By Hansa Bhargava, MD
In a recent article in Vogue magazine, a mother talks about how she put her 7-year-old daughter on a strict, no-nonsense weight loss program. By her own admission, her methods included depriving her daughter of dinner as well as publicly and emotionally derailing her choices of snacks. Additionally, she also chastised her daughter about the way she looked, telling her ‘the fat girl is a thing of the past’. As a mother of a 6-year-old and a pediatrician, I was really concerned about this.
Is this the best way to handle your child’s weight issue? With one third of the children in the U.S. being overweight or obese, you may be asking this question. Having extra weight can certainly be a health issue, putting children at risk for illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and liver disease just to name a few. And picking healthy food choices, as well as exercising, is key. But a child’s self-esteem is also at stake. Kids who are overweight may already feel chastised and, frankly, bad about themselves. Many studies have shown that overweight kids are more likely to be socially isolated at school and have significantly fewer friendships. Additionally, they are more at risk for bullying and social alienation.
Has your daughter ever bought up how she looks? My daughter has, already. Our society imposes the belief that ‘being skinny’ is linked to beauty and power on all of our girls. This is furthered by celebrities as well as marketing tactics using unrealistic images of young women to sell their product. This eventually gets internalized and many girls, whether they are overweight or not, feel the pressure to fit into the mold and the ‘skinny jeans’ and end up being pulled into a lifelong battle of food and eating-related issues.
Helping your overweight child is important but how you do it is important as well. Talk to your child about being healthy and how this makes you strong and less likely to get sick. Help her choose the right foods by going to the grocery store and cooking with her; limit eating meals outside the home. And do this for the whole family; eating well is important for everyone. Demonstrate this through your actions and she is more likely to comply. Lastly, don’t forget to incorporate exercise and sleep. A few simple ways to do this is to do a physical activity every weekend as a family, take the stairs, and turn off the TV. The entire family should be involved — this will be good for everyone.
A mother pushing the message that how her daughter looks (and being in a magazine picture) are linked to who she is can be very damaging. Just like all mothers, she probably meant well. But it is really important to remember this — being at the right weight is not supposed to be about looks, it is about preventing disease and being healthy. And good self-esteem is one of the most important tools that a parent can empower their child with, so don’t mix up the message.
How do you feel about this? How would you help your overweight child?