Daughter's concern about diet comes from watching mom

SUSAN REIMER

August 24, 1993|By SUSAN REIMER

"I mean, my fat is just so high today. I had donuts for breakfast."

"Me, too. My stomach is, like, sticking so far out."

I listened in to the conversation as I chauffeured my daughter and her friend around one morning. Though just 7 and 6 years old, they sounded like a couple of world-weary Valley Girls. "I mean, like, rilly. . . ."

But it was the topic, not the tone of voice, that set off alarms in my head. Here were two babies, leggy and mannequin-thin from a summer of swim team, fretting about their fat intake and pouchy tummies. Where was this coming from?

"I like big T-shirts," Jessie argued one morning when I asked her to wear something that actually fit. "They hide my fat."

This is just talk. Jessie loves her food, and she is living proof that if you let a child eat what she wants, she will, over time, eat a balanced diet. She is as likely to leave a peach pit on the floor near the television as a candy wrapper. And there are never any volunteers to sit next to Jessie in a Chinese restaurant or an ice cream parlor. She doesn't like to share.

But when a friend mentioned that pediatricians are seeing cases of anorexia nervosa in girls as young as 7 and 8, I felt my jaw clench.

Jessie's preoccupation with the fat in her food is home-grown. It is coming from me. My daughter, who is in many ways my psychic tuning fork, is getting all sorts of messages from her mother about food. And it looks like they might be the wrong messages.

We stop at McDonald's, and the kids get Happy Meals while I eat a salad and a Diet Coke. But then I steal their french fries.

On nights when my husband isn't home for dinner, I make the kids meat, potatoes and corn bread, and I microwave a diet dinner for me. But then I finish their corn bread.

We take a moonlight drive and stop at an ice cream store. I get a sugar-free, fat-free frozen glob of something while Jessie and her brother get ice cream cones decorated with icing to look like clown faces.

Why was I surprised when one day Jessie asked me if there is a way to eat no calories?

What made me think that my daughter -- who once suggested as I dressed for work that I wear "something a little nicer, with beads" -- would not notice my issues with food?

Pediatricians have warned for some time now that children are increasingly overweight and unfit because they spend too much time in front of the television and the video-game screen. And doctors have issued the same warnings about cholesterol, fat intake and exercise for children that they have given adults.

Add to that the bombardment of our savvy kids with Jenny Craig commercials, Reebok aerobics ads and those Saturday morning TV shows with teens who never looked like that when you were in high school.

Get the message? Our kids do.

Dr. David Roth, director of the eating disorders program at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, agreed that our society is fixated on the young and thin woman. It is a big jump, he said, from feeling like you're fat to an eating disorder. And that jump is usually triggered by trauma. But we are laying a very unhealthy groundwork here.

"In our culture, it is very hard for women to feel any degree of satisfaction with their bodies. The media portrays a body image -- thin and young -- that very few women have," he said. "For a lot of women, you wind up creating a sense of shame, of inadequacy, of unimportance.

"That doesn't mean they all will develop eating disorders."

Dr. Roth explained this baseline dissatisfaction is only a problem when a young girl links it with other troubles -- everything from sexual abuse to getting dumped by a boyfriend -- and uses bingeing, purging or excessive dieting to soothe herself.

"When you focus on your body too much, you will turn to dieting as a solution to major life problems," he said.

As parents, we have to mitigate the resounding messages about thinness our young daughters receive from the world around them -- and from us. That we value the wine, not the shape of the vessel it comes in. That our goals are to live a good life and to respect our bodies.

My husband says it is all Barbie's fault. "If they made chubby Barbies, little girls would be a lot better off."

He's right, but only to a certain degree. Jessie only plays with Barbie. She wants to grow up and be me.

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