Were You Overweight As a Child?
There was an excellent essay last Sunday (New York Times, March 23, 2014, What I would say to my fat son, by Joshua Max) about the author’s overweight childhood. So many children and teens struggle with their self-image, who simply doesn’t fit the cultural picture of “slender”. Frequently, they are height and weight proportionate, but just genetically configured differently than Hollywood’s idea of the beautiful body. Moms and dads try to reassure these kids, keep them focused on what’s important, and try not to make a big deal about their children’s weight and shape. They just hope that they won’t make their appearance a big deal.
But what if your son is actually overweight? What if your daughter is obese?
When I was growing up, my older brother Joey was very overweight. Other children harassed him. They would sing, “Joseph, Joseph two by four, can’t fit through the bathroom door!” I know that he felt humiliated, angry, and hurt. Everyone in our family was overweight, but Joey was obese.
Younger children, who are overweight, won’t necessarily see their weight as a problem, until their peers make fun of them, most likely in early adolescence. The author of the article, Joshua Max, didn’t think of himself as “fat” until other kids started treating him differently.
How can parents handle this challenge? Naomi Ray-Schoenfeld, a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) at the Institute for Family Health in New York City observes that obesity is often a family affair—overweight kids frequently have overweight parents. “It’s important for parents and kids to participate together in improving their health, nutrition, and activity level.”
Obesity is complex. It has genetic, biological, psychological, and social roots that interact together in ways that aren’t completely well understood. Early childhood obesity is closely connected to high sugar and fat intake and low activity levels. But it can also be exacerbated by psychological and social factors too. Parents can use food as a reward, as a way of helping kids handle boredom, or as a way of distracting them when they are upset. All of this can set the stage, in vulnerable children, for life long eating problems.
Lynette Wachholz, Pediatric Nurse Practitioner at The Everett Clinic thinks about prevention—“We need to move our focus upstream to preventing obesity through prolonged breastfeeding and the establishment of a healthy feeding relationship where parents provide to young children healthy, unprocessed food at three sit-down meals and three sit-down snacks daily and the child determines if, how much, and what to eat. No pushing. No cajoling. Just talking and eating…”
Cheryl Beighle, M.D., Pediatrician, also at The Everett Clinic notes—“I look at the weight of a child as a family system problem not the child's problem. Children overeat for many reasons but they do not buy or provide the food. There is a dependent relationship with parents or another adult. Parents are also overweight. So I talk about the family's relationship to food and exercise.” All of these providers see childhood obesity in the family context.
Our local YMCA’s have a program called ACT—Actively Changing Together which is a nutrition and activity program. It teaches kids and parents how to make better food choices and be active. It’s a great program.
Joshua Max ends his article with a message that he would want to give to his child-- “If someone hurts his feelings about his size, we’ll talk about how people are uncomfortable with fat people because they see them as lazy, stupid, incompetent and ugly, but that fat people are none of these things inherently and some skinny people are also all those things. Muscles are good, fat is good, it’s all part of the miraculous human body and we get only a little while here on planet earth. It doesn’t matter how much yoga you do or how much brown rice you eat, you’re still going to die one day and you might as well love yourself…”
No matter what your weight or shape is, loving and honoring yourself is the important take home message. It’s vital to make peace with your body and with yourself.
Were you overweight as a child? How did it impact you?