My boyfriend and I recently watched the movie “Away We Go.” Toward the end of the movie, main characters Burt Farlander and Verona De Tassant, who are expecting their first child any second, exchange some impromptu vows. One of the vows Burt pitched to Verona was this:
“Do you promise to let our daughter be fat or skinny or any weight at all? Because we want her to be happy, no matter what. Being obsessed with weight is just too cliché for our daughter.”
“Say no!” I wanted to yell. But instead I hit the pause button and editorialized for a while. (Just a little service I provide for free to my family. They love this about me.)
On its face, these two sentences sound innocent enough. I mean, who wouldn’t want their daughter to be happy no matter what? And only the most shallow, pageant-pushing mom would want her daughter to be obsessed with her weight, right?
But there are a couple of big problems with the vow Burt wants Verona to take. For starters, there’s a difference between healthy and happy. A healthy kid cannot always be a happy kid. Grandparents grow old and eventually pass on. Favorite teddy bears get left at rest stops on cross country road trips. Dogs run away. But if you rush out and get your child a new dog right away to try to cheer her up, you deny her the chance to work through the sadness herself and eventually navigate her way back to feeling okay again.
That’s what’s wrong with wanting your kid to be happy—rather than healthy—no matter what. But what about the first part of Burt’s vow: “Do you promise to let our daughter be fat or skinny or any weight at all?” What if Burt and Verona’s kid loves Twinkies for dinner? Under Burt’s vow they would gladly serve them up to her—maybe even with an extra dollop of Cool Whip for good measure. After all, she needs to be happy no matter what, and they vowed to let her be fat or skinny or any weight at all.
I can’t be too hard on Burt, though. The truth is, his vow highlights a problem that I myself have wrestled with as a mother. Like a lot of nine year old girls, my daughter has a certain amount of interest in her appearance, which I assume will increase over time. Hannah’s not one to pass up a reflective surface without taking the time to admire the view. On top of that, she is a selective eater. Her choosey nature combined with the fact that our family is vegetarian means that we talk about food more than I ever did with her big brother. (“Yes carrots are great for you, but you can’t just have a bowl of carrots for dinner because you need some protein, too.”)
Our ongoing conversations about food made me wonder: How do you raise a healthy daughter in the face of the competing threats of eating disorders on the one hand, and obesity on the other? Are eating disorders and obesity really equal threats? I did a little research to find out. As it turns out, statistics suggest that less than five percent of the adult population in this country will ever battle an eating disorder. On the other hand, more than a third of the adult population in the US is obese, and a full two thirds are overweight. And while eating disorders are serious and can be life-threatening, obesity is no small matter itself (pardon the pun) and can lead to a whole host of serious medical conditions like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, some forms of cancer, as well as poor self esteem and depression.
Refusing to educate a kid about eating healthy out of fear that doing so will cause her to become fixated on her weight would be as short-sighted as not teaching a kid to swim because you’re worried about germs she might catch from the water. Yes, there’s a chance that water-borne germs might give your kid a tummy bug, but the danger of drowning is far greater. As long as the discussions of diet and exercise are focused on promoting good health rather than being skinny, they are worth having.
It seems to go without saying that parents should talk to their kids about good nutrition. But just like Burt’s proposed vow, it’s not as simple as it sounds. With over two thirds of Americans being overweight, many of the parents who should be having these conversations with their kids are overweight themselves. That’s sort of like asking an illiterate to teach reading, or putting me in charge of a high school math class. In fact, if a child under the age of twelve is overweight, it’s hard not to conclude the parents are to blame. After all, who is buying the groceries that stock the pantry at the kid’s house? Who is cooking the food (or worse yet, picking up the fast food) that the kid eats for dinner? Who is green lighting the Eskimo Pie for dessert after a dinner of frozen pizza, potato chips and sweet tea? Who is letting the kid sit in front of the TV for hours at a time?
The fact is, in many cases the entire family needs to change their habits. A lot of parents will tell you with a straight face that they know all about good nutrition and further insist they’re raising their kids to have healthy eating habits, yet those very same parents are filling their grocery baskets with sodas, ice cream and chips. And to steal a line from Stephen Colbert, the only fruit their kids eat is in loop or pebble form.
It’s no secret that people’s ideas of comfort food are formed in childhood. When parents raise their kids on food that is not healthy for them, not only do they set them up to struggle with their weight their entire life, they also sentence them to a lifetime of craving food that is in fact harmful to their health. In this day and age, there is no good reason to put your kid in this position. It’s not like in the seventies when eating healthy relegated you to a diet of alfalfa spouts and sunflower seeds. (I lived through that decade and believe me, it was enough to put you in a culinary coma.) Today there are delicious options for healthy eating in virtually every category, from macaroni and cheese made with whole wheat noodles and fat-free cheese, to (my personal favorite) low fat Skinny Cow ice cream bars and everything in between.
There is one other thing that may cause parents to be reluctant to caution their children about obesity, and that’s the notion proposed by some that being critical of fat people makes you a fattist. But this notion is preposterous. You don’t have to choose between raising your kids with manners and raising your kids with an awareness of health risks. You can—and should—do both. If I see someone smoking, I point out to my kid how smoking is a terrible habit that leads to a whole slew of life-threatening illnesses. If I see an obese person eating French fries, same thing goes. In either case, I would not do so within earshot of the person. That would be rude. But information is power, and I want my kid to know that being overweight is for the most part avoidable if you make smart choices about what you eat, how much you eat and how much you move around.
So, back to Burt and Verona and their proposed vow. I’ve taken the liberty of rephrasing it for them and here’s what I’ve come up with:
“Do you promise to provide our daughter with nutritious food and good information about healthy eating and exercise? Because we want her to be healthy, and being overweight is avoidable if we do our job as parents well.”
Sheryl Crow once said, “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.” I hate to quibble with the phraseology of someone who has actually won Grammy awards for song writing, but she might be oversimplifying things a little. I would put it more like this: “If you’re healthy, then chances are you won’t want things that are bad for you.” How’s that for catchy? Stay tuned for next time when I deconstruct, “You’re My Favorite Mistake” into a wiser but somewhat less enticing, “I’m Glad I exercised Good Judgment in Advance and Realized We Weren’t a Good Match Before We Got Very Far into This.”