The F Word

The constant media attention to the obesity epidemic in this country has caused our cultural pendulum to swing between extreme reactions.  News reports of national health always being voiced over stock footage of large bellies and butts walking around, squeezing into chairs, carefully cropped images of headless people with dripping hamburgers in their hands...images meant to shock us into lives of fitness, instead have led to a backlash of people calling out "fat shaming"; and like my sons, telling the world to mind its own business, they'll get fit if, and when they feel like it.

In 1982 I was in the 11th grade and worked mornings in the student store of my high school. I sold a few school supplies, but most often, I sold kids their breakfast. Two or three kids would come in each morning, looking for a candy bar and a coke. I've always been kind of a nutrition nazi, and decided one day to do something about what I saw as the deplorable eating habits of some my peers. I'll never forget the look on the face of this kid when I told him I wouldn't sell him a candy bar, but he could have a granola bar instead. There's a good chance I just barely missed having my ass kicked that day, but it actually worked. I managed to get a handful of kids to switch to granola bars and chocolate milk, maybe only marginally better than Snickers and Coke, but a moral victory nonetheless.

Nutrition and proper eating habits have always been important to me, as a mother, good nutrition for my kids is a priority, and much like I was in high school, I want to see good eating habits in my peers as well. But now I have reason to believe that my nutrition nazi ways may not have done any good.

 I feel that their dad and I got my kids off to a pretty good start, their everyday diet consisting of a low sugar cereal for breakfast, a sandwich, fruit and treat for lunch, followed by our best attempt at a good dinner that included a couple vegetables, this diet and normal childhood activities kept them all at average size and weight. However, as my sons have gotten older and have been making their own food decisions, their diets (in my opinion) have steadily declined. The twins' weight has grown in tandem with their acquaintanceship with the Dominos delivery drivers and a steady diet of ramen and fast food. Their younger brother is still quite skinny, but his eating habits are no better. So I've lectured them on the dangers of obesity, about eating more veggies and fruits, and the importance of self-control, and they've told me in no uncertain terms to stop. They are aware of their bad habits and say that they will eat healthier when they're ready, and have the time. But I worry for them because their dad used to say the same thing.

By age 40 my ex-husband was seriously over-weight, by 52 he had a massive and debilitating stroke. In the interim he developed high blood pressure and Type II diabetes, both of which could have been controlled and even eliminated by attaining, and keeping a healthy weight. But instead of correcting his lifestyle, he took medications. And when he decided he couldn't live with the side effects of the drugs, he stopped taking them. Those decisions ended his life as he knew it. How can I not fear for my sons?

But wait, there's more. I'm now partially responsible for two young girls. I care for them, feed them, and for better or worse, I influence them. We are constantly hearing about the "right message" to send our girls. We want them to be healthy, happy, and proud of themselves, and if modern wisdom is prevails the only word they should ever hear in relationship to weight is "healthy" and never "fat". Above all else, parents should lead by example (of course).

All three of us have grown!

We went out to breakfast the other morning, and as we walked out, we joked about the fact that I was wearing approximately the same outfit as I had two years ago when we'd gone to this restaurant the first time. My husband took the picture of me on the left in the fall of 2011, and the one on the right in October 2013. As you can see, all three of us girls have grown. Recently, Smartypants and I were discussing some meal planning, and when the subject of macaroni and cheese came up, I blurted out that I'm too fat to eat that, and I need to go on a diet. Oooohh crap. According to everything I've been reading lately, I'm not supposed to use the "F" word or talk about diets. Then the worst possible thing happened, she asked if she needed to go on a diet too. Parenthood Fail! I quickly told her no, that she was perfect and did not need to worry about losing weight. If I'm to believe what I read, each time I absent mindedly groan about how fat I've become, she is taking another step into the world of unrealistic standards.

Over the course of the last year, Vogue magazine published an article written by a women who put her 7 year old daughter on a diet, there have been news reports of schools sending home "fat letters" to parents of children over the appropriate BMI, and most recently a story about a woman who planned to give Halloween candy only to kids she deemed thin enough, and notes chastising the parents of children she felt were over-weight (this story went viral on Oct. 30, but may have been a hoax). All these stories created a tremendous response throughout news outlets and social media, crying out "fat-shaming" and accusations that the kids at the receiving end would likely be scarred for life,suffer irreparable harm and lifetimes of eating disorders.

Is that what I did to my sons? If instead I sat idly by while watching them gain weight, would they be happier, and healthier now? (BTW, they are not unhappy.) Will moaning about my weight, something I know I do without even thinking be the cause of a lifetime of body dysmorphia in my step-daughters? These questions are especially pertinent now, as I've decided its time for me to lose some of the weight I've put on the last year, I'm not sure how quiet I can stay while navigating food choices for myself. Fortunately both girls are conspicuously healthy, are very active and quite happy, so my concern for them is hypothetical.  (I want to add that one of my sons grew tired of the shape he was in and lost weight after correcting his eating habits and exercising.)

What about the bigger picture though, at what point do we approach a child about their weight, and how? We live in a world where becoming overweight is easier than maintaining a healthy weight. PE is not taught daily in schools, staying in and playing video games has replaced the neighborhood pickup game of kickball, and not all parents have the time and resources to keep their kids in extracurricular sports. It takes only a look around to see that kids are getting f@x!er, they really are. So, when we parents become concerned, when pediatricians, teachers, or neighbors send messages that your child is not of a healthy weight, how does a parent approach it? What is the correct tactic to keep healthy kids healthy, and restore unhealthy kids to a good weight, and reduce the risk of lifestyle caused debilitations like diabetes, heart disease and stroke?

I know that I'm going to strive to become more self-aware, around all my kids. I will do my best to stop shaming myself for the weight I've gained and try to talk about what I'm proud of. I don't think I can stop telling my son that I'm concerned about his weight, but I'll work on unfurrowing my brow as I tell him that what I want most for him is a long and healthy life. Of course, if anyone eats a candy bar and soda for breakfast in front of me, all bets are off.

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