Monday, 29 April 2013

Body image: what are we teaching our kids?

Body image.

This is such a tricky topic, particularly for young girls.

I'm a little out of my element here since I don't have daughters of my own (for which I am grateful, at least with regards to this issue). But, I am a girl myself (well, a grown-up girl) who spent my youth as an athlete and my entire adult life working in the fitness industry. I have struggled with body image all my life. Like most women, I have a very heightened awareness of my own physical appearance - but also like most women, I have lived enough of life now to be relatively comfortable with who I am in my own skin. Young girls are not there yet. For children, how they appear to others and how others judge them is of the utmost importance.

I was walking to the grocery store with my kids yesterday, not far behind a trio of young girls dawdling on their way home from school. They were young - it's hard to gauge how old they actually were, but I remember wondering if they were really old enough to be walking that far without an adult - maybe nine or ten years old.

These girls were having a conversation about diets. DIETS. The tallest and thinnest of the three was telling her friends how she eats only vegetables because fruit has so much sugar. Her friend said that fruit and vegetables are both ok as long as you don't have any carbs at all. (What kind of a nine-year-old knows what carbs are?) I couldn't believe it - these were little kids. When they passed a garbage can they stopped and one of the girls emptied the contents of her lunchbag into it. I almost cried. (I don't know how much, if any, of the lunch was eaten - I thought it might seem a little creepy if I stopped to peer over her shoulder as we  passed by.)

When I was nine years old, I was still playing with Barbie dolls. I was climbing trees and bike riding with my brother, I curled up with the family to watch the Sunday night Disney movie with a big bowl of popcorn every week. My favourite food was roast beef with gravy. I played every sport there was. I was not concerned with calories or carbs - I didn't even know what they were - or whether I was thin enough.

What kind of a world are we living in when little children are worried about dieting and getting thin?

I do feel slightly hypocritical saying this. I have been known to obsess about my weight, and I definitely have not always chosen the healthiest ways to get thin. When I quit competitive swimming in high school and gained some weight, I lost it by dieting and running obsessively; I loathe running, hate it with a passion, but it's always been the most effective way for me to change my body quickly. I used to sneak out of my house at night after everyone was asleep to go for runs without my parents knowing. To get rid of the Frosh Fifteen  (which, for me, came on in my second year of university because I swam varsity during first year) I just stopped eating and lied to everyone who asked. For a trip to Acapulco the next year I wanted to be even thinner so I stopped eating again. When the Atkins diet became a big thing a dozen years ago or so, I was in heaven - I've always been a protein girl, and this was the perfect fit for me. Carbs became the devil, and I was thin.

Having kids a few years later was obviously hard on the body. I'm one of those people that gains a lot of weight when I'm pregnant - it's not that I'm pigging out on chocolate cake three times a day, I actually still eat quite well when I'm pregnant - it's genetics. I gained sixty pounds with each of my first two pregnancies. Fortunately (again, thanks to genetics) I tend to lose most of my pregnancy weight with very little effort, but after having babies number one and two so close together my body was unrecognizable. That's the one thing that sucks about breastfeeding - you can't diet. But the moment baby number two was weaned at eighteen months, I stopped eating again and started intense two-hour workouts every night after I put the kids to bed. I went from a size eight-almost-ten down to a size two in less than three months. My parents kept asking if I was healthy, my brothers told me I looked tired, my girlfriends told me I looked terrible. I thought I looked fabulous. I could have been wrong.

The worst part is that I am a health and fitness professional. I work in the fitness industry, I own a fitness management company, I'm a certified exercise physiologist, personal trainer and fitness instructor and am qualified to give nutritional advice. People pay me to help them get healthy and fit.

Sort of a "do as I say, not as I do" kind of thing, I suppose.

But almost every one of my girlfriends has been the same way at some point or another in their lives. We've all just accepted being unhappy with our bodies as a normal part of being a woman - but it should not be a normal part of being a child.

Although it's been a long time since I've done any "extreme dieting," I'm not entirely certain I'd make the very best role model for a daughter, as concerned as young girls seem to be with body image these days - not to say that boys aren't affected by these same perceptions, but certainly to a lesser degree. I take better care of myself now that I'm in my thirties and I'm smarter about healthy eating and exercise. But I'm sure that at some point if I have a wedding or New Year's party to attend and I want to look fantastic, I might push the diet. And I've probably dropped the odd "I have nothing to wear, I look fat in everything" comment without thinking. So I'm very grateful I have sons (and the world of other issues that go along with boys), but it breaks my heart that for the very few short years that kids are actually kids, little girls who should be playing make-believe princess already have to worry about real-life grown-up women neuroses.

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