Should you ever put your child on a diet?
As a mother of two girls Tanith Carey finds herself, like many parents, at a loss of how to protect her children from body image anxieties which could lead them to veer off in either direction
It was the sort of throw-away remark that would have sounded completely innocent had it not touched a very raw nerve.
As Katherine Fletcher was talking to an elderly male relative at a family reunion, he looked in the direction of her 11-year-old daughter and pointedly remarked: 'My goodness, hasn’t Natasha grown e-n-o-r-m-o-u-s-l-y!’
'It was as if he had kicked me in the stomach,’ says Katherine, a 46-year-old book editor. 'I knew perfectly well what he meant - he was basically saying that the first thing that struck him was how fat she was.
'It was true she was pretty chubby – and she had rolls of fat on her back and arms. I knew it, he knew it and I also guessed Natasha knew it because of how withdrawn she was becoming. Yet still, I dared not say a word to her. I was too terrified of confirming her worst fears and tipping her into an eating disorder.’
Katherine was facing a dilemma shared with a growing number of parents today, bringing up their children in a world of two extremes.
At one end, figures released by the World Health Organisation this week reveal that a quarter of British children under five are already overweight. By 2030, they warn these youngsters will have grown into unhealthy adults with three quarters of British men and two-thirds of women being classed as fat or obese. At the other end of the spectrum, research published by Leeds Becket University this week has found girls as young as six are already dieting, while record numbers of young people are being admitted to hospital for anorexia.
The result? Parents trapped like rabbits in the headlights, not knowing what to do or say to protect their children from body image anxieties which could lead them to veer off in either direction.
As the author of new book Girls, Uninterrupted, and the mother of two daughters aged 10 and 13 myself, I know that this is a massive elephant in the room.
I have seen for myself the panic in the eyes of mothers who don’t know how to address this – or tackle it too clumsily. When my ten-year-old daughter Clio recently came home from a play-date, she informed me that the host mother had put her on the scales. Clio’s friend had refused to eat anything on the grounds that she wanted 'to be skinny’ and the mother had taken both girls up to the bathroom to compare their weights. It was an effort to prove to her daughter that she needed to eat because Clio, who is shorter, was still heavier.
Of course, I should have been extremely angry. Yet my heart bled for this woman. Mothers at both ends of the spectrum feel they have failed their children. While parents of girls who are already dieting are terrified they might tip over into an eating disorder, mothers of chubby children often feel ashamed they have let their children down.
But difficult as it may be, if a child is unhealthily overweight, then we need help them to take control of the situation, rather than leaving them to turn the feelings of frustration back on themselves. Children who are worried about their weight lack the maturity to know what to do and often bury their feelings making them feel trapped and hopeless.
Psychologist Deanne Jade of the National Centre for Eating Disorders believes the difficulties parents go through as they watch their children become obese is not acknowledged – and they need more support.
Deanne says: 'There is no simple answer. Childhood obesity is not simply caused by parents feeding their children junk food. Some children may be developing at different times or genuinely have a much harder job than others managing their weight. Yet the parents of fat children often end up feeling like bad parents. They know people are looking at them, thinking: “Why don’t you put your child on a diet?”
'As a society, we have to appreciate how hard it is for parents too. Restricting food only makes it more desirable to children - so it’s incredibly hard for parents to get the balance right.’
As her daughter Natasha’s weight kept climbing, Katherine became so desperate to know what to do that she finally sought help.
'The spectre of anorexia terrified me, but I did some research and found out that if there is a supportive home environment, eating disorders don’t necessarily follow as long as the child does not feel controlled or unable to express herself.’ Armed with the information, Katherine finally steeled herself for the conversation. 'I was sitting in Natasha’s room and as usual, she was complaining that she couldn’t find anything to wear. What she really meant that nothing fitted her and usually I would have reassured her. But this time, I asked her what was really bothering her and if I could help. She immediately got very angry and asked me if I thought she was fat, as that thought was clearly in her mind. I answered by asking if she’d like a bit of help to eat more healthily.’
'For the next two hours she cried. But later she came to me and said she did want me to help. I never brought up the word diet, but we did look at how we could replace foods that were maybe tipping the balance. Because she knew I was on her side, it pulled us closer.’
Mary George of eating disorders charity B-eat also acknowledges that this is profoundly difficult area for parents, especially as obesity is such a threat to the nation’s health. But she believes that approaches, like sending letters home to parents to warn them their children’s BMI is too high, are blunt instruments – and families need more clear guidance about what to do.
Mary says: 'Parents should remember that children go through various stages in growing up – puppy fat followed by growth spurts – and not overreact to what may be a passing phase’
Looking back Natasha, now 14, is grateful her mother talked to her. 'At the time, I was starting to hate myself so I was so relieved when she finally brought it up. It’s always easier when you have an adult on your side.’
(Some names have been changed.)
Tanith Carey is author of 'Girls Uninterrupted: Steps for Building Stronger Girls in a Challenging World’ (Icon, £7.99)