She was in the 4th grade when she realized her body was wrong. “It’s probably from eating all that pizza and ice cream. It tastes good, doesn’t it? But it makes your body big and fat,” said her pediatrician during a check-up, detailed in this post by My Fat Friend on Medium.com. “Just imagine that your body is made out of clay. If you can just stay the same weight, as you grow, you’ll stretch out. And once you grow up, you’ll be thin and beautiful. Won’t that be great?”
Was the girl’s reaction to be healthy and take care of herself? No. Instead, this is what happened: “I felt my face sear with shame. My skin was neon, hot and bright, noisy and garish. I had learned so much in that one moment: You’re eating too much junk food. You’re not beautiful. You’re indulging too much. Your body is wrong. You must have done it. Something was wrong with my body. I’d failed a test I didn’t even know I’d taken.”
This led to years of hating her body, weight loss, binge eating and weight gain. Not such a surprise when you consider we live in a society that sells weight as the be-all, end-all of health and happiness. But all chasing the perfect weight does it is create shame of the worse kind, and a lifetime of suffering.
Why even thin people grow up hating their body
In a study published in PLUS One, 25 parents and grandparents revealed their experience with body image growing up. Here’s what it found:
- Fourteen of the participants said their body weight awareness emerged through comments made by others, mostly parents and friends. Four of the 14 gave critical comments from parents as the reason they don’t mention weight with their children or grandchildren. One participant said, ‘‘I carry that with me today. I still think of that…That’s why it’s so important to me not to make an issue out of weight, because those comments last forever and ever.’’ Another participant said ‘‘my mom would point out when I was 9 that I would eat too much or that I needed to go exercise.’’
- Eleven of the parents and grandparents became aware of their body on their own, with seven saying their awareness emerged through negative feelings about their body size or themselves, and four saying their awareness emerged through comparing their bodies to their peers. One participant said ‘‘you’re at an age where all the girls are like, ‘I’m fat! My thighs are so fat!’’’
- None of the participants — regardless of size– described their emerging childhood body image in positive terms. One adult said ‘‘I don’t think I’ve ever liked my body weight, even though I was only a size five up until I was 18 and that’s fairly small, but I never liked myself.” Another felt too skinny: ‘‘I was really thin, and people constantly, constantly commented on my weight.’’
The central theme of the study was a universal experience of body dissatisfaction falling short of society’s ideals. And even more sadly, many of the adults in the study reported that those early experiences carried over to adulthood.
The answer: body appreciation
Research tells us that people who are dissatisfied with their bodies are more likely to use restrictive diets, exercise less, have lowered quality of life and binge eat. But what happens if we could turn that around and help people appreciate their body? To find out, Tracy Tylka created the body appreciation scale to study the effects, and the results have been promising.
The definition of body appreciation is “holding favorable opinions toward the body regardless of its appearance, accepting the body along with its deviations from societal beauty ideals, respecting the body by attending to its needs and engaging in healthy behaviors, and protecting the body by rejecting unrealistic media appearance ideals.” In other words, body appreciation is not about loving the way your body looks in bathing suit, it’s about having a much deeper and respectful relationship with it.
A positive body image helps in a variety of ways. First, research suggests it helps protect children from the Thin Ideal media exposure they get. And second, a positive body view has been linked to better self esteem, well being and healthier habits. Third, children are more likely to listen to cues of hunger and fullness. “Based on a study in Developmental Psychology, we do know that initial levels of body appreciation predict future levels of intuitive eating one year later,” says Tylka. “Appreciating the body helps individuals stay in tune with the body’s needs and respect the body, which facilitates their attention to their hunger and satiety cues (intuitive eating) and following these cues to respect their bodies.”
So while too much weight is one factor that can increase the risk of certain health issues, so is eating a nutrition-poor diet, dieting, inactivity, body dissatisfaction, poor self esteem, stress, not getting enough sleep, being depressed, being overly anxious etc. The key is to avoid making health all about weight when it’s just one piece of the health puzzle. Because, as that 4th grader has finally discovered all these years later:
When I feel disconnected from my body, I don’t take care of it. When I embrace my body, when I appreciate what it does for me, I do. Learning not to hate our bodies isn’t a matter of feeling good or appeasing the self-esteem of fat people, it’s a matter of our physical health and emotional survival.
The more people who realize that, the better off we’ll be.
To read the entire post form Your Fat Friend see: On Tough Love and Your Fat Friend’s Health
Other posts in this series include: What Rewarding Kids with Food Looks Like 20 Years Later, What Forcing Kids to Eat Looks Like 20 Years later, and What Clean Your Plate Looks Like 20 Years Later
Want to learn how to talk to kids about food and their body? Get my book: How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food.