Being a fat* mother in this age of Childhood Obesity Crisis headlines is a bit of an occupational hazard. Fat mothers** garner more stares, more scrutiny of the contents of our supermarket trolleys, more pointed looks if our kids eat something sugary in public, more derision from health professionals, more stigmatization and mockery in the media. Feeling as though I’m at the receiving end of this could just be my imagination… except that it’s not. Because I’ve been on the giving end of that judgement and so has just about everyone I know.
Until Bean was about a year old, she was a tiny slip of a thing. She never gained a lot of weight, never had chubby thighs and arms. I was hyper-aware of this and always stressed about it, partly because I was breastfeeding her and partly because, whenever people commented ‘wow, she must take after her father’ I suspected their incredulity was because of my weight. I’m big, why wasn’t she? (Of course, if she had been a particularly chubby baby, I would have been on the receiving end of a lot of negative attention for that, so once again a mother can’t really win.)
These days Bean is robust and tall. I am still hyper-aware of any hinted criticism of her growth, because it’s something I know all too well. Being past the baby stage, she’s fair game for the obesity police. Not that she’s fat (and for fuckssake I shouldn’t have to add that as a disclaimer but, you know, in case you were wondering about my two year old’s girth, there it is.)
This hyper-awareness has followed on to commentary on what Bean eats and how, for obvious reasons. Like most aspects of parenting, I have put a lot of thought into our approach to nutrition. My parents didn’t get it right and my boarding school sure didn’t – and I’m not going to say that’s the reason I’m fat, but it is definitely one of the many reasons why my weight naturally hovers around at ‘fat’ instead of just ‘solid’ (which is what I clearly am genetically). Obviously, for her health and wellbeing and enjoyment of life, The Fireman and I want to get the food thing right for Bean as well as the body image and self esteem thing, whatever size and shape she grows up to be.
I have embraced the Health At Every Size ethos. I am anti-diet. I am anti-demonising food. I am pro-activity-because-it-feels-good, pro-nourishing-food-because-it-tastes-good and I am pro-body awareness and positive self esteem. All of this is easy to spot from a distance. But the nuts and bolts of how I feed my child and why? I thought I’d write about that in more detail here, so I can always refer the Don’t Eat That It’s Fattening crowd back here right before I tell them to get the hell away from my daughter.
Basically, in this house we practice division of responsibility, Ellyn Satter style. I am pleased to say that I first heard about this concept from the local health nurse, so it is something that government guidelines are all for. And it really, really works.
This, my friends, is the golden rule for fighting Childhood Obesity DEATHFAT BOOGA BOOGA from the safety of your own homes:
It is our job to choose which food to offer to our children, and when. It is their job to decide whether to eat what we offer, and how much to eat.
That’s it! The simplicity is breathtaking, no?
Of course, it makes sense to mainly choose foods which are nourishing and to offer a range of foods so that children develop diverse palates and are familiar with all kinds of food. Choosing mainly home-cooked food can help to avoid too much stripping of nutrients or adding of chemicals. It is wise to have a healthy attitude towards the reality that ‘junk’ food exists and that overeating is sometimes part of celebrations, and to balance that with a moderation approach. It makes sense to avoid any foods that are allergy or intolerance triggers and to practice food safety. It’s important to share meal times where possible, and make food as well as activity a positive part of life. And it also makes sense to do other wonderful things like choosing organic, and involving children in food preparation, and trying recipes with health-promoting foods like legumes. All of those things are wonderful and we try to do them at our place. But at the end of the day, I know that as long as Bean obeys the first rule of nutrition – eat or die -*** she’ll be fine.
Choosing to feed Bean in this way has made my life so much easier in many ways. Here’s how it works for us:
Bean is a hungry person in the morning, so for breakfast she will eat what I prefer to eat (generally toast or porridge) in roughly similar quantities to me.
For morning tea, we will have some fresh fruit and perhaps a biscuit or a piece of muffin or cake. (Often these baked things are homemade, but not because I’m inherently virtuous. I make them myself because they taste so much better that way, and yes, the lack of chemicals and trans fats and excess sugar and salt is a bonus. But you know what, I don’t beat myself up if she eats a commercial cookie. Life is too short for ridiculous aims and excessive guilt.) Bean has yet to learn to restrict her eating (ie. to diet) and therefore she naturally eats intuitively, like all children. This means some days she will eat the fruit and leave the baked goods because she just doesn’t feel like it. I never prompt her to do this, because that would be overstepping where my responsibility lies. And when you do that, you start to dull the body-awareness which makes a person sometimes reach for fruit instead of cake in the first place.
For lunch, Bean will often have what I like to call a ‘tasting plate’. I will give her a sandwich, or some crackers with hummous, or maybe a cheesy bread roll, or a vegetable muffin. And with that there’ll be fresh fruit, maybe some cheese, cherry tomatoes, that type of thing. All easy to prepare and transportable. She picks and chooses what she feels like. (Often lunch is more of a scheduled snack, since she ate so much at breakfast!)
Afternoon tea works like morning tea.
Dinner is what we’re eating, plus dessert. We offer her the dessert course (fresh or cooked fruit, sometimes yoghurt or custardy type things) along with the main meal. Sometimes she will eat dessert first and then go for mains, sometimes not. Sometimes all she will eat is fruit. I’m okay with that – she’ll eat more of the other food groups tomorrow. (One meal, one day, one week of eating is never the end of the world or the beginning of the descent into Health Crisis Obesity Land.)
This only works because We trust her to know what she needs and how hungry she is. And importantly, because she trusts us to provide her with plenty of nutritious food at regular intervals. This would not work at all if Bean was insecure about food: if she feared she wouldn’t get lunch, she’d overeat at morning tea. If she felt like cake was something she only got when she was ‘good’, she’d pig out on it and leave the boring old fruit, every time. We don’t bribe her to eat, we don’t praise her for eating (except to praise her for trying a new food she was unsure of) and we don’t reward or soothe her with food. We also don’t restrict her intake at the set meal times: if she wants more potato, she gets more. Food is a normal part of her life, it is a (hopefully) enjoyable part of our family time, and it’s morally neutral. Eating cake is not a sin. Eating wholewheat crackers with low fat cottage cheese is not ‘being good’. It’s just eating.
At celebrations like birthday parties, the option to control what to offer and when to offer it is usually out of my hands. But that’s okay, because in life we celebrate with food and Bean is learning that it’s normal to have some days of a different sort of eating. She is learning that at birthday parties, you can eat half your body weight in cake and MSG-covered snack foods if she wants to. Thing is, she never actually does this. She does sometimes eat so many strawberries she gives herself a stomach ache but I trust that in time she will learn that this, too, is not good for her body. She will learn to make other choices for herself.
The difficult part of all of this is not for her, at all, because she’s not really having to do anything new. We are born knowing how to eat. But it’s difficult for me. Because if my child is at a party eating a lot of cake, or if she is out for afternoon tea with me and she eats a whole muffin, or if we are on a long drive and we decide that a rare trip to MacDonald’s suits us all, there is judgement. I know that people think that I will feed my daughter up to be fat because it’s been said to me. I know people think that I am fat because I have no clue about nutrition or because I’m lazy, because it’s been said to me. I know that people think that no matter what my lifestyle is like, the mere fact that I exist and I am fat means that my daughter will grow up to emulate me (which is, according to these people, an inherently bad thing.) Thus, I know that sharing an icecream or other ‘bad’ food out with her in public risks derision and being the fodder of someone’s dinner party conversation about What Is Wrong With The World and how too many of our taxes go to pay for Stupid Obese People.
I can’t determine what size Bean will grow into, but I can help her to love her body as it is. I can also help her to know how to nourish it well in a world that wants to make a virtue out of starving, and how to hold on to her current love of moving for the joy of it. And frankly, if that’s not good enough for the Obesity Police, I don’t want to hear about it. Because where the goal is purely thinness and not health, I’m simply not interested.
* I don’t use fat as a pejorative, but as a descriptor. I don’t use the term ‘overweight’ because it implies that there is some particular weight which everyone should be, when in fact everyone has their own individual ‘healthy weight range’ and mine might well be over yours.
** I say fat mother instead of fat parent for a reason. It is almost invariably mothers who are given responsibility for their child’s eating (and therefore weight), especially in the media. I don’t doubt that fat fathers go through similar things when they’re out and about and eating with their kids though.
*** The first rule of nutrition = eat or die. That’s it. All the other rules, healthy eating tables etc. are useful guidelines but they don’t always apply to individuals and the bottom line is that food – even ‘junk food’ – keeps us alive. Thanks to The Fat Nutritionist for that one.
I didn’t make any of this stuff up. For further reading on this, try
How To Get Your Kid To Eat… But Not Too Much by Ellyn Satter
Health At Every Size, The Suprising Truth About Your Weight by Linda Bacon
This post (or any) from The Fat Nutritionist
What Michelle Obama’s Childhood Obesity Initiative Gets Wrong by Kate Harding