engagement with their own well-being decisions. And the earlier in life an individual can set up those patterns, the better!
Anastasia Amour is a Body Image and Self-Esteem coach. She is the author of Inside Out: Your 14-Day Guide to Transform Your Mind-Body Relationship. She teaches women and girls how to embrace their bodies, find self-acceptance, and make peace with food and exercise.