Friday, June 8, 2012

The Other Side of the Coin

OK, before I start…sorry about the mammoth post. But this is my attempt to get my thoughts in order about a subject I have a lot of opinions on, and I'm sure not all of them will make sense. I totally don't blame you if you stop reading. :) So…bear with me, here we go!

I used to be chubby. Not horridly fat, but enough that the doctor mentioned it at my yearly checkup when I was in seventh grade. In fact, that was the word she used--chubby.

I was in good company. It's perfectly natural at that age for kids to be all kinds of awkward shapes, depending on when growth spurts hit. I'm not really even sure that, outside of obviously obese children, you can put a finger on a "healthy" BMI range when you're young and growing. But I didn't know that.

Childhood obesity is soaring. According to the CDC it's up more than three time the amount of 30 years ago, up to 20% of 6- to 11-year-olds and 18% of 12- to 19-year-olds. (See the website for a definition of "obesity.") I totally agree that something needs to be done about this; it's bad enough when adults are suffering from the negative consequences, but having to put children on statins is just…sad. What happened to the lively kids that run and play, stay active? Well, poor diets are a big factor--just look at how many fast food restaurants we have. Pop Tarts or cinnamon buns for breakfast? Try dessert! Then there's the idle factor; we now have TV, computers…why get off the couch when you can have more fun playing video games?

So obviously we need to be proactive in preventing childhood obesity. But there has to be a better way, one with fewer casualties. Because all these strict diets and exercise regimens aren't falling on deaf ears, as you may think looking at the statistics.

There's a whole other side to the coin. Do we really want to introduce children to the world of calories and body image issues so early? How many of them--some of whom, like me, never should have worried about their weight in the first place--will take it too far? Yes, I'm talking about eating disorders.

We are influenced by our environment. The people we know, the places we go. We need to be careful what kinds of messages we are sending kids, because even seemingly innocent interactions can have a detrimental effect.

For me, two incidents stand out in my mind, and they both involve pants. The first was when I was probably 11 or 12. One of the older girls at the barn had an old pair of riding breeches, and I needed a pair to show in. Her mom told me to try them on, adding that they were "too big" for her daughter.

Well, I hopped in the Porta-Potty and squeezed them up over my bum and managed to get the zipper and button in place. There was no elastic on the waistband. Breathing was uncomfortable. The view of my stomach sticking out over the top was repulsive. I change back into my own pants and opened the door.

When I came out my mom asked me if they fit. I said yes. I was too embarrassed to admit that they hadn't.

That girl had an eating disorder.

The second incident revolved around a pair of cutoffs my sister's friend's mother had bought at a yard sale but were also too big. (My sister and her friend are two years younger than I am.) I was in high school at the time. She left them at our house to see if they might fit either one of us. So of course, I tried them on first.

I couldn't get the button through the hole, no matter how hard I tried. I also hated the amount of force I had to apply to get them over my thighs. And they were too big for her. What did that make me, a giant? (By the way, at this point I was probably low normal/slightly underweight.) That was all I could think about. I told my mom I didn't like the style. Again, I was too embarrassed to tell the truth. It never occurred to me that with my friend at 80-some pounds (and, at the time, also engaged in disordered habits), anything that was too big for her could reasonably be too small for someone who was 5'4".

These people were just trying to be nice. They thought they were doing me a favor.

What's my point? Simple things can give you a grossly distorted view of your body. It's so easy to fall into the trap that all women seem to get stuck in at some point: Why aren't I that thin? How can I get to XX pounds? They never learn how to love their body; because when you force it into certain shapes, it's not your body anymore.

So if subtle hints like trying on clothes can push you over the edge, how will kids take flat out, slap-you-in-the-face statements about being "fat"? The earlier we bring them into the adult world of weight issues, the longer they're aware of it and the more likely they are to be negatively influenced by its emphasis on body. It would be so much better if we never had to have this conversation in the first place.

Which is why prevention is so important. Prevention, rather than cleaning up the mess that's already been made because of daily trips to McDonald's or heaps of donuts. What if parents stepped up and ensured proper portion control and balance at every meal? Limited family outings to restaurants? Encouraged healthy choices and made them tasty as well? I know it's hard to control every aspect of children's diets when they eat whatever the cafeteria serves for lunch…but you could at least refuse to cough up for that double-entree.

Have fun. Play tag or catch in the backyard. Walk the dog. Family "bonding" doesn't have to happen around the TV. Can you actually have a deep conversation while half of your mind is on the bombs exploding on screen?

One more thing. Parents, please please please, don't verbally obsess about your weight. If you're on a diet that's fine. But unless your child needs to be concerned too (as in, immediate health risks), keep it to yourself. It's so easy for kids to "learn" to be insecure about their bodies. If everyone around you is constantly trying to lose, then that's what's "normal." No crazy crash-and-burn diets, drastically cutting calories, skipping meals…it rubs off.

Trust me, once you have the weight-watching mindset it's impossible to lose. I have learned, to a certain extent, to ignore my mind when it feels "fat," to not always trust the mirror. But I am years too late. And what do I have to show for it? Memories of food cycles that left me sick and literally lying on the floor in the fetal position. Low bone density and a couple of stress fractures. Just to be proud I could wear 00 jeans from American Eagle.

I'm not saying that all eating disorders are the result of well-meaning hard-line childhood obesity campaigners. Far from it. My own issues have nothing to do with that. But for someone, somewhere, it has to contribute. And no one should have to go through an eating disorder.

Childhood obesity (and obesity in general) isn't just about obesity. It's a continuum with two extremes. We can kill two birds with one stone here. Prevention…well, I almost think it starts at birth.
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