Like so many women, I’ve had a tenuous relationship with food and my body for my whole life. I started my first diet when I was 12, hopping on the low-fat bandwagon of the early ‘90s. I ate entire boxes of chocolate no fat-cookies and giant bowls of frosted flakes with skim milk. I did 400 sit-ups every day.
My first year of college, I looked at my naked body in the mirror one day and decided I hated what I saw. I wanted to be thin, the kind of thin that looked delicate and frail. I wanted to see my ribs and hip bones. I threw away all the food in my dorm room and subsisted for weeks on one grape soda per day. I went to the gym daily, sweating it out for two solid hours.
Within weeks, my clothes were literally falling off of me. A friend saw that I was in trouble, dragged me to the food court, and wouldn’t let me leave until she watched me eat some rice and vegetables. She hung out with me afterward to make sure I didn’t go to the bathroom to throw it up and threatened to call my parents if I lost more weight. I started eating again after my friend’s intervention, only occasionally going through bouts of starving myself, though I never went longer than a week without eating after that first time. But starving myself had become my quick way to drop weight whenever I wanted. I possessed an unbelievable ability to deny my own hunger.
But I also went through phases where I ate my feelings. Growing up, the elders in my family encouraged us kids to “clean our plates.” That was common back then, and it made it so I couldn’t stand to leave a morsel of food on my plate. I regularly ate long past when my body had told me I was full.
I cringe when I look back on these days. I don’t want my kids to have an unhealthy relationship with food the way I did. I don’t want food, and how little or how much they eat of it, to be a barometer for their self-worth.
My relationship with food has improved as I’ve gotten older. I still have occasional bouts of eating my feelings, but I no longer go days without eating. Most of the time these days, the way I think about food is in terms of nutrition. I try to look at my body as a vessel, the only one I have available to carry me through this life — because that’s exactly what it is — and care for it accordingly. I try not to think about the impact a food may have on my weight. I stop eating when I’m full, even if that means I have to pack up a bit of food for later.
I model this way of thinking for my kids too. I know that, like me, they will receive messages from the media and their friends that tell them the only way to be beautiful — healthy, even — is to be thin. That the only way to be thin is to restrict your eating or follow the latest fad diet. I have tried to counter those harmful messages by talking about food in terms of its ability to nourish us and sometimes simply to enjoy for enjoyment’s sake. I say things like, “Eat your green food first, because that has the most nutrients,” or “If you feel full, it’s okay to stop eating. Your body is telling you you’ve had enough, and you should listen to it.”
We enjoy the occasional sugary treat, but this one is tricky for me. My kids are genetically predisposed to type 2 diabetes (everyone on their paternal grandmother’s side has it), so I am educating them now about how bodies break down sugars and why it’s important to eat mostly whole foods.
Our discussions are not about body size — they’re about health. I worry, though, that my kids will digest my well-intended education about food and end up adopting the same disordered eating I did. But last week I stumbled on a new Instagram account (thanks for sharing, Kristen Bell!) to help me with the language I use, and I think every parent who is trying to cultivate a healthy attitude toward food in their household will find it useful.
Not only do these rephrasings of old stand-bys just sound better — more motivating, more fun, more specific — but there is no mention whatsoever about body size or shape. It’s very specific, encouraging information about the value of different foods to our bodies. This is completely in line with how I want to teach my kids to think about food, but the wording is leveled up compared to my efforts.
The Instagram account, called @kids.eat.in.color, is a goldmine of useful, non-shamey, body-positive advice for parents on how to help ensure their kids have positive relationships with food and their bodies.
And yet she still understands that some kids are picky eaters. Sometimes getting a kid to eat healthy foods isn’t as easy as simply presenting it to them.
She created this cute graphic about recommended portion sizes and includes “disgusted” as a portion size! Meaning, it’s okay for your kid to take one nibble, be disgusted, and not eat one more bite.
The entire account is dedicated to teaching kids about healthy eating, but shame is completely removed from the equation. Its messages have re-energized me not only to keep talking about food in terms of nutrition with my kids, but even to remember to think in those terms for myself. Because I also forget sometimes. Some of those disordered thoughts from long ago still crop up for me, so cultivating a healthy relationship with food is a journey my kids and I will continue to travel together.
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