Lighten up on yourself: obsessing about diets in front of your children

>> Monday, 4 June 2012

This post has been brewing for a while now, but something about the onset of summer and plethora of 'bikini-ready diets' and 'do you dare to bare?' features in the press and magazines has finally pushed me over the edge to write it.  Well, that, a great post that Very Busy Mama wrote at the weekend about dealing with her own body issues, and a conversation I had with friends last week.

I grew up in the 1970's and 1980's.  (Yes.  I AM that old...). And for as long as I can remember, my mother - and all her friends - were on a diet.  Many of them still are.

We had the lemon juice & hot water diet (*makes face like a cat's bottom at the memory of the taste*), the British Heart Foundation Cabbage Soup diet (only to be tried once for fear of suffocation), the Hi-Fibre Diet (only to be tried until you run out of loo roll), the Leslie Kenton  Raw Food Diet (believe me, there are only so many ways you can eat raw carrot and celery), The Atkins Diets (woman cannot live on red meat alone - unless bad breath really doesn't bother her), The Grapefruit Diet (the only one that necessitated the purchase of new cutlery - in this case, serrated-edged spoons), the Three Day Diet, The Chicken Soup Diet, the one that gave you red days and green days (can't remember the name of that one), the Whole Food Diet (to this day I refuse to eat bean sprouts as they are the work of the devil), and the plain-old stop eating so much diet (which, frankly, is the only one that really works).

And through it all, I can't really remember my mum ever being fatter or thinner.  She always looked great, whether she thought so or not, and whether she was eating normally or not.

You would think that with this background I would be a bit of a diet junkie myself, and I have to admit, over the years, to having dabbled with Weight Watchers, food combining, and detox (thankyou Carol Vorderman for introducing me to quinoa, if nothing else), but nowadays - and for some time - I have simply tried eating healthy, balanced food, and applying the 80:20 rule (and sometimes the 50:50 rule, or even - at Christmas and on holiday, the 20:80 rule).  Guess what? It works - mostly.  I don't have a goddess-like body, certainly, but I do have one that I can live with and which I don't feel the need to do down in public at every opportunity.

And that, actually, is the point of this post.  (Apologies for having taken so long to have reached it).  Why, ladies, in this age of supposed empowerment and liberation, do we still feel the need to put our bodies down?  And even worse, in this age of an explosion in the numbers of children and young people suffering from weight-related disorders, why do we do so in front of our children?

Certainly, if you feel the need to, do something about your weight, but for the love of god, please, don't stand in front of your impressionable sons and daughters bemoaning the fact that you no longer possess the body of an 18 year old girl (even the 18 year old you once were) when you are - in fact - 38.  Or 40.  Or, indeed, cough, 45.

How on earth are children ever going to develop a healthy relationship with their own bodies and food (everything in moderation, etc etc), or realistic expectations of how it will develop as they get older, if all they see are their mums seemingly obsessed by the latest fruit and chocolate diet*?  For pity's sake; of course we don't have an 18 year-old beach-babe's toned skin, cellulite-free legs and perky boobs (And if you do, and aren't an 18 year old beach babe, good for you but I don't want to hear about it).  For most of us, the writing is on the wall.  We've got older, we've had babies.  Our bodies have been used, for want of a better term.  The lumps and bumps that we sport as the years pass are a change from our smooth-skinned youth, no doubt about it, but unless you want to make like Demi Moore and spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars on surgery, that's the way the oh-so-delicious cookie crumbles.

To a child, most of what their mother says is gospel.  (Disregarding, of course, the requests to put on shoes, brush teeth, find their missing sweater and clear their plate away from the table; that's just so much filler and white noise - for all the notice my sons take of such directions, in any case).  So if they hear their mother constantly belittling herself, moaning about not being able to wear sleeveless tops because she's over 40 and heaven forbid she shows her upper arms, refusing to take her kaftan off by the pool in case - gasp! - anyone should realise that she has cellulite / thread veins / sock marks round her ankles (oh, is the last one just me?), and generally allowing her life to be restricted by the self-imposed limitations she's placed on herself, like it or not the chances are that her children will impose the same restrictions on themselves in the future.

So, whether you do, or don't, decide to lose weight this summer in preparation for your summer holiday, please be careful of how you talk about your body in front of your children.  A split-second throw-away comment can so easily be internalised by an impressionable adolescent and result in a life-time of issues and an obsession with weight. And if you're anything like me, then I suspect that that is the last thing you want for your beautiful child.

* Although, I can see the attraction in that one.  And I'm sure I can dig out some serrated-edge spoons for the grapefruit...


MsCaroline 4 June 2012 at 12:21  

I've always been very aware of this - my own mum was always on a diet and, like yours, always looked pretty much the same - fabulous. All those years of hearing about diets, though, left me with a pretty bad relationship with food. Took me years to get over the idea that foods were not 'good' or 'bad' and that I was also not 'good' or 'bad' for eating them (or not.)

Oh - and I'm so glad you mentioned the sock marks - I thought I was the only person in the world who got them!

liveotherwise 4 June 2012 at 13:44  

I get sock marks. This is particularly pertinent for me as for the first time ever I am consciously doing something about my weight. But I'm trying thinking slimmer (reviewing it) and the conversations I'm having with my 12 year old are about precisely the kind of thing you've written about.

Irene 4 June 2012 at 14:35  

I think it's very good that you've written about this because a lot of women need to read this. I suffered from a lack of confidence about my body for a long time when after all of it I had no need to. It was because of the ridiculous things I heard while growing up. It's too bad that I didn't resolve these issues sooner. Thanks for brininging this up. xox

Anonymous,  5 June 2012 at 08:55  

Thanks for this. I try to be positive about my shape in front of my daughter but sometimes I forget and say things like "Nah, I'll wear trousers cos my legs are hideous". Being healthy, eating well and being comfortable in our own skins is a good message for our daughters.

Expat mum 5 June 2012 at 09:39  

Although I agree, I also have to say that young girls will pick up on the "I'm not thin enough" message despite healthy role models at home. I have never really dieted, although I exercise and watch what I eat all the time. I have never stood in front of my kids and complained about the size of my bum/tum/arms etc. (more for fear that they would agree than anything else) but my 19 year old still hates most of her body, and the 16 year old (boy), despite having just lost a shedload of weight and running every day, still says his body isn't right. Argh!

Potty Mummy 5 June 2012 at 09:46  

MsC - the 'good' or 'bad' food thing - I hate it! As I do sock marks - which I have right now...

Jax, it's tough, I know, trying to provide a positive role model when all around you the press etc are doing the opposite (see EPM's comment further down). Once upon a time I might have thought this was a problem I wouldn't have to deal with, only have boys, but not any more.

Irene, thankyou. I think to a certain extent it's part of the adult female condition to be dissatisfied with our bodies, but we can at least minimise that in the hope our kids manage to avoid it.

Ali, it is - but since they don't live in a bubble, it's a constant battle.

EPM, of course you're right. I guess I'm just hoping that by remaining balanced on this subject, some of that will make it's way through the white noise of everything else and stick in my boys' minds...

Iota 5 June 2012 at 12:28  

GOOD FOR YOU! Love this post. The attitudes we model become the norm for our kids. I don't want mine growing up thinking it's normal for women to self-loathe. I've started not just dropping the negative, but taking positive action. If my kids are around, I'll deliberately say things like "Ooh, I love my new t-shirt. Don't you think I look great in it?" I even (deep breath) did that last week when I bought a new swimsuit. And - no surprises - my daughter told me that yes, I looked wonderful in it.

We could be the generation of mothers that turns this round - good for you, launching all these crusades at the moment, Potty. What are you on?

It's also a win-win thing. I have found that the more I say "I look good" to my kids, the more I FEEL good about my body. Win-win. Mums are so lucky, because they have an adoring audience on hand.

Jo Beaufoix 5 June 2012 at 19:58  

This one really hits home with me lovely. My Mum was/is always on diets. I was put on diets at around the age of 8 due to careless comments from a school nurse and other adults who measured my short and slightly chunkiness against my sister's tall silf-like gorgeousness.

It's left me with major food weight and body issues and makes me so sad and angry when I think about it. If I'd been left alone it's likely I'd have been fine.

Because of this I'm hyper-aware of my girls' own body images, and how my attitude to food affects them.

It's a difficult one isn't it? I tell my girls they are beautiful, encourage them to eat healthily and enjoy their food, and if I think they're overdoing it on the sweet stuff I talk about how it might effect their teeth, not their waistlines. I don't know if this is the right way to handle it, but so far so good. It does scare me though.

Knackered Mother 5 June 2012 at 22:18  

Brilliant post, so important that we do as much as we can as mothers to give our sons & daughters confidence about themselves no matter what shape they are. My granny used to tell my mother when she'd put on weight and in turn my mother does it to me and my sister and when she does we sit on her and tickle her until she apologises.

English Mum 6 June 2012 at 10:23  

Oh god this brings back some memories... I remember the Heart Foundation one.. and another one where my Mum ate mountains of grapefruit... and one with Nimble bread (remember that?!)... it's a wonder we're all not mentally unstable really!

I almost think I'm lucky that I have boys, who are really into fitness and eat like horses. Not sure how I'd deal with a body-conscious girl, to be honest x

Notmyyearoff 6 June 2012 at 10:24  

Excellent post. I Have seen friends and family do this in front of their kids and then their kids repeat it!!

Potty Mummy 6 June 2012 at 18:02  

Iota - you're right, we should make the most of our onsite fan clubs whilst we can! (As for campaigning, I hadn't intended for this to be one, but who knows?)

Jo, I use the tooth thing too (though actually, getting my two to eat enough to be worried about their food intake would be an achievement in itself!)

KM, tickling, eh? *adds to arsenal*

EM - when did the eating like horses thing start? Am still waiting (and am assured it's not my cooking)!

NMYO - I can see it's easy to do, but can't see it's smart.

Grenglish (@smudgerella) 9 June 2012 at 08:56  

I have been on a diet for 12 years and weigh more or less the same as when I started. I have gained and lost the same stone over and over and then over again.
I started the 4-hour body earlier this year, which promised 30lbs in 30 days... of course this was not the case! The last few weeks I have started to just make more sensible choices instead, watch the portion sizes, cut back on wine and I have lost 5lbs. I have posted before about wanting to set a healthy example to my son as I would hate for him to inherit this obsession. Great post, really important that somebody wrote this :)

SarahMummy 9 June 2012 at 09:05  

So true! I am lucky in that I genuinely don't have to lose weight, so I don't talk about weight in front of my children, yet they are still so impressionable! And boys as well as girls. I've written a couple of posts about my children thinking they were too fat at the age of just 5 - and they are anything but!
Everyone needs to be a healthy weight - for their own and their children's sakes - but it should never be about body image and looking good, because as you rightly say, we are all getting older!

Kate 9 June 2012 at 12:20  

Such an important post that speaks sense. I remember Mum being constantly unhappy with her weight and trying different diets. In the end, she smiled at the idea that the only time she did lose weight was when she got terminal cancer. There is a lesson in that. Live whilst you can and well even with lumps and bumps. Thanks for the reminder.

fun-as-a-gran 12 June 2012 at 10:14  

I dont weight any more ( or any less I may add) to what I did 20 yrs ago. I eat healthy, sensible, dont do diets, or carry outs or alcohol or smoke, a firm believer in a little bit of what you fancy. I exercise plenty between an active job and walking, but am still obese...would love to know where I going wrong.
I blame the media and air brushing that is brain washing people into believing slim is good, and bigger than size 8 is bad, and bigger than size 16 is lazy fat cow that spends all day eating bad food.

HonestMum 6 June 2013 at 11:41  

So true, agree with you and I always present a healthy body image to my son. I never talk about the Fast Diet to him (which I'm doing) and always tell him our bodies are strong and beautiful! Thanks for this x

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