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Time to Stop Freaking Out over Fat Kids?

Thin isn't the same as healthy, warns an academic and an eating disorder survivor. Part of a series.

Katie Hyslop 24 Oct 2014Tyee Solutions Society

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

Produced by Tyee Solutions Society (TSS). Other publications wishing to publish this story or other TSS-produced articles, please see this page for contacts and information.

[Editor’s note: In this ongoing series, Grow, Eat, Learn: School from the Plate Up, Tyee Solutions Society reporter Katie Hyslop visits farms, schools, full-length mirrors and our own kitchen cupboards to examine how we lost our way when it comes to feeding our kids, and how we can get back on the path to wholesome, healthy eating. Find the series so far here.]

You can't find an article about kids and food today that doesn't at least mention child obesity. The topic's a top concern to governments, health officials and parents across Canada. It's one of the main reasons why all of the food programs and philosophies we've covered in this series exist.

But research over the last decade suggests our concern over the numbers on the scale might be oversized. In one example, while people with obesity have a higher risk of developing chronic Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, studies reveal that they also live longer with those ailments than normal or underweight patients.

And those aren't the only diseases that a few extra pounds may protect against. Another study of 11,000 Canadians from 2007 found that overweight individuals had a lower mortality rate than their slimmer peers for any cause of death.

But while scientists debate possible explanations -- theories range from genetics to the unreliability of the Body Mass Index used to determine obesity -- many doctors agree putting kids on a restrictive diet isn't healthy.

Academics like Lucas Crawford take the idea even further. The Ruth Wynn Woodward lecturer at the department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at Simon Fraser University argues that shaming kids for their weight could be more dangerous to their health than the extra pounds they're carrying.

"We overestimate, we skew, and we misunderstand the extent of the correlation between weight and health," said Crawford, whose interests include "fat studies." The burgeoning new field, he explained, examines how "fat has been defined and experienced throughout history and today, and to theorize or imagine new ways it could be lived."

What Crawford calls "the very unhealthy, negative side effect" of putting youngsters on weight-reducing diets "is instilling in them quite early a sense of alienation from their bodies, from pleasure, from having a positive relationship to their bodies." The psychological impact can last their whole lives.

The harsh focus on fat kids even spills over onto kids who aren't fat, fostering prejudices that morph into the bullying of any youngster who is more than thin, as well as dangerous practices like binging, purging or self-starvation to reach an idealized size.

But how we discourage body shaming among children isn't only about teaching them that there's nothing wrong with a variety of body shapes and sizes. It's also about showing them the adults in their lives believe it too, by displaying a healthy self-image of their own.

Fit vs. body fiction

Marci Warhaft-Nadler is very aware of her body. The former fitness, dance and boot camp instructor spent more than two decades of her life battling anorexia, bulimia and compulsive exercising.

"On paper, I should not have had an eating disorder," she said. Growing up in Montreal she was outgoing and active, an athlete who never felt pressure from the adults in her life to lose weight or watch what she ate.

But when her older brother succumbed to a genetic liver disease when she was still a teenager, Warhaft-Nadler dealt with her grief by controlling the only thing she felt she could: her weight. She became more obsessed with not gaining weight than with finding out whether she, too, had inherited the potentially fatal disease.

Her struggles with eating disorders and over-exercising followed her when she moved to Ontario and lasted more than two decades. But even after breaking their hold on her own mind and body, Warhaft-Nadler noticed her sons' elementary school was still feeding its students unhealthy messages about body image.

"I thought it was very focused on a fear of obesity, and very anti-fat instead of pro-health," she said.

Concerned, she went to the school's principal both to complain and offer an alternative: she could talk to kids about her own struggles with disordered eating in hopes of improving their body image. The principal agreed, and later the same week Warhaft-Nadler found herself talking to students armed with nothing more than bristol board, pictures cut out of magazines, and her story.

She felt unprepared, but also "saw from that experience how badly kids wanted to talk about the pressure they felt -- boys and girls."

Her talks have grown, turning into a speaking business called Fit vs. Fiction that sees Warhaft-Nadler speaking to kids in Grade 3 to post-secondary at schools across her native Ontario.

582px version of MarciFitVsFiction_600px.jpg
After years fighting her own battle with eating disorders, Marci Warhaft-Nadler now works to encourage kids to resist how marketers portray the ideal body shape.

Her talks focus on ideas like helping kids develop a positive body image; what "eat right and exercise" (the advice they receive at school) really means in practice; that being "fit" has less to do with how you look than how you feel; and why media and advertisers promote certain body types, and manipulate consumers to believe that anyone can achieve them.

Since she launched Fit vs. Fiction, Warhaft-Nadler has found that many kids' self-image is so warped they believe they're supposed to look like adults. "Parents will say they're stressing because their nine-year-olds are saying, 'Why don't I have six-pack abs like Jacob from Twilight?'"

Such issues aren't limited to the school grades she speaks to. One principal told Warhaft-Nadler about a child in kindergarten who refused to wear her coat in the depths of an Ontario winter because it made her look fat.

She also speaks to adults and wrote a book, The Body Image Survival Guide For Parents, to address their questions and the powerlessness they feel over their kids' self-image.

"I think we all want to do the right thing [for our kids], and sometimes there's just fear," she said of the parents she speaks to. "I wrote the book that I wish my mother had had when she felt powerless."

Take pride in your kids

Fat studies academic Crawford was himself overweight when he grew up in Nova Scotia, taking his share of flak from other kids and some adults. Even his family doctor was quick to turn any malady into a symptom of Crawford's size.

But Crawford admits he was a bit of an odd case. "Being the fat kid was really difficult, and made me feel different in a lot of ways. But knowing that, and having to get through some arduous trials early in life, made me tough, and confident, and unique."

Encouraged to feel shame about his body, Crawford was forced to take pride in other things about himself, like his good grades and desire to help others.

But not every fat kid comes out of their childhood with such a positive outlook. As often, Warhaft-Nadler says, fat kids grow up to be insecure about their bodies, and unwittingly take those feelings out on their own children.

"They're so afraid that their kids are going to grow up overweight that they're over-strict with food. They're pushy with exercise and they have the reverse effect: their kid starts sneaking food and rebels against the exercises," she said.

Warhaft-Nadler recommends making physical activity a focus for the whole family. Instead of running drills or forcing non-athletic kids into sports, she suggests playing games with your kids, going to the playground together, or other fun activities kids won't think of as a chore.

When parents participate, they also benefit from the activity, and model a healthy lifestyle that isn't obsessed by weight or size. But she also emphasizes appreciating kids' uniqueness as individuals, beyond what their bodies look like.

"I think it's really important to see what your kids are interested in, and support them in whatever that is," she said, whether that means buying art supplies for a child who likes to doodle, or an engineering set for one who enjoys building things.

Hide your body shame

Developing a positive body image works best when you start at a young age. "There is no 'too young' to start getting pro-active with [positive body image] messages," Warhaft-Nadler said.

Counteracting commercial and social messaging about the goodness of thin is difficult enough. It can be just as hard hiding your own body shame from your kids.

"It doesn't matter how many times your kids hear you say they're beautiful," Warhaft-Nadler observed. "If you put yourself down one time, that's what's going to stick with them."

If parents want to lose weight that's fine, she adds, so long as they don't make it apparent that their love for themselves hangs on their weight or size.

"You can like who you are and not love where you are with your body," she said. "If you feel like you need to lose weight, you do so because you like your body, not in order to like your body."

As children get older, Crawford recommends talking to them about where our biases against fat come from. While Health Canada maintains the link between obesity and poverty is unclear, there is research linking urban areas in Canada with predominantly low-income families with poor access to nutritious food. Plus, physical activity can be more expensive than watching TV or trolling the Internet. Even the educational background of parents, a link to socioeconomic background, can impact the kinds of foods kids eat at home.

"I think kids can be really empowered by being exposed earlier to ideas about systemic inequality," he said.

If as a society we're really concerned about children's health and the nutritional value of the food they consume, he adds, we should be looking at larger reasons like poverty, inequality, and the accessibility of healthier food versus focusing on kid's waistlines.

Kids who aren't fat would also benefit. As their bodies and the bodies of their peers grow and change, the impact children have on each other's self-esteem and body image is only going to grow. The more kids know that fat doesn't equal "bad" any more than "skinny" equals good, the less likely kids are to subject themselves and their peers to the expectations of meeting impossible to achieve body norms.

As research continues into obesity, its causes and long-term outcomes, it promises only to further complicate our knowledge of what "healthy" means and looks like.

In the meantime, Crawford and Warhaft-Nadler -- and many parents -- might agree that if the price of being "fit" is the loss of a child's self-esteem, kids will never be healthy, no matter what size they are.

Monday, the next piece in the series: how food marketing can help and hinder parents getting their kids to eat healthy.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Food

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