“Move mum! I cant see the TV … your tummy is in the way.”
The anguish in my daughter’s voice was clear – this was not just any TV show I was blocking, it was Peppa Pig!
Later that night as I was putting Susie to bed she asked me why I was so fat. I explained that it was because I have a baby inside my tummy. She knew that and nothing annoys her more than when I tell her things she already knows. So she held back her frustration and clarified the question.
“NO … Why is your face fat and your arms and legs? Why is all of you so fat?”
After putting on over 20kg with this (and my previous pregnancies) it is a fair question. The truth probably has something to do with the hours spent on the couch and the daily ration of cake and mini mars bars (note they are “mini” so it is OK if I have more than one).
Of course I did not admit this to my 5-year-old daughter who has already had a visit from Healthy Harold and knows that cake and chocolate are “sometimes food”. So I gave her a very rational answer about my body needing to store extra fat so that it can make milk when the baby arrives.
With the baby now one week overdue, there is simply no hiding the fact that I don’t look my best. So my daughter’s questioning didn’t bother me at all.
But it does raise an issue that I have struggled with for the last couple of years and imagine will continue to cause me grief as a parent for at least another decade – how to balance the need to teach kids how to maintain a healthy weight without making them too self-conscious or obsessed about their own physical appearance?
This question is particularly important with estimates that up to one in 20 Australians have an eating disorder.
When Susie asked me why I was fat, I was happy to give her an answer and was conscious not to make a big deal about it. But a few months ago when she asked the mother of one of her friends why she was so fat, my heart nearly stopped.
Later that day I tried to explain that it is not nice to tell people they are fat or to ask people about their size – of course this led to the inevitable cascade of questioning “whys”.
Up until this point Susie has been fascinated, and at times outspoken, about the different colour of her friends’ skin or the sounds of their voice. But after a couple of years of repeated explanations, I feel Susie now understands and accepts that people’s differences are more like interesting facts about them rather than points of exclusion.
She now understands that some people speak different languages and talk with a different accent because they were born in a different country. It is not “good” or “bad”; it just is. It is also fine to be curious about a friend’s background. In fact, in most cases it is much better to have a genuine interest than to not care at all.
So getting back to the issue of FAT, how do you explain to a 5-year-old that you can’t call someone fat because it will make them sad? Is it because it is bad to be fat and good to be skinny? Or the more socially nuanced version that it is bad if other people think you are fat and good if they think you are skinny?
Then at the same time we obviously don’t want to put too much focus on our children’s appearance and weight. I was shocked to read about a study published earlier this year that 3 to 5-year-old children are already more likely to attribute negative characteristics to fat dolls and positive attributes to thin dolls.
So it is just as important to balance messages about healthy eating with the idea that children shouldn’t worry about whether or not they are fat, or whether other people think they are.
As a parent I know there are no easy answers to these questions and all you have to do is hope that you raise your kids to be physically healthy, sufficiently resilient to cope with teasing and nice enough not to dish it out. That shouldn’t be too hard!