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Diets For Girls

August 31, 2011

News that a new diet book is about to be published is not something that we would take notice of but the pearl of wisdom that is ‘Maggie Goes On A Diet’ has kicked up quite a fuss.  After two weeks of reading about how wrong this book is/ will-be I thought I’d share a few thoughts of my own.

The Maggie book looks sickening from the outset as you see a drawing of a larger girl looking longingly into the mirror at her soon-to-be slimmer-and-more-popular self.  I haven’t read the book but from the snippets that have been doing the pre-publicity rounds it looks like Maggie is transformed from ugly duckling to beautiful swan all thanks to losing a few pounds. Groundbreaking news for a not yet obsessively self conscious tweenager.

Experts from all ends of the child-development and self-esteem sector have commented about how in-appropriate and damaging this book may turn out to be and as I am neither of the above I thought that the best thing I could do was talk about me, my kids and I.

From time to time my girls have both made mention of their bodies in a negative way – their legs are too fat, their bum sticks out, they are too tall, too short or just too bleugh to be a fairy/ Jockey/ Professional Football Player or Character out of Harry Potter. You name it, they have from time to time said it.  But before we all gasp in horror (my kids are currently 7 and 10, both are sporty and body-wise are what can only be described as medically fit and well) I do believe that it is  somewhat normal to become aware of ones body and to weigh it up so-to-speak against others. It’s just a question of care-factor.

Again to put some more background and context to this very personal story I can happily confirm that I too am fairly fit and healthy without being obsessive (I don’t think that going to the gym twice a year whether you want to or not is over-kill) and have remained at a medically acceptable weight for my size since forever.  I am not a dieter, I eat with my kids, eat chocolate at night, walk around naked (yes that will soon be seen as the grossest thing since whenever in my kids eyes), swim and jump around with the kids and never, ever use fat-talk.  I don’t spend too much time looking at myself in the mirror and use realistic language to convey how I feel about my soon-to-be 37-year-old self.  I like me and believe that the way I look and the physical space I take up is only one small (but not insignificant) part of the mummy that my girls and I love.

So back to the story.  My kids do sometimes use ‘fat talk’ and have on occasions told me that so-and-so is on a diet and that they want to go on one too.   I believe that we are a healthy-in-a-body-image-way family (at least for now anyway) and when my kid say things like that it cuts into me like a knife.  I have to breathe, take a moment and try to hear the words for what they are  without dragging up any baggage or pre-conceived ideas of what this might be or turn into. I also have to use my instinct to guide me  about what to do next.

So far my kids infrequent  body conscious moment are just that. Fleeting moments of  un-substantiated self-doubt.  But where do those words and those feelings come from?

Well that’s just it, I don’t know for sure but as they are living on the same planet as me (most of the time) I can hazard a few guesses.

Looks matter in our society and they matter in a very specific way.  As our babies grow their focus of attention moves from themselves and onto others, they become social and start making friends and making choices.  Another horror moment of parenting is when your child comes home crying because ‘Miss 4 won’t play with me at pre-school because she says I have yucky hair’ and while the torments change with age, the looks/ popularity index remains an ever-present ego bruiser.  I guess that learning to accept the bits that we can’t or don’t want to change about who we are individually and then who we are in relation to our ‘group’ is all part of growing up.

And so back to Maggie goes on a diet or whatever it’s called.

To sum up I would say this.  Kids live on the same planet as us adults and what’s more, they are very perceptive and inquisitive when it comes to matters concerning personal identity. Indeed, it is their job to be switched on in this area, that is what growing up is all about.  So, in my mind anything that supports the notion that looks are the only thing that matters is hideous and wrong as kids should be using their childhood to form a well-balanced sense of self.

So, what  next?  

This blog post has focused on looks, weight and food relationships because we are discussing a new diet book. In my home as in countless others we, as parents are investing in the whole child by supporting them in their education, developing their out-of-school interests,  facilitating friendships,  showering them with love, cuddles and well-intentioned words of encouragement,  creating a safe space for them to grow and allowing them time to be kids.

I’d stick my neck out and say that diet  books are very wrong for kids but I think that we should avoid freaking out and calling a councillor every time our son or daughters come home and mention the ‘d’ or ‘f’ words.  They, like us are just observing the world and noticing that looks do matter.

But they only matter to a point.

It is up to us to help our children to draw the line and to step over it and we all know there is so much more to life than diet books and looks.  We have had our moment and come out the other side one way or another,  so let’s help our children do the same by a) not buying this book and b) not having to buy this book.

I have described my family situation here because that is the only one I can really comment on. The fact that my family sits slap bang in the middle of any looks based measurement, that we are not a family of dieters, that we (as parents) do love our physical selves (but not excessively, that would be weird) and that my kids have felt the wrath of looks-based prejudice confirms to me that this is an issue for everyone and that could be helped if everyone was supportive of a less looks dominant way of measuring self-worth.  We are all different but we are all going through the same.

If you need proper help I would recommend starting off by checking out one of the not-for-profit organisations that deal with disordered eating.  The Butterfly Foundation is one such starting point.


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