I’d spent the better part of two years avoiding interactions with my family in fear of what they might say — not to me, but to my kids. First, I stayed away because their opinions on a two-mom household, the family that my wife and I head, got to me. Second, as my teenager grew into a young man, comments steered towards “He needs a man in the house,” and then to my then three-year-old’s weight gain. I thought it best for us to simply stay away as best we could.
Of course, the pandemic made it easier to “stay away” and paused the attempt I’d been making over the years to build boundaries with my family, mostly around my children’s (and my own) weight, nixing discussions before feelings got hurt. I knew how challenging it was growing up with the same family I now felt that I needed to protect my kids from. I know my family loved me, but they made me (and still do) hyper-aware of my weight, what I put into my mouth, and how much food I chose to put on my plate. My kids, now five years old and 14 years old, continue to build relationships with my family — and it is my job as their parent to protect their mental and emotional health when it comes to their bodies, their weight, and their souls. Establishing boundaries with family is so difficult, at least for me — but once they are in place, they are easy to sustain.
It matters what our families say to us, as parents, and to our kids. My daughter, whose twin sister has a completely different body type, noticed at five years old that her body is different. She comes to us with questions like, “My belly is big, isn’t it?” or “I can’t fit that, I am too big, will you still love me?” Her questions break my heart. Our answers, as her parents, remind her how beautiful she is, how her value is not placed on her body (or the way it looks) but on how she treats others; she treats everyone with love and care — everyone.
But it’s not only about my daughter, it’s also about my son, who is tall, thin, a picky eater due to his sensory issues, and the fact that his medications suppress his appetite. The comments he gets are vastly different — “Oh, you never eat a thing,” or “Look at those skinny legs,” or “You need to put on some weight.” I must admit, before I was fully educated about his autism and food sensitivities, I pushed him to eat more, in fear he would have many deficits when it came to nutrients his body retained. But as I have learned, I have allowed him to do what feels right for him.
All of my children deserve to feel loved and cared for with every interaction they have with family — both immediate and extended. Of course, my family is fearful that our kids’ eating will cause concerns in the future. In a 2015 blog post by Dr. Kahan, director for the National Center for Weight and Wellness, and quoted in The New York Times, he states, “Obesity has been called the last socially acceptable form of prejudice, and persons with obesity are considered acceptable targets of stigma.” It stings even more when those shaming are actually the people who are supposed to love you unconditionally.
We don’t know what our kids’ health will be like in the future, but we know the long term effects shaming them can have on them today — from anxiety to eating disorders. A psychologist and the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Marlene Scwhartz, shares in an interview with NPR, “I think sometimes parents misguidedly think that if they tease the child, that it will motivate them to try harder to lose weight,” she says. “But there’s virtually no evidence that that works. And in fact, there’s evidence that it causes harm.”
The last thing we want to do, as humans, is harm kids. We can choose to do that with our words, or we can make choices that support them, teach them, empower them. When family members talk about the weight or bodies of our kids, we can remind them in that moment to not discuss it, to stay in their lane, to let the parents handle it because at the end of the day, our kids are our responsibility — not the responsibility of their cousins or aunts or uncles or grandparents.
Even the American Journal for Pediatrics encourages non-judgmental approaches from doctors, advice families can take too. In December 2020, they released a statement which in part says, “[C]hildren and adolescents with overweight or obesity may face increased stigma. Pediatricians need to have a nonjudgmental approach with their patients and families and continue to advocate for reduction of weight bias.”
Instead of shaming kids into losing weight, let’s support them. My daughter’s pediatrician did this — he said to me during one visit, “She is in the 99th percentile for her age, but you should encourage her to eat healthier foods. You should also encourage her to love her body. She’s going to be tall too!” And I loved him even more for his words. What he said mattered to my daughter and me. Just like the words of my family members, they matter.
It is my job as my daughter’s mom to protect her, to stand up for her when she doesn’t have the language, and to create boundaries with my family. The new one, talking about her weight, is not a topic of conversation I will engage in with my family members. It’s not fair to her, and inappropriate of them. I know they are not ill-intentioned and they think they are helping by commenting and saying “look at those thighs,” or “look at that belly” — they ultimately want her to be healthy and happy. But little do they know, their ability to shower my daughter with love, with encouragement, with words like “you’re beautiful just the way you are,” or “your smile lights up the room,” or “I hope you know that I love you,” will help my daughter feel even more loved, more secure, and remind her that she’s so much more than just a body. In the long run, the comments they’re making now do more harm than good, and I owe it to her to give her the protection that no one ever gave me.