It’s my duty to tell my son he’s fat: A mother reveals why she’ll always be honest with her children on their weight
A few months ago, my ten-year-old son complained to us that he had a ‘big tummy.’ I was standing in the kitchen, preparing spaghetti bolognaise for dinner, and I froze.
Now I’m sure most mothers would have immediately told him not to be silly, given him a hug and piled his plate with pasta. But, not me. Instead, I cheerfully replied: ‘Eat less rubbish!’ Because the blunt truth is that my son had put on weight.
He’d spent half – term playing and watching cricket – and procuring an endless stream of chocolate bars, sweets, crisps, fizzy drinks and hot dogs from local vending machines and shops.
Honesty is the best policy: Anna wants to be open with her sons about their weight
I hadn’t uttered a word as he put on weight, but he’d noticed he was heavier – and didn’t like it. There are parents who will condemn me for admitting I would happily tell my child if he were fat – probably the same people who believe that if a mother implies her child’s body isn’t perfect, whatever its size, she is setting them up for an eating disorder.
And as I myself suffered from anorexia and bulimia in my teens, I will surely now be accused of projecting my own anxieties about body image on to my children, or be told I, of all people, should know better.
Well, it’s precisely because of my history that I do know better. As a former anorexic, I wouldn’t flinch from telling my children if they had a weight problem – and doing something about it. Telling the truth to your children about their weight – while being careful not to humiliate them – is the duty of a responsible parent.
Because if you ignore it or deny it, for fear of hurting their feelings, they may suffer in the long term in ways you can’t imagine. When I advised my gorgeous boy Oscar to eat less rubbish, it was not about him looking good. It was about him feeling good. I was not going to placate him with a patronising lie about ‘body diversity’.
Refusing to talk honestly about weight is what causes problems. I should know. My poor parents never dared approach me about my eating habits. The result A decade of agony for the whole family. I have a photograph of myself, aged 12, looking like a moon-faced colossus. My mother thought I was pretty and wouldn’t have dreamed of adjusting my diet. Yet I was called a ‘fat pig’ in the playground.
Anna, aged 12: Her mother told her she was fine but children at school called her fat
Parents may refuse to talk to their child about their weight, but other, less considerate people, will most definitely have plenty to say on the matter.
Plainly, no one else was going to help me solve my weight problem. Boys didn’t look at me. I felt unattractive, and at that age it is hard to separate dislike for your own body with dislike for yourself. It became a horrible jumble in my head.
So I dealt with the problem my way. Rather than upset my parents by refusing food, I cleared my plate then ‘got rid of it’ by making myself sick. I wish my parents had been honest about my weight, for it might have stopped my eating disorder in its tracks. This is why I believe it’s the parents’ job to teach their children about how to deal with weight issues, and that involves a conversation.
Silence is the far greater risk. That’s why I am determined to discuss my children’ s weight with them. I’ve learned to seem relaxed towards food.
‘Had enough Fine! Leave it! ‘ Hungry ‘Sandwich No problem!’
Even if I feel anxious, I hide it, because I know any tension I betray over what they eat will be transmitted to them and absorbed. We assured our son we’d help him lose weight, then got off the subject – fast. I didn’t want him to feel guilty. But nor did I want him to feel powerless.
An eating disorder does not start with seeing a skinny celebrity in a magazine – it starts with a child feeling anxious and powerless. In my early teens, I overheard an aunt harangue my father about my weight. He replied curtly: ‘It’s just puppy fat.’ My cheeks burned and my delicate self-confidence turned this exchange into a stick to beat myself with.
While looks don’t matter to the extent that advertising would have us believe, we can’t pretend to our children that appearance doesn’t matter at all, socially or health-wise.
If your child has a weight problem, talking about it is the best solution. But parents must have the confidence to do the talking. Schoo ls now hold weigh-ins, and overweight children as young as five are being hauled off to doctors or ‘obesity nurses.’
An eating disorder is the result of feeling awful about yourself. I can assure you that allowing your child to be officially humiliated by the authorities for being fat is a shortcut to anorexia.
In pursuit of my own recovery, I saw therapists on the NHS: mostly useless, and barely able to contain their scorn or inept i tude. One woman, schooled in the Ladybird Book of Psychotherapy, shook with nerves before instructing me to ‘draw a picture of how you see yourself’.
Problem needs tackling: One in three 11-year-olds in the UK is overweight or obese (posed by model)
I recovered from my eating disorders in my early 20s. I finally became so exhausted and bored by food ruling my life. But, most importantly, I was happier – I had my first job on a newspaper, which I loved and was good at, and I was in a great relationship. Recovery was hard, because bulimia is as addictive as a drug.
But the reward of enjoying food and the holiday from self-loathing (no one likes themselves when they jam their fingers down your throat after every meal) was like escaping from prison. I never did talk to my parents about what I put them through – there was a lot of unspoken pain. As a result of my own struggle, I am determined not to pass on any of my food anxieties to my children.
But nor will I ignore the issue of weight, like many other parents. Despite the UK’s obesity problem – one in three 11-year-olds is overweight or obese — we have become obsessed with boosting our
children’s self-esteem and protecting them from criticism.
The trouble is, you don’t boost children’s self-esteem by protecting them from criticism. All that does is make their self esteem fragile, liable to be crushed by any glancing blow.
Indeed, a recent report found that mollycoddling kids can lead them to suffer depression. They need to be handed the tools to solve the problems they will face in life.
My son didn’t really have a weight problem, but I wanted to help him avoid one, by putting him in charge of the situation. As I discovered, aged 13, being overweight is a shameful burden when your parents are kindly and blindly tactful while other people are thoughtless and cruel. That makes a child feel ugly to the bone.