Striving for thin

The trauma team spoke to the grade seven students as a class, and then to each student individually following the news that their classmate had committed suicide. When it was Alice’s turn to speak with the counsellor, her mother accompanied her, hoping to learn how to best support her daughter in the aftermath of confusing emotions. 

During the meeting, the counsellor noticed something on Alice’s left arm. “Where did that happen?” the counsellor asked, referring to the cluster of  scrapes that peeked out from under Alice’s sleeve, just above her wrist.

Alice said it was nothing. 

Later, Alice confessed to her mother that she was feeling isolated and depressed, and was cutting to find relief from the emotional pain. Her two best friends were on a diet, (as were most of the girls in her class, including the deceased classmate) and talked of nothing else but calories consumed, pounds lost, and dress sizes to aspire to. Alice, because of her naturally slender frame, had nothing to contribute to conversation. 

A friend shared this story about her daughter with me, (Alice is not her real name). 

While the media quotes health and medical experts on the life-threatening dangers associated with obesity, the message that translates most clearly is “only the thin can be healthy.” There is almost no conversation about being overweight that doesn’t include an association with diabetes and heart disease. This is the art of media; what isn’t said can often be more powerful than what is – such as the prevalence of diabetes and heart disease among all weight categories. According to the American Diabetes Association, “Most overweight people never develop type 2 diabetes, and many people with type 2 diabetes are at a normal weight or only moderately overweight.” Using weight as a measure for health implies that overweight individuals are categorically unhealthy, while anyone within the range of “normal BMI” never gets so much as a sniffle. If thin is good, then thinner must be better.

Measurement is an invaluable statistical tool, but it has limitations. To determine which instrument to use for measuring is best, one must clearly define the thing that is being measured. It makes sense to measure height with a ruler. It does not make sense to measure speed by calculating the radius of a circle anymore than it makes sense to measure an individual’s health with an equation designed to find the average shape of a population. Yet, across America, students are given a “health report card” based entirely on the result of their weight multiplied by their height, squared.

When I started feeding my family with trust, it was for the purpose of supporting my selective eating son to overcome his fear of food. Since those inaugural meals of crackers and chocolate milk, he’s come a long distance. His diet now includes all four food groups, his weight is steady, and the concerns we once had about finding enough for him to eat away from home are gone. We recently returned from an extended holiday overseas where few foods and even fewer brands were familiar to him. This strange new world of food was something we shared in common as a family. Never – not once – did this unfamiliarity create a barrier to eating in the entire time we were abroad. 

Something even more incredible has happened as an unexpected and welcome side-effect. When my 10 year old daughter finds herself among peers discussing  calories and dress sizes, she quickly loses interest. She finds this narrative superficial and oppressive. Although her temperament makes her shy and intensely anxious about how she is perceived by others, changing her body shape through dietary restriction is a subject she will passionately question and adamantly refuse to do. It’s very comforting to hear her complain about the “boring stuff” girls her age talk about, knowing that she treasures a healthy relationship with her body and food. I am keenly aware that as she approaches adolescence, the pressure to conform to societal beauty standards will increase. For now, it’s encouraging to hear about her tales of successful resistance against the weight-determines-your-health regime. 

No one is immune from an eating disorder, especially in a society that measures health so inaccurately. While we have little control over the media and the messages about weight, food, and health that children are exposed to, parents continue to hold a powerfully influential place in our children’s lives. One of the most important things families can do to reduce the risk of disordered eating is to eat meals together as often as possible. Even if you aren’t eating the same food, there are still benefits to eating at the same time. Nobody eats well under stress; the family meal may be a parent’s only indication of their teen’s distress. 

Alice got the help she needed, and her friends were referred to a dietitian and counselling before their obsession with dieting developed into an eating disorder. These 12 year old girls are all casualties of the “war”on obesity. I think we’re long overdue for evidence that demonstrates the benefits of war are truly worth the costs associated with striving to be thin, and calling it health.