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The Diet Dilemma: Protecting Kids From Diet Culture

How to foster body positivity amidst diet culture and fat-shaming

Malia Jacobson

Published on: July 29, 2019

healthy eating happy kid

“David’s mom is fat. She needs to go on a diet.”

When my sweet kindergartner innocently uttered this line after school one day, I couldn’t hide my shock. After experiencing my own body-image ups and downs, I’d tried to protect my young kids from talking about weight loss and dieting. Faking composure, I countered, “Oh? Um, where did you hear that?”

She explained, unfazed. “David’s mom said it herself. She was at school today and said to my teacher, ‘I’m fat and I need to go on a diet.’ She said she doesn’t like her butt.” With a throwaway shrug, she skipped off to join her friends on the swing set. I was left swinging between anger that my 5-year-old had been introduced, albeit accidentally, to the idea of dieting for weight loss and relief that she hadn’t come up with the “too fat” judgment herself.

Mostly, though, I felt powerless. I’d tried to shield my child from diet culture and failed. Despite my efforts, the world’s message that our bodies are never good enough had found her.

How diet culture hurts kids

The term “diet,” of course, isn’t necessarily a dirty word. But equating thinness with virtue and encouraging the pursuit of a physical ideal through food restriction — the ideas central to “diet culture” — are problematic, says Amee Severson, RDN, a registered dietician in Bellingham whose work focuses on body positivity, fat acceptance, intuitive eating and social justice.

Though diet culture often passes for “wellness” or “clean eating,” it’s actually unhealthy, because people stop tuning in to their own body’s signals about hunger and satiety, says Severson. By elevating thinness as the ideal physical state, moralizing about food as good or bad and promoting rule-based eating, diet culture disconnects people from their bodies’ actual nutritional needs. That might be why, despite widespread dieting — one-third of Americans are on a diet at any given time — nearly all dieters regain lost weight within a few years.

Like any effort toward self-improvement, dieting is well-intentioned. It’s also completely normal and accepted in our society, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for our bodies or our minds, says Severson. “Even when it’s called ‘clean eating’ or ‘wellness,’ making food choices that don’t come from your own body’s cues but instead from rules or moral judgments is considered disordered eating.”

Whether we like it or not, kids are exposed to this type of disordered eating, along with ideas about the right kind of body to have. Even well-meaning comments about body size, from “She’s really trimmed down! She looks great!” to “I’m just worried about his health,” can breed intolerance and exclusion at school and on the playground, says Severson. “Kids notice when we judge bodies — others’ or our own. Being fat is still viewed very negatively, and fat people are still the butt of jokes.”

Whether we like it or not, kids are exposed to this type of disordered eating, along with ideas about the right kind of body to have. 

Not surprisingly, kids quickly turn this type of judgment on themselves. According to an article published in the International Review of Psychiatry, the idea that other people’s fat bodies are inferior is linked to what researchers call “shape dissatisfaction,” or unhappiness with one’s own body, along with dieting behavior in young children, disordered eating behavior and eating disorders.

Kids aren’t the only ones harmed by diet culture, of course. By marginalizing people who fall outside the societal ideal — in our culture, it’s white thinness — diet culture harms the mental and physical health of transgender people, people with different abilities, people with larger bodies and people of color, per Christy Harrison, R.D., host of the Food Psych podcast

For Ivory Bruinsma, a certified fitness instructor in Tacoma who shares her journey with body acceptance through her Instagram account (@vibrantbrowngirl), rejecting diet culture meant rejecting the white standard of thinness.

“I had to stop chasing white thinness and what white beauty looks like, because that’s what I mostly see in our culture,” says Bruinsma.

Unlearning diet culture can take decades, says certified health and running coach Rose Coates, so it’s worth trying to prevent kids from absorbing it in the first place. “I was raised in diet culture, with Tab, SlimFast and the whole thing.”

Now a race director who organizes inclusive Sporty Diva run/walk events from Seattle to Orting, Coates models a healthier approach to food, one that doesn’t involve counting calories, for her twin granddaughters. “It took me awhile to get here, but I’m trying to show them a healthier way,” she says.

Fight back against fat shame

One way to fight diet culture: Teach kids that “fat” is simply another descriptor, not a bad word, says Severson. “Guide your kids [to understanding] that fat is just another descriptor; I have brown hair, you’re short, I’m fat. It’s just a body size and not a moral indicator of a good or bad human. The more we can teach kids that, the more we can fight back against diet culture.”

When well-meaning friends or relatives comment on a child’s size or food choices, a simple “Please don’t comment on our food or our bodies” is in order, says Severson. “As parents, we’re the protectors of our children’s bodies.”

Families can prioritize health in a way that doesn’t promote restrictive eating, says Bruinsma. A few years ago, her doctor advised weight loss after she survived stage 3 colon cancer. She resolved to find a way to heal her post-cancer, post-chemotherapy body without succumbing to diet culture or exposing her kids to restrictive eating. “I was really hyperaware about talking about weight loss in front of my kids,” she says. “They would ask why I was working out, and I’d say, ‘Mama wants to be strong and play with you.’ If they saw me weighing myself, I’d say, ‘I’m checking how strong I am!’”

Even if we don’t think they’re watching, kids pick up on our deeply held beliefs about fat and thin, good and bad, and who is worthy of love, says Bruinsma.  And before parents can keep diet culture from consuming their kids, they might need to heal themselves. “When I started my body acceptance journey, I literally stood naked in front of a  mirror, at 200 pounds, and named each body part and why I loved it. I love my legs because they carry me where I want to go. I love my stomach because it carried three babies. No matter what my body looks like, I’m worthy and I’m enough.”

For my part, I’ve found stronger footing since my daughter’s innocent introduction to dieting in her kindergarten classroom. Though I know I can’t completely shield her or her siblings from diet culture, now I know I’m strong enough to fight back. And David’s mom — if you’re reading this, you’re strong enough, too.

Body-Positive Media to Share With Kids

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