“My daughter is fat, isn’t it my job to tell her?” a well-meaning father wrote to me after reading one of my recent articles about children and body image.
Here’s some news: you don’t have to tell her she’s fat. She already knows.
The list of people who have beaten this father to this particular conversation include: school bullies, frenemies, medical professionals, the aunt who gasps audibly when his daughter asks for a second piece of birthday cake, the grandparent who tells her how ‘big’ she’s gotten, strangers who raise their eyebrows every time she eats in public, and every time she looks at the TV, a magazine, newspaper or movie.
And, more than likely, nobody judges her body more harshly than she does.
But it’s not surprising that this father thinks it’s his job to inform his daughter about her weight. After all, this tough love approach is the prevailing wisdom of governments, doctors, TV shows and even First Ladies. While we’re told to tread carefully where skinny children are concerned to protect their developing self-esteems, fat kids are fair game.
But what a daughter really needs from her parents — particularly her father, since he’s the first man that loves her and sets the standard for the way she’ll expect men to treat her in the future — is unconditional love.
When you tell your child to lose weight, she will most likely interpret that to mean that you will love her more if she’s thinner. In other words, you will love her when she’s different from how she is now.
What she really needs is for her home to be a safe haven, where she feels loved, valued and respected no matter what.
“Talking to children about their weight is harmful. Nothing good can come of it,” says Dr Rick Kausman, author of If Not Dieting, Then What? and fellow of the Australian Society for Psychological Medicine.
“The research is quite clear that focusing on weight does not result in weight loss. In fact, it will mostly likely result in weight gain. It’s also the most common pathway to an eating disorder, particularly with kids,” says Dr Kausman who has 25 years experience running a weight management and eating behaviour clinic.
Asking a child to lose weight is setting them up for failure. On average, only 5 per cent of adults who diet are able to keep the weight off long term. This means that you’re asking a child to do something that 95 per cent of adults are unable to do.
It’s also important to remember that children, especially girls, need a certain amount of fat to fuel their bodies as they develop.
“Girls in particular need adequate fat composition as a prerequisite for puberty,” says psychologist and Director of BodyMatters Australasia Sarah McMahon.
“Indeed, fat stores need to increase to progress through this remarkable biological accomplishment. Typically girls’ bodies actually do know what they are doing,” McMahon says.
What should parents do if they’re concerned about the health implications of their child’s weight?