Most of the time, it comes out the wrong way, either as an insult or a failed attempt to offer help. It makes people feel awkward and self-conscious, and could lead to a drop in self-esteem and a rise in eating disorders.
And it starts when we are young.
According to a 2011 survey sponsored by WebMD and Sanford Health, one in four parents is uncomfortable talking about weight with his or her kids. Participants reported they’d rather talk to their children about sex and drugs than weight and obesity.
Health organizations have started responding to that problem.
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta recently launched a website, strong4life.com, which encourages parents to have “the talk” about health with their children. The talk doesn’t include the word “weight.” The website aims to give parents the tools they need to discuss and implement a healthier lifestyle for themselves and their children.
When I was a kid, I didn’t really talk about weight or healthy living with my parents. When they were growing up, it wasn’t something that needed to be taught because people were more active, food was more wholesome and portion sizes were smaller.
Here’s what I remember about weight and childhood. I hated getting weighed at school because I was heavier than the thin girls, and the nurses weighed us in line and then read our weight aloud.
Maybe, at certain points throughout the years, people would’ve called me chubby. Or maybe it wasn’t that bad. However, I remember asking my mom what a calorie was when I was 8 years old.
In third grade, I got in a fist fight with my friend. Our scuffle ended when she called me fat, and I walked away crying.
In high school, I overheard that a girl told my peers I “had a stomach,” which became the talking point of the day.
In college, a boy insulted me by saying I was the “chubby version” of two other girls.
During my late-teen and early-adult years, my BMI averaged around the high point for normal and peaked at 25, the lowest marker for “overweight.”
People still called me fat.
I remember once staring at myself in the bathroom mirror when I was 17, noticing how a thin shirt clung to my semi-pear-shaped sides and hips.
“Am I fat?” I said to my mom.
She hesitated, probably wondering how to word her response.
“We all have our problem areas,” she said.
Blood rushed to my cheeks. I got upset because she reaffirmed what I already knew. She didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, aiming to point out that most people don’t like certain parts of their bodies.
But it wasn’t helpful. It didn’t provide me with direction or a solution to my problem. Instead, the comment sank in my stomach and fed my insecurity. I wanted to feel healthier, and I needed someone to help me do it.
I struggled with my weight until a few years ago. I taught myself what I know about fitness and nutrition. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been. I don’t blame my parents or teachers.
It’s just that times have changed.
Before obesity rates started skyrocketing 30 years ago, people didn’t have to learn as much about exercise and nutrition. Now they do, and it should start at home.
Two-thirds of the country is overweight or obese. Childhood obesity has tripled since 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More and more children are developing Type 2 diabetes and have high blood pressure. Many predict this generation of children won’t live as long as its parents.
If you feel awkward talking to your kids about health — and indirectly, weight and obesity — know that you’re not sparing their feelings. Someone else has probably already called them fat. They’ll hear it again and again, each comment void of any real advice or help.
Adults need to learn how to implement healthier lifestyles for themselves and their families. Children need to know how to be healthier. Kids have to have a solid foundation that will lead to a higher quality of life so they can teach their children how to live, and so on.
There’s no sense in tiptoeing around an epidemic with such dire consequences. If we do, what are we teaching our children?
Leigh Zaleski is a multiplatform features reporter at York Daily Record/Sunday News. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to start
Kelly Marsteller, registered dietitian at Memorial Hospital, said many parents feel uncomfortable talking about weight gain and obesity with their children because society associates being healthy with being thin.
She said children, depending on their age, might be insecure about their bodies. If parents focus on children losing weight and being thinner, it could hurt kids’ self-esteem.
“It’s not always the body shape that determines if you’re healthy or not,” Marsteller said.
She said a parent also might feel uncomfortable broaching the subject if she has experienced weight gain or has some unhealthy habits.
“It could be a little shame on the parent’s part, too,” she said. Marsteller said overweight children might not necessarily have to lose weight — they just need to maintain weight, and healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels as they grow.
She helps run KidShape, a nationally recognized weight-management program held at the hospital for families with overweight children ages 6 to 14.
Marsteller said she has seen a lot of success when the whole family gets involved and when families focus on healthy living versus weight loss. She said it’s important that children receive the nutrients they need to stave off chronic illness.
“It’s not about the size that you are,” Marsteller said. “But it’s about how you’re taking care of your body and the foods you’re putting in it.”