Wednesday 18 September 2019

How do you raise a daughter with a positive body image when you are terrified of making her fat?

Parenting in a world that is in the midst of an obesity crisis, and worships thin, fit bodies is not easy.

Our obsession with thin, fit bodies affects our children
Our obsession with thin, fit bodies affects our children
Gillian Fitzpatrick with her daughter Giulia
Jamie Lee Curtis with her mother, Janet Leigh. Jamie says she rebelled against her mother’s issues about weight
Suzanne Brett from Cork with her daughter, Olivia (10)
Portia de Rossi spoke about her mother’s pride when she lost weight
Jamie Lee Curtis with mother Janet Lee
Actress Portia de Rossi
Demi Moore with daughter Rumer Willis

Gillian Fitzpatrick

One child-focused study released last week caught my eye - and then made my heart sink.

We know that children in this country are dangerously overweight. Indeed, the statistics make for some pretty grim reading: there are 100,000 obese children in the country; another 300,000 are classed as overweight. A third of Irish seven-year-olds has a weight problem.

But this particular study - carried out in conjunction with Temple Street Children's Hospital - reveals more. One 15-year-old being treated at the hospital's obesity clinic told researchers: "I don't go outside anymore."

Another 13-year-old was upset that her mum "found the food I was hiding". Then there is the eight-year-old who stated: "I hate my body - I need a diet".

Perhaps most heart-wrenching of all was the child aged just five, who said: "Nobody in my class will play with me."

These are words that no parent wants to hear. Being five is about running around; playing with friends and siblings; certainly about being care-free.

Our obsession with thin, fit bodies affects our children
Our obsession with thin, fit bodies affects our children
Jamie Lee Curtis with her mother, Janet Leigh. Jamie says she rebelled against her mother’s issues about weight
Suzanne Brett from Cork with her daughter, Olivia (10)
Portia de Rossi spoke about her mother’s pride when she lost weight
Jamie Lee Curtis with mother Janet Lee
Actress Portia de Rossi
Demi Moore with daughter Rumer Willis

I can't be the only one to think that there is a particular parental worry that comes with being a mother to a daughter. There is the unique fear that your girl is perhaps getting too fat - because you're making her fat.

You tip-toe around the issue, worried that any mention of her weight will make her unreasonably paranoid. Countless studies highlight the particular impact a mother's attitude to food has on her daughters.

My little girl, Giulia, is now aged 18 months. She has some time left still, I hope, before I have to worry about her being fat or thin; about her - or me - becoming preoccupied about what she's eating and why. Giulia is healthy - she eats well and has a varied diet with plenty of fresh produce. But, like most parents, I suspect, I'm still guilty of handing her a biscuit when I'm tired, or giving in to her requests for another yogurt a little too easily.

Psychotherapist Harriet Parsons works with the eating disorders awareness group BodyWhys as services co-ordinator. She also lectures in the Dublin Business School and University College Dublin.

"We know that parents reward their children with treats - and we know that they withhold treats as punishment," Harriet explains. "Certainly, mums and dads shouldn't feel they need to avoid that pattern at all costs because we also know a certain amount of that is normal.

"What we do want to avoid, however, is making food a symbol of being a good or being a bad person."

She says for those that are concerned that their child is becoming overly focused on being thin, more than just diet needs to be examined. "Ask your child their opinion and how they feel - allow them to make decisions. Praise them as much as you can; get them involved in a sport or hobby. All these things do wonders for a young person's confidence, leaving them less vulnerable to developing an eating disorder." Harriet concludes: "Children are very good at picking up on comments about dieting and food made by their parents. They also watch these extreme weight-loss shows on television that are not only misrepresentative of real life, but they also reward getting thinner with materialistic things. We are recognise that it's all just entertainment, but a child doesn't have that filter."

At my smallest, I've squeezed into a size 8; at my biggest I've been a size 14/16. When I was pregnant I was applauded for maintaining a slim physique. Afterwards, I was back in my old clothes almost immediately. All of this was applauded enthusiastically, with me admittedly basking in every compliment.

This summer, I was in an in-shape 10, but I know already, without having to step on the scales, that I've now crept up to a size 12. It's hardly massive, but it's begun to get me down. So in the eight weeks we have until Christmas, I'm already planning a juice detox to kick off proceedings, followed by an alcohol-free November, as well as regular exercise sessions.

Not that any of this seems particularly out-of-the-ordinary. A lot of my friends find themselves in the same boat a few times a year: you diet down and allow the weight creep back up. Most of us have two or three different sizes in our wardrobes: "thin" clothes interspersed with "fat" items.

It's a vicious cycle that any mother - myself included - would love to shield their daughter from. But far from lamenting the pressures of advertising, popular culture and celebrities, I know that as my daughter gets older, I need to examine more closely my own actions. Research in 2009 demonstrated that mothers who diet are almost twice as likely to have daughters who suffer from an eating disorder.

There are plenty of celebrity stories that serve as cautionary tales on how a woman's weight and body image is often associated, rightly or wrongly, with their mother's approval. Actress Portia de Rossi (41) has described how her weight plummeted to an astonishing 82lbs in the late '90s as she found fame on the television show, Ally McBeal.

Portia in her book 'Unbearable Lightness' described how at the beginning of her career, her mother applauded weight-loss. Explaining how she lost 5lbs in five days on her "first diet", she says: "Thanks to my rigid self-discipline, I shifted the extra pounds. I was proud of myself, and my mother was proud of me, too."

She goes on to describe visiting her mother months later, when her weight had dropped to 95lbs.

"I wasn't getting the reaction I was hoping for from my mother. I wanted her to tell me that I looked great and that I had finally got it together after all the years of hell my weight had put us both through. Instead, she called me into her bedroom one morning and sobbed: 'You're so thin, darling. If you don't eat something you're going to die!'"

Actress Jamie Lee Curtis is the daughter of Hollywood royalty Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis. She has publicly spoken about her struggles with alcohol and painkillers, as well as the pressures of celebrity.

"My mother was incredibly proud that she returned to her 20-inch waist mere weeks after pregnancies," Jamie Lee has revealed. "She judged other actresses whose bodies grew and softened. I think she was afraid that it would happen to her too." But Jamie Lee (55) added that "by acknowledging my own changing body, I rebelled against my mother's fear of it".

One Kildare-based mother of three girls aged between six and 13 told Health & Living that she resolutely refuses to mention words such as "diet" or "detox" at home.

"I remember my mother doing an hour-long exercise video every single day, including Christmas Day and our birthdays," she explains. "From an early age, she taught me 'tricks' like having a single bite of a dessert, or a single square of chocolate, rather than the whole thing."

And one incidence in particular stands out: "It was my Confirmation and I was horribly self-conscious standing beside her for photographs because I knew that she was slighter than I was. It was awful. And I do my utmost now to ensure that my daughters won't ever feel like that."

Suzanne Brett lives in Cork with her husband and their daughter, Olivia, who's 10: "Of course mums worry as their daughters approach their teenage years - as mine is now - that they'll go on some silly, unhealthy diet. Or worse; they'll become obsessed with food and losing weight," she states frankly.

She also bemoans the "yummy mummies" for whom six-days-a-week gym sessions and the latest faddy diet are standard.

"That sort of approach will undoubtedly have a negative impact on your children," she says, adding: "A big, calorie-infused dessert should neither be just a standard way to finish off every evening meal or an absolute no-go zone that comes with all sorts of guilty feelings. Balance and moderation is possible for adults - and as parents we need to teach that to our children. It's part and parcel of raising a healthy family."

It's a problem that is made even more difficult in the currrent childhood obesity crisis. In the last month, Safefood has launched its Let's Say No campaign, which aims to encourage parents to cut down on the amount of unhealthy snacks that a child has in between meals. It's a campaign being supported by Dr John Sharry, an author and the founding director of the Parents Plus Charity. His website is also immensely popular with parents looking for advice and guidance.

"I always think that the focus should be on health and well-being rather than just weight - the family needs to approach issues together," Dr Sharry explains.

"Keeping biscuits and fizzy drinks just for the weekend is one solution - that strikes a balance between excess and deprivation."

Dr Sharry, who works with the Mater Hospital in the area of child and adolescent mental health services, is furthermore a senior lecturer at the School of Psychology in University College Dublin.

When I quiz him about the issue of anorexia, he says that although serious, eating disorders present themselves infrequently in comparison to the far more pressing matter of obesity.

"I can understand that parents - in particular mothers - might be worried about their daughters developing an unhealthy aversion to normal, healthy eating," he explains. "However, no health professional can deny the everyday truths that we witness: anorexia is extremely rare - obesity is not."

Tips from  the expert

Irene Deering is a psychotherapist based at Mind And Body Works in Dublin's city centre. She has worked extensively with Transition Year students in the area of anxiety and eating disorders, also providing guidance to parents and teachers. 

Encourage individual interests and talents - inspire your daughter to take pleasure in hobbies, rather than placing emphasis on winning or being the best.

Talk to her about your own experiences of resisting the pressure to fit in.

Girls should know that advertising and magazine shoots do not represent real life - if you feel your daughter is idolising a celebrity's appearance, take time to explain these images are not necessarily authentic.

Children emulate their mothers. Think carefully about how your actions around your daughter - dieting; passing comment on other people's appearance; reaching for a bottle of wine during times of stress - might impact on her adversely.

Always be your daughter's biggest fan. She should feel that she can turn to you in times of crises. Make sure to speak with her regularly about school, her friends and hobbies - you shouldn't wait until intervention is needed.



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