This post was partly inspired by a recent decision to ban the sale of ice cream at our summer pools, because ice cream was deemed unhealthy for our kids by the City of Boulder. I was offended that the city felt the need to make decisions for me about what is healthy for my family, but I am even more concerned about the rigid, limited, stigma forming beliefs that informed this decision. Our black and white ideas about health contribute to poor self esteem, body image struggles, relationship issues, and leave us feeling disempowered. This post is an attempt to shed a little light on this area.
So here goes.
I observe a lot of mothers struggling with their kids when it comes to food. I watch as they engage in power struggles around sugar, or getting their kids to sit and finish a meal, or even using food as a reward or a punishment.
Another common situation I observe is parents trying to persuade their kids to eat “healthy.” And, despite doing their best to convince their child the importance of eating healthy foods, their kids don’t care.
Seven and a half years into family life, my husband and I have not struggled with our kids about food, or sugar, or eating enough, or eating certain foods. I realize that we are in the minority.
I came into motherhood having spent many years working as a psychotherapist in the field of eating disorders. This experience gave me a unique perspective on the topics of body image, eating, and health, as well as the feeding of my kids. It also gave me a strong foundation when it came time to feed my own family. I know what I want to teach, as well as prevent, in my children’s development here.
In other words, I know what to do and what NOT to do.
When I began working in the eating disorder field, I had to examine all of my own ideas, issues, and beliefs around eating and body image in myself. While I never had an eating disorder, I definitely had what we wrongly consider “normal” eating and body image issues. I had to look closely at what I had adopted, even unconsciously, from the messages that surrounded me throughout my life. And then deal with them. This meant not only unraveling the beliefs and fears that fueled my stories, but also taking overt action to dispel the myths and whatever I was afraid of.
Thankfully, I took the time and energy to do this. How I think, feel, and behave around food and my body has an enormous impact on how eating and body image unfolds for my kids. My husband has followed my lead around how we relate to food and our bodies in our family, and has learned a lot about himself here, as well. While at first he was skeptical about my approach, eventually he saw the innate balance that was emerging in our children around food.
What is my approach?
Extremely simple: Offer a range of food choices. Allow them to enjoy.
Thats pretty much it.
Ok, the truth is a lot of intention, understanding, and experience goes into that approach. I could say a lot more about how we talk about eating, appetite, allergies, body shapes and sizes, movement and exercise. How we make food choices, relate to food preferences, and changing bodily needs is all relevant here, too. But what is more important than all of that as we begin this exploration is what I didn’t do with my kids around food: I didn’t reinforce a black and white, polarizing, definition of health.
The oversimplified and limited version of “healthy eating” that a large part of society subordinates to is not my thing. In fact, I think the way we casually use the word “healthy” is one of the most toxic messages to our health out there. It conveys admiration or judgment (to almost religious proportions) depending on which end of the healthy-unhealthy spectrum you land in any given moment.
For example, with food: our society has established the idea that there are “good” foods and “bad” foods. All that has accomplished is we feel good when we eat the so called good foods, and bad when we eat the so called bad foods.
Ever felt proud about yourself because you “resisted” a food that you deemed unhealthy? Ever felt shame or guilt after eating something you thought wasn’t “good” for you? That is what I’m talking about.
I would like to go on the record to say there are no good or bad foods. Food does not have moral underpinnings. It’s just food. Reducing foods to “good and bad” may simplify our food choices on one level (if we subscribe to that thinking), but just creates feelings of shame, guilt, or anxiety for liking, wanting, or eating foods that don’t fit into whatever healthy box is being used in that moment (there are many).
Our kids are smart. When we want them to give a shit about our so called healthy foods, and inundate them with “shoulds” about how to feed their bodies, they know (on some level) we are pushing an agenda on them that we can’t back up with our own experience. It’s no surprise that we see rebellion here.
So ditch the word healthy, you don’t need it. Your kids don’t care, and it doesn’t mean anything anymore. Think of all the “health” foods, fads, and trends most of us have lived through by now. Chances are your health food today will be on someone’s “bad” list tomorrow.
Legalize food, free it up. You’ll be better off creating a new vocabulary and reasons for eating what you like to eat. Hopefully you’re eating what you like to eat (some of us are subordinating to the food trends and health trance so intensely, we don’t even know what we actually like anymore).
Health is a multifaceted experience. It includes physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, vocational, and relational components. Every aspect of our being is connected and plays a part in the symphony that culminates in an experience of health. While we’re at it, remember to include the phases and events of our life: celebrations, seasons, injuries, illnesses, age, disposition, physical endeavors, energy needs, culture, socioeconomic status, and personal values.
When we expand health to include our whole being, we become empowered, informed, and discerning about what our needs, values, or goals are regarding our own health. This more complex, but accurate, view of health supports a balanced and safe society for everyone.
We cannot extract one component, such as someone’s body weight, and make any determination whatsoever about that person’s overall health. This is an example of our societal tendency to oversimplify the complex, and ignore or discount the difficulties we face. But if I’m selling you a health product or “solution,” it’s hard to market it to you if I am honest about how complex health truly is. As consumers, we want quick solutions to our pain and discomfort. We don’t want to do the work that is necessary to empower, educate, and inform ourselves.
I worked with hundreds of (mostly) women—your sisters, daughters, wives, mothers, and friends—all of whom had sought the refuge that society’s view of health promises through oversimplifying, denial, and judgment. Many of my client’s friends and family were initially very supportive of their diet and exercise routines, because they too subscribed to health as a list of instructions to follow that should lead to thinness and happiness.
And by the way, I’d like to go out on a limb and say what the societal push towards health is REALLY about: looking thin and happy.
There. I said it.
Hopefully you see how fucked up this is.
And it’s not women with eating disorders who are fucked up—these smart, lovely, insightful people. It is us. Healthy isn’t a look, or something we can eat our way into or out of, or that will save us from the difficulties in our lives. We have major issues as a society around food and our bodies, that include fat phobia and sizism, and the generally accepted “war on obesity,” which is creating more mental health problems than helping anyone.
A lot of us want to be healthy, feel healthy, and live a healthy lifestyle. As parents, we also want the same for our children. But what does that really mean? Defining this is the way to sovereignty around your health and the health of your family.
Most people don’t understand there is a hidden key to unlocking this whole mess. It lies in relationship. Our relationship with our child is the most useful place to focus when it comes to emotional and behavioral issues around food. We have incredible insight about our children if we choose to pay attention and develop it.
Did you know that eating is the place where we initiate our first boundary as humans? From the day we are born, it’s the first place we can say “No.” It’s worth our while to consider why our children feel the need to utilize this boundary in relationship to us and to their body. There is nothing simple about this question, or the answers it may reveal, which will undoubtedly have a huge range. But when we start to consider questions like this, it brings us closer to territory that could reveal insights that would actually help.
As a society, we grossly underestimate the impact and value of our relationships, and thus our mental and emotional well being, on our overall health. Instead, we over focus on food and exercise, try to apply a particular physical or diet formula to our lives, and bypass the more complex, intricate, difficult, and meaningful world of our relational life.
What our kids eat, want to eat, how they eat, tells us something. But its not the place to put all of our attention. We can incorporate that information into the whole picture of how they regulate themselves, who they are, what they love, how connected we feel to them, what is happening currently in their life, what they’ve already gone through, and all the other interesting and compelling aspects of being in relationship with these incredible young ones.
We can benefit from looking at our relationship to ourselves, to food, our bodies, our partners, our families, at all of our relationships. So much is happening in our relationships that informs how we think, feel, and act every day of our life. It is in these areas we perhaps receive the most nourishment from life. Knowing ourselves here will bring a lot of useful information for each of our particular family situations and struggles.
We can teach our kids how to care for their own well being in a truly comprehensive way that will serve them throughout their life. We can teach them how to listen to their emotions, sensations, minds, hearts, bodies, and spirits. We can work hard to help them process all the information that they perceive. We can support our children’s health by allowing it to be the broad, multifaceted, and individual experience that it is. That all starts with us. We can’t teach what we don’t live.
One of our many superpowers as mothers is our ability to deal with, and even embrace, complexity. Responding and attending to multilayered experiences and needs coming from many angles is something we handle. We know the beautiful brilliance that lies in this rather unresolvable work of loving and caring for ourselves and our family day in and day out. We struggle, yes, and we continue to cultivate a rich, meaningful, and gratitude filled life with our children. We are masters at life’s complexity, whether we like it or not.
So don’t let our society’s need for simple, reductionist, and polarizing solutions to life’s challenges be your way. It only makes things harder in the long run.
So yes, I’d like to be in charge of my decision to enjoy ice cream with my kids at the pool this summer. Or not. And no, I don’t need a city policy to help me here. I think I’ve got it.