"Do they have diets for kids?"
January 22, 2010 10:48 AM   Subscribe

My 6 year old thinks she's fat. It's freaking me out.

I have a 6 year old daughter who has begun saying things like, "My thighs are huge!" and "Look how fat my stomach is." As far as I know, she's really worried about this. Now she is obsessed with whether or not foods are "healthy" and the other day she asked me if kids can go on a diet.

In case it matters for anyone's answer, we recently had a checkup and her pediatrician put her in the 60th percentile for height, but only the 3rd percentile for weight. She is not actually overweight in the slightest. But even if she was, this would be upsetting to me.

We are an active family. She plays outside a lot and walks to school and is usually playing a sport or doing dance or gymnastics if our schedule isn't too busy. I do yoga and play softball and take an adult dance class and get plenty of exercise as well. We do a lot of other things like going swimming and skating and hiking and all that. I've always framed it as a matter of doing these things because they're tons of fun and they make us feel good.

I don't keep tons of junk food in the house. She has free range over the fridge, which usually is full of things like fruit and vegetables and healthy snacks. We eat dinner together every night. We rarely eat fast food, but mostly because nobody likes it here and it's too expensive. I don't ever restrict what she eats or how much or anything weirdly compulsive like that. There are things like chips or ice cream sometimes in our diets, in moderation. But now every time she gets something out, she wants to know if it's good for her.

I am extremely bummed out about this because I've always tried to model healthy habits, but never really made a big crazy deal about it. It's just our lifestyle, it's what we do around here. I thought I was doing everything I could to set her up to like herself, but I guess it's not that easy.

The reason this freaks me out so much is that I started feeling like I was fat at around her age as well. My mom is a basket case who was also on some maniacal diet and berating herself about being fat. I am not built like a supermodel, but I like the way I look quite a bit and I never say things like I'm fat or complain about how I look.

But I come from a family where the women are riddled with body image issues and weight problems and messed up attitudes about food. I'm not sure my mom has said these things in front of my daughter though. We're also not huge TV watchers and I don't read women's magazines and all that stuff. I know she is exposed to the whole media perfection deal, but it's also not a big presence in our home.

I struggled with my weight and an eating disorder since I was young. Before she was born, I was recovered from it. I was miserable for all of those years though. I don't want her to go through the same things I did. I thought I was doing as much as I could to give her a healthy body image.

Whenever she's brought this stuff up, I've told her that it's not true, and that she looks healthy and awesome and beautiful and strong and all that. But she still keeps talking about it. I've also asked her why she thinks this and all she says is, "Well, just LOOK at my legs, they're gigantic!" Which makes me really sad to hear.

Where is she getting this, and how can we talk about it so that it doesn't turn into a problem? She is not trying to go on diets or anything yet, but I really want to help her resolve this before it turns into something. I am trying to address what she has and listen to her and not to turn this into some big deal, but I'm not really sure how.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (45 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not a psychologist, nor a parent. But I'm wondering how much of what she's saying is copying, indeed. Maybe instead of telling her "you're not fat" when she says she is, maybe ask "who says that that's what 'fat' looks like?" Or when she says "my legs are huge" maybe ask, "compared to what?" That may give you a clue as to what's going on here, and where she's getting this.

You could find that she's just echoing what others in the family are saying about themselves -- you know, she hears Grandma complaining about her weight and so she thinks "oh, all ladies act like that" and so she's complaining about her weight like a grownup does. Or, someone in the family has been warning her about weight. Or maybe some other little girl has latched on to picking on her about weight because they've sensed it's a weak spot.

But finding out the "why" of things will let you address the cause -- if it's just the "oh, all ladies act like that" copying, then you can combat that one way, if it's because Cindy Lou down the street is calling her fat you can combat it another way.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:56 AM on January 22, 2010 [21 favorites]

Have you tried to ask her why she thinks her legs are "gigantic?" If she's not hearing this stuff at home, odds are it's some other girl or girls at school saying this stuff to her. Yes, it starts this early.

Keep reinforcing that she's strong and healthy and awesome. Talk to her a bit about how sometimes women and girls think they look "wrong" even when they really truly look "right" to everyone else.

They're probably talking about the food pyramid at school and if she tends to obsess about things, maybe that's part of what's going on. Both of my kids went through about a week or two of asking if everything they ate was healthy or not, and that was because of the food pyramid discussions at school during health.

If you're still concerned, talk to her teacher; maybe he or she has some insights. And if you get really concerned, talk to the school counselor/psychologist. If it gets really extreme - like if she starts restricting her food or exercising like crazy or hiding food from you - then I'd suggest seeing a therapist.

But right now, just keep talking to her and reinforce health over looks.
posted by cooker girl at 10:59 AM on January 22, 2010

I remember feeling that way about myself when I was about her age, especially when I tried on clothes. I wasn't a chubby kid, though I've always been a little on the rounder side of things. In retrospect, I think I might have been a little confused about the way my very normal little girl body compared to the much more womanly bodies that I always saw in magazines and on TV. I was specifically confused that my waist looked so different. I also remember feeling bad because I knew I wasn't supposed to think I looked fat and that it would disappoint my mom, which was extra confusing.

Maybe you can talk to her about how her body looks just right, right now, and how it will change as she gets older.
posted by juliplease at 11:01 AM on January 22, 2010

I'm not an expert, but: think about turning off your TV, for good.

posted by mhoye at 11:05 AM on January 22, 2010 [18 favorites]

She may be just role-playing, that is, understands she's not fat, but wants to vent like she has seen other role models do. If this is the case, it's not necessarily a bad thing. This is like playing to be a construction driver or something like that. Help her by giving a name to the role, so that's as least generalizable as a role as possible - like "oh you're playing high maintenance woman"! Avoid - "You are playing model / superstar / coolest person ever". Definitely okay to point out that other roles, like superstar cool person are different from neurotic woman.
posted by xammerboy at 11:06 AM on January 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

I wonder if she's not picking up on your own strong reactions to her comments. You're upset because of your own history, but she may sense your upsetness and think "wow, I really must be fat if it's making mom react so strongly", or something like that.

If that is the case... I don't know what I'd do about it, really. It would be hard for you to give her the backstory in terms that she could understand and that wouldn't upset her more. But I'd consider something long those lines, because there is something real she's picking up on, and it may make her happier to have a handle on exactly what that is.
posted by wyzewoman at 11:17 AM on January 22, 2010

Or, what keener_sounds said! It sounds like you've been doing a very good job up until this point of making healthy eating be a non-issue, just something you all do. If you can manage to continue that attitude with your response to her comments, then that would be great. But I understand that it's hard on you, hard to fake not having a reaction. And also you want to catch it if your daughter really does start having issues, and it's not simply her reaction to your reaction.
posted by wyzewoman at 11:20 AM on January 22, 2010

How hard this must be! A lot of this is about the larger culture and is bigger than you but I would seriously look at her intake of TV and other popular culture and also think critically about how you talk about your own body in front of her. Maybe check in with friends about how you talk about yourself? Kids learn so much more from watching adults than from what they're told to do, so modeling positive self talk about your own body seems essential.

THere are resources on this subject to check out. Here are a few ideas: 1, 2, 3.

Good luck with this.
posted by serazin at 11:24 AM on January 22, 2010

Where is she getting this

Have you tried asking her (in a non-harsh, non-judgmental way)? "Who told you that?" "Did you hear someone saying that?" She's clearly parroting someone she heard -- I find it hard to imagine any 6-year-old spontaneously thinking, rather than copying, these statements, especially if her weight is actually quite low relative to her height (as you said).

I would not use the idea of saying "oh you're playing high maintenance woman"! While this might seem like a clever twist of perspective to us Mefites, a 6-year-old probably has no idea what the phrase "high maintenance" means and might privately translate it as "supercool woman." (I remember, when I was a young child, my uncle showing me a stick figure drawing he did and sarcastically saying, "This is my masterpiece." He probably just thought he was just being a funny uncle, but for a long time I earnestly believed that "masterpiece" meant a stick-figure drawing. Kids don't have finely tuned irony meters -- they believe what they hear adults saying.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:24 AM on January 22, 2010 [7 favorites]

My first thought is that she's getting this from school. Other little girls are copying their ever-dieting moms, and in order to fit in, she's adopting their "concerns."

When grown-up women talk, it's terrifying sad how much we bond over feeling fat. I was really skinny until I hit 31 (when I progressed to "skinny-fat") and I remember feeling left out socially anyplace there was girl-talk (in the workplace, etc.) because I couldn't participate in it. And if I did try to offer something about my body that I didn't like, I got slammed for it because skinny girls aren't allowed to bitch about their bodies because it makes the non-skinny girls (whether or not this categorization is accurate) feel worse.

Anyway, I think that you're quite aware that you're reading a lot into this because of your own history. If she came home trying to model the other girls (who are copying their moms) by using swear words, you'd attack the problem of inappropriate behavior, but you probably wouldn't be afraid and anxious that her psyche was being damaged, right?

I'd be really sad and upset in your position as well, but it sounds like you're doing everything right regarding body image and food. So, my advice is keep doing what you're doing. And to try not to show massive alarm every time she says this stuff, because then it'll be a thing she can trot out next time there's a power struggle.

I remember my parents freaking out when I told them that "I hated school." Very Serious Talk. Then they had the principal call me into his office for a Very Serious Talk. Uh, I was just "hating" school the way most kids hate to get up in the morning and be told what to do, not because I was being unusually bullied or anything. So. Embarrassing.
posted by desuetude at 11:33 AM on January 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

My best guess is that she's certainly getting this language and these attitudes from peers--and if I had to guess, I'd say in either gymnastics or dance, places which aren't always so welcoming about different body shapes and sizes. I agree with Jaltcoh that you should suss out where, exactly, this is coming from, and maybe even consider removing her from that environment.

Whenever she's brought this stuff up, I've told her that it's not true, and that she looks healthy and awesome and beautiful and strong and all that.

Keep saying this. Have her dad chime in. It sounds like you're on the right track to model healthy eating habits. Unfortunately, no kid exists in a bubble.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:33 AM on January 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

"Well, just LOOK at my legs, they're gigantic!"

Although this doesn't address the psychological issue, can you show her some anatomy books and explain that the legs are supposed to be quite large, have the biggest bones and muscles, etc.? Would it be appropriate to show her a copy of the pediatric weight chart and where she is on it?

I don't know if it would work to combat feelings with facts, but maybe worth a try. Honestly, even I get confused when I see images of women whose legs appear no bigger around than their arms. It causes some kind of body dysmorphic thing in my head.
posted by Knowyournuts at 11:37 AM on January 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Whenever she's brought this stuff up, I've told her that it's not true,

I would caution against always responding to "I'm so fat" with "no you're not". Sometimes "if being fat something to get upset about?" or "fat people can be beautiful, healthy people too" is a better answer. After all, she may someday actually become fat, and you don't want all your hard confidence-building work to be for naught.

This may be something you already do, or it may be too subtle a point to make with a six year old, but I'd keep it in mind.
posted by shaun uh at 11:38 AM on January 22, 2010 [23 favorites]

Oh man, this is striking fear in my heart as the parent of a 2 year old girl. I've been doing some reading about this in preparation for her adolescence as it sounds like you're doing everything right so this is very alarming. Could you talk to her teachers and see if they can shed some light into what the other girls are saying in her class? Could it be that her peers are influencing her thoughts somewhat? Is it just a self-confidence thing?

Maybe some topical books for her such as:
Real Beauty: 101 Ways to Feel Great About You (American Girl Library) (Paperback)

This website, New Moon Girls, is aimed at building positive body image
posted by otherwordlyglow at 11:39 AM on January 22, 2010

This is a tough one! It seems like you're doing everything right.

One thing I might add is: does your family cook together? If not, maybe you could start cooking together with your daughter and as it comes up you could mention that all foods can be healthy, there are no good or bad foods (adjust as necessary per your own standards). Stress that food is energy. Your cells need the energy from food, etc.

Good luck!
posted by peep at 11:44 AM on January 22, 2010

Does she go to a serious dance studio or gym with older dancers or gymnasts? Those are two groups who are traditionally very body conscious - she could have picked up some of this there. I have never done gymnastics, but was a dancer at one time and when i look back at photos and see what a great body i had, i can't believe i listened to the dance instructor who told me i was overweight. I wasn't the dainty, sinewy ideal though, and that just wouldn't work for them. Defintely did some damage to my body image.

Unfortunately, it could also be coming from a classmate whose parents aren't as thoughtful about the subject as you are.

I agree that trying to find out where it is coming from is the key to figuring out how to steer her away from these negative statements.

How did you get from feeling fat at her age to having a good body image at your current age? What helped you? I don't want to slam your mother, but my grandmother made indirect remarks about my weight as i got older, and i certainly remembered them. "you don't want to get fat do you?" can sometimes undermine just effectively as "you're thighs are huge."
posted by domino at 11:44 AM on January 22, 2010

Children's bodies change at around age six. She could well be going from her toddler/preschool body shape - big head, rounder - into her kid body shape - taller, leggier - and it might be as simple as those changes kind of freaking her out. It's hard to come up with the vocabulary to accommodate those changes, so she could be using fat as a shortcut for "I look different, what the hell?" It sounds like you're on the right track with discussing her body and how it changes over time; I'd keep that up with maybe some pictures of toddlers versus school kids.

Six is a big change age in every way. It's the first year of "real" school and many kids begin to develop a sense of self consciousness right around then. Kids are also going to start mimicking their peers and the media more than they have done before, so some of this could well be role play, trying it on. Somebody upthread suggested making sure you do not overreact to her statements: don't let her realize that fat is a trigger word for you. I think that is a very good suggestion. I also strongly agree with beginning, if you haven't already, the process of debunking advertising, magazines and TV shows, as in: "They are trying to sell diet food here. Diets are a big industry."

I'm a big fan of purely casual conversations with kids for getting to the root of things, particularly in the car. The next time she says something like that, just replying with "Huh, that's interesting, why would you say that?" and letting her talk out why she feels that way and where she's getting those thoughts could be helpful for both of you.

On preview, dance classes can be shockingly toxic environments for little girls. I'll never forget watching one mother tear her five year old daughter to shreds after class for not being serious, not being dedicated, and, yes, for being too fat. It was ugly and terrible and I ended up pulling my daughter out of that class.
posted by mygothlaundry at 11:50 AM on January 22, 2010

My daughter did this at that age. My daughter is underweight and when she asked me if she was fat I actually laughed at her. Maybe this was the wrong thing to do, but after a few seconds she started smiling too. After I stopped I explained to her that she is actually underweight and that if she went on a diet it would be really dangerous because her body is growing and needs all the nutrition, including the fats. I explained to her that we just have to be smart about what we give our bodies.

Every time she asked if I though she was fat or if she started in on herself I would laugh like she said the funniest thing. Now instead of "Am I fat?" she says "Mom, I'm not fat right?" Then I just reassure her that she is healthy and that is what matters.

Maybe my technique has scarred her for life, but it sure seems to have worked.
posted by TooFewShoes at 11:51 AM on January 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

If she is always on the move her legs could be bigger because of her muscles. I have always had big legs due to soccer.
posted by majortom1981 at 11:58 AM on January 22, 2010

I'm with the "she's role-playing based on other girls and women she overhears" crowd, but I wanted to pop in to say that I think shaun uh's point is really important.

I was a skinny-to-average kid until I got pudgy around junior high. I think this is the case for quite a few kids, and I remember marveling at some of my peers in junior high and high school who, despite being somewhat heavier than average, didn't seem to care. There were times when I even felt sorry for them, like they were somehow deluded if they couldn't see that their extra weight made them unattractive and unworthy, whereas at least I knew I was unattractive and unworthy. I don't think my parents did anything wrong but I do think they could have done more, before I began puberty, to instill in me a sense of self-worth and confidence that wasn't based on "fat" vs. "not fat." Any time I asked questions about my weight, they'd say "No, you're not fat," but I wonder how they might have shifted the conversation toward a message that some people weigh more and some people weigh less, and that's ok.
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:12 PM on January 22, 2010 [5 favorites]

Is it possible she's responding to some of the anxiety in your answers? Like maybe reading something into your well-intentioned reassurances that something is, in fact, weird? You sound like you've done a really good job being conscious of sending healthy messages and being healthy yourself, but you had to work hard to do it to recover from being around a mom who herself was kind of obsessive about it.

Maybe she's misinterpreting your anxiety about the question with anxiety about weight in general. Maybe it would be good to talk to her about the women in your family, that in reality, she's not fat, but you have seen people make themselves unhappy worrying about being fat and you don't want that to happen to her.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:15 PM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have taught Kindergarten and first grade and spent a lot of time working with kids that age in a summer camp setting. I would say that a true concern about body image as related to weight is a little unusual at that age, not necessarily appropriate. It's not something I saw crop up a lot, though from my friends who are still teaching I am hearing that it's more common. It's worth addressing for all the good reasons you acknowledge. She's almost certainly mimicking others, but at the heart of the mimicking is the desire to fit in, to sound and act and be like the others who she aspires to have as friends. It's that, more than any particular words, that would worry me - that she is at a point where she is beginning to internalize the shallow,inaccurate and unrealistic judgments of others.

"Where does this come from?" was my question, too, as it is when any uncharacteristic behavior pops up in a kid's repertoire. You should feel completely comfortable asking that question. Start with her teacher: tell him or her what you've noticed, ask if they've noticed it too, and ask if they're aware of any similar talk like this is going on at school. Even if the behavior doesn't originate at school, the teacher may have some interesting observations, and you might discover whether it's expressed at school, when it first showed up, whether it's a concern of the teacher's too, etc. Then do the same with the instructors of the other activities. By doing this, you are not only helping your own daughter, you'll be raising awareness among these adults about the power of their own words and messages to young children. They may be contributing in some way, or they may be tolerating it when their students talk this way, or they may be completely unaware and as horrified as you are. But, if I were another parent and my daughter were in the class with yours and hearing this stuff without my knowledge, I'd thank you for bringing it up. It could result in some very positive revised approaches. You might want to sit in on some of these classes all the way through, to observe - and that could mean hanging out before and after the class, when people are changing, waiting for rides, etc. Until you know whether this is coming in the formal program or informally through peer interactions, it'll be hard to address it head on.

Reducing exposure to television would also be a big help.
posted by Miko at 12:15 PM on January 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Maybe it's time for you to address the message she's getting about body image from outside your house with a stronger counter-message. Clearly she's bright and precocious for a 6-yo, so perhaps she can be taught in a nuanced way that skinny can sometimes equal unhealthy. Tell her how you need fat and protein to build muscle and have energy, and how people who diet are often malnourished and not getting all the micronutrients they need. Pick up an avocado and tell her that even though avocados are high-fat, they also have a ton of good nutrients. Tell her there is no such thing as a "bad food" that comes from a real plant or animal.

Of course this is risky, because there are alot of ways she could misunderstand and maybe it will make her more paranoid about food, but she needs some strong alternative to what she's hearing, and she needs to hear loud and clear from you that for normal kids, dieting is really really bad, no matter what her friends say. She might keep complaining about her thighs, but she'll turn out okay if she learns right now that being skinny is not the point of eating well.
posted by slow graffiti at 12:16 PM on January 22, 2010

Whenever the little girl in my life makes weird comments about body image, which happens rarely but on occasion, I just tell you: "If you say so. In any event, you're *beautiful*! And brilliant, and caring, and really good at working on things, and amazing!"

It's an attempt to respect her self-image, but give her a sense of affirmation and high self-worth within the bounds of whatever her eyes may see in the mirror that day. I'm not sure if it works, but overall she's a great kid who seems pretty happy with herself, so it can't be all bad.
posted by Eshkol at 12:23 PM on January 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

And also, a great way to change a child's perspective about food? Cook with them. Some of my fondest memories from my childhood are using an old handcrank pasta maker with my dad and brother. Food can be fun and and a great activity, not merely healthy or not healthy (and you've done good on the healthy part so far, which is great).
posted by Damn That Television at 12:33 PM on January 22, 2010

I'd like to second shaun ah and advocate that in addition to some of the great advice above about deciphering where she's getting these ideas it would be go to also respond by having a discussion about how people come in all different shapes and sizes and that's ok. By just denying that she's fat and telling her it's ok, there is that implication that if she were fat (which, lets face it is anything over a size 4 these days) things wouldn't be ok.
posted by Kimberly at 12:57 PM on January 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

By just denying that she's fat and telling her it's ok, there is that implication that if she were fat (which, lets face it is anything over a size 4 these days) things wouldn't be ok.

Or that even if she never becomes fat, that there is something wrong with other people who are fat. As much as you want her to have a positive body image, you probably also want her to have a positive image of other people, of all sizes, rather than perpetuating the judgment.
posted by Miko at 1:03 PM on January 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is scary stuff. Having been in dance for years and having a sister with a serious eating disorder, I've watched how concerns about weight can literally destroy a person.

I highly recommend getting rid of your TV and not having any fashion magazines lying around the house.

And also important is to reinforce the beauty of fat women, which is pretty much never done in our culture.

And I even recommend reconsidering her extra-curriculars. Activities that focus on the appearance of the body, such as dance and gymnastics, have been proven to have significant effects on body perception and eating disorders. Activities that focus on the utility of the body, such as team sports, produce healthy attitudes.

Finally, I think it's never too early to read this book. It'll give you some sense of the challenges you may be up against and how to deal with or prevent them.

posted by whalebreath at 1:09 PM on January 22, 2010

Whenever she's brought this stuff up, I've told her that it's not true, and that she looks healthy and awesome and beautiful and strong and all that.

Instead of telling her she looks great, I'd refocus her attention on what her body can do, rather than its appearance. When she says her legs are gigantic, ask her to tell you what she can do with her legs -- can she run? can she kick a ball? skate? Hey, that's what legs are for. A six-year-old can understand that, and she's answering the questions, so she knows you're not snowing her, as you could be with "you're beautiful, honey, we all are!"

Another tack to take might be through the pediatrician, who can explain that she's not overweight. And actually, you might make sure she's not already restricting her own diet -- that her meals are sufficiently calorie-dense, with a 60-to-3 disparity in percentile height-to-weight. Third percentile, on its own, is usually the "action level" for seeing growth as a cause for concern.
posted by palliser at 1:33 PM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't rule out the possibility that your reaction may be gratifying to her for some obscure reason and thus her meaningless (to her) behavior is reinforced. I am a parent and have a daughter who was once six.
posted by fydfyd at 2:05 PM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Am I missing something that is causing people to keep telling her to kill her television and banish Vogue? She says right in her question that they don't watch a lot of TV and that she doesn't read women's magazines.

Activities that focus on the appearance of the body, such as dance and gymnastics, have been proven to have significant effects on body perception and eating disorders. Activities that focus on the utility of the body, such as team sports, produce healthy attitudes.

Dance and gymnastics are not by definition aesthetics over utility (particularly at an extracurricular level --- I don't think the child is a student at American Ballet Theatre), and team sports do not necessarily ignore the appearance of the body in favor of pure utility. It's all about the instructor/coach's emphasis.
posted by desuetude at 2:11 PM on January 22, 2010

If she's in dance or gymnastics there is a very good chance that she gets it from there. Girls in dance and gymnastics (and the teachers, too, but not usually with the little kids) are so fixated on their weight.
posted by ishotjr at 2:14 PM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd definitely like to emphasize talking to her about how all shapes and sizes are beautiful and that bodies change and grow over time.

Is grandma still around? If so, and if she's still "maniacal" about her weight and diets, it will be incredibly helpful to head this off at the pass and let her know that any talk about "fat thighs" or "good" and "bad" foods are not to be tolerated.

Additionally, it's really important to avoid negative talk about other people's bodies. My mom had no idea she was helping to create an eating disorder when I overheard her constantly gossiping about other women's weight. I figured, if my mom talked about other people like that, other people were certainly going to be talking about me...

Lastly, good for you for taking this seriously. You might want to go look at Something Fishy for more helpful tips.
posted by Sophie1 at 2:14 PM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't rule out the possibility that your reaction may be gratifying to her for some obscure reason and thus her meaningless (to her) behavior is reinforced.

This is a good point. She may be looking for reassurance in general, and has latched onto this particular topic because she knows what your reaction will be.
posted by desjardins at 2:19 PM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Additionally, it's really important to avoid negative talk about other people's bodies.

This is a great point. You don't sound like someone who'd do this, OP, but on the other hand, putting a lot of virtuous emphasis on sports and activity could also translate to a certain contempt for people who aren't into that, or who don't look like your activity-loving family, or whatever.

The interesting thing is that sometimes people who do this don't realize they're doing it. An in-law of mine does this -- snarking at random people carrying ice creams, concern-trolling about heavy friends -- and it's both poisonous and completely unconscious. If you asked her if she did this kind of thing, I'm certain she'd say no.

So it's a good thing to watch out for, along with being body-positive about yourself, as you mentioned you try to be.
posted by palliser at 2:49 PM on January 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

One thing to keep in mind is that eating disorders have a genetic component. Since you had one, and since many of the women in your family have (it sounds like) some form of disordered eating, that puts her at a greater risk for an eating disorder no matter how positive the environment you raise her in is (and it sounds like it's a lovely, very wonderful & healthy place for her to grow up).

I don't mean this to say that it's a lost cause - it's most certainly not! - but just something to keep in mind throughout her childhood, adolescence & early adulthood. It seems like your daughter may have inherited whatever genetic factors that make her zero in on her body in times of stress, and it's just something to watch out for in the future so you can catch any problems early.
posted by insectosaurus at 6:34 PM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I remember age six as the year that I noticed how slender and tanned the legs of other girls looked, compared to my flabby, pasty ones. (Pasty, yes, always. But flabby? Only to Bela Karolyi.)

From then on, I had the idea that paying attention to weight and "sexiness" was something that "mature" girls did. fydfyd has a point. When I saw that it worried my mother, I consciously paid more attention to it, because I believed that her worries meant that I was growing up and that she just couldn't handle it. I was over this phase by middle school, thankfully.

Never try to snow her with everyone-is-special talk; it's easy to detect from a young age. Be serious but sweet, tell her she's beautiful, and tell her that her doctor would let you both know if she wasn't healthy. I'd also tell her that other kids are mean as snakes, and lots of them know that "fat" is a good way to try to make girls cry -- so don't let them win!
posted by Countess Elena at 6:38 PM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I was around her age, I made a comment to some peers on the bus about the fat on my legs; referring to how the muscles would jiggle when I shook my leg. I was incredibly active at the time, so when someone actually pointed out it was muscle and not fat, it never bothered me again. That said, it was another kid a few years my senior and not an adult that I might have felt "was just saying that."

In fact, whenever I'm feeling a little out-of-tune with body image, I think of what that kid said 18 years ago. Granted, it isn't all muscle anymore, but every once and awhile we need that re-up.

Not to say you or any other adult is wrong or not helping, but perhaps she just needs to find someone around her age to help set her straight.

Granted, kids today aren't the same as they were then.. and they weren't exposed to 25 year old women thinner than they are at a perfectly normal weight. So HMMV.
posted by june made him a gemini at 6:48 PM on January 22, 2010

I actually would try talking to her about what you went through.

When I was younger I thought I was ugly ugly hideous. One day my mom told me about how when she was younger, she was teased and her grandmother would tell her she was ugly and she didn't stop feeling that way until she was much much older. This was shocking to me because my mother is gorgeous, so I realized that people don't always have an accurate picture of themselves, and maybe I wasn't as ugly as I thought. I understood that sharing this was hard for her, and it was painful to dig up the old memories and be vulnerable, and that made it mean so much more than just platitudes about "no, you're beautiful."
posted by thebazilist at 8:09 PM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

With a family history of disordered eating, I can see how this would be really worrisome for you. It sounds like you're doing a great job with your daughter, but to point out the obvious: make sure you're complimenting her on who she is and what she can do* more than on what she looks like.

Dance and gymnastics are so appearance oriented and it seems like the default compliment for little girls is always about how pretty they look - it's going to take a conscious effort to balance that out. Good for you for addressing the issue while she's so young.

*I would have killed for a meaningful compliment from my parents. I wanted praise for the things I accomplished, not for being born with 'such pretty curly hair.' Ugh.


posted by Space Kitty at 8:22 PM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've always struggled with body image and anxiety centred around my 'being' in the world, my body. It couldn't have started from exposure to tv as we didn't have one, it wasn't magazines or anything I could now identify as cultural conditioning. I believe it was transmitted by my mother's food and weight issues. For a kid, anxieties can be internalised even if parents have not said or done anything quantifiable. You, OP, sound like a fantastic parent so I am wary of suggesting that your underlying anxiety about food/weight has been overtly transmitted, but kids pick up on undercurrents somehow. [As if parenting wasn't hard enough!]

I agree also that peer conditioning is probably a factor here.

I'm presuming you are the mother of this child - maybe the father also needs to take on board this issue and develop a strategy with you. He may have a perspective to offer on this and ways of approaching the situation. Fathers play a huge role in a young gal's acceptance of her physical self.
posted by honey-barbara at 4:49 AM on January 23, 2010

Lots of good thoughtful advice in this thread... it's been fascinating to read.

For reference: I was a girl kid, and now am a girl adult in a hyper-competitive upper middle class suburb, and have a girl kid at home. I took dance classes and was in competitive dance as a teen, and my kiddo is in dance and cheer now.

whalebreath: "...I highly recommend getting rid of your TV and not having any fashion magazines lying around the house. ...And I even recommend reconsidering her extra-curriculars. Activities that focus on the appearance of the body, such as dance and gymnastics, have been proven to have significant effects on body perception and eating disorders."

While I agree that the extracurriculars can be toxic, it's not a 100% certainty. Girls of all ages are often simply attracted to dance, gymnastics, cheerleading whether it is encouraged and cultivated by adults or not. A kid who really loved her ballet class would be hard-pressed to understand this as a reason for being pulled from it, and there could even be backlash.

Merely removing a child from certain extracurriculars won't keep her safe; there must be a healthy approach to food, eating and appearance from all directions in her life.

Besides, from everything I've read on the topic, my understanding is that the tendency for disordered eating starts at home; a thoughtless comment in a dance class might be a trigger, but it doesn't necessarily create something that wasn't already there.

More often than not, the sad fact is that disordered eating can be tracked directly to a trauma or to the mother's attitudes. And, OP, you really do sound like you're already doing a great job with your girl. So take some comfort in what a good, thoughtful mom you're being; that's 95% of the battle right there.

I agree with the recommendations to speak to her teacher, and do what you can to ascertain the source of the comments, and that she's likely just mirroring as a developmental stage. I suspect that if you keep modeling healthy behavior and encouraging "health" not "skinny", and encouraging physical activity, she'll grow out of this.

Ancedotally: my kiddo came home in 2nd grade with a few negative fat comments about herself. We talked to her teacher about it. Turned out, there was a "queen bee" (yes, at age 7) in the class who was doing some very ugly mirroring of her own about "fatties" and "pretty and thin = popular" and so on, thanks to a very loud, superficial, dominant, judgmental, looks-obsessed mother.

The queen bee was a little tiny girl, way under-sized for her age and easily the shortest student in the second grade. Privately, we speculated that this was her insecure mother's way of helping the girl feel "normal" and "pretty" when she was a good five inches smaller than all her other female classmates.

We were able to offset by talking about health vs. beauty, and also about how some girls make themselves feel better by making other people feel bad. Our kiddo quickly learned that queen bee was a nasty piece of work (and remains so to this day, as does her mother, sadly) and that happy, healthy girls don't have to cut down others in order to boost themselves up.

But know thine enemy, as they say.
posted by pineapple at 7:22 AM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I want to counter some of the negative comments about dance class here. My teenage daughter has been dancing for 8 years, pretty seriously for 3 of those years. Her dance teachers talk to the students regularly about the importance of healthy eating, including eating enough so they have the energy to dance. The Artistic Director and other teachers won't tolerate students making negative comments about anyone's body size or shape. In fact, I think dancing has done more to help my daughter deal with the thin-at-all-costs messages she gets from the media than anything else. When she goes to dance class, she sees women and girls of all shapes and sizes -- from "underweight" to "morbidly obese" -- moving their bodies and having a great time. Dance pushes you mentally and physically and can create a wonderful awareness of what your body is capable of if you take good care of it.

Not all dance schools are created equal, obviously, but they aren't all automatically hotbeds of poor body image either.
posted by atropos at 9:48 AM on January 23, 2010

The characterization of dance and gymnastics as appearance-based is making me cranky, too, as this was totally not my experience, and is not the experience of my friends' little kids who are in dance and gymnastics classes now.

Team sports were miserable for me and a significant factor in making me feel really embarrassed about my appearance. I was a scrawny kid and smaller and weaker than the rest of my class, and thus not only did I suck, but I was responsible for bringing down the level of my whole team. Gymnastics and ballet allowed me to achieve something with my own body by myself.
posted by desuetude at 2:48 PM on January 23, 2010

Just want to say from my own experience that I think body issues can start very young (for girls). I think I was 8 or 9 when I first told my mom I wanted to go on a diet and lose weight. I was a super active, muscular, energetic kid, but I think just picked up on my mom's anxiety with weight. Also it didn't help that I was probably looking at Seventeen magazine and watching TV. But I also don't think by your daughter saying it means she is going to have an eating disorder. I never got one, though I do wish my mom would have been more supportive about all body types instead of mostly saying 'Oh, that person is beautiful' and that person was always thin! Also, I did gymnastics, and for the most part, it was only good for me and my body issues. I did go on a diet when I was 12 for gymnastics, but fortunately somebody told me that wasn't good for my body, and I just let it go. Gymnastics was fabulous for my body and 15 years later, I can still feel the benefits it gave me. But yes, I think at some gyms, and at some levels, gymnastics can trigger eating disorders, but there are ways to do it so it's fun, empowering, and strengthening.
posted by Rocket26 at 6:52 AM on June 24, 2010

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