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How parents pass on body issues to their kids


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Gisela Sandoval was on a shopping trip with her mother and 10-year-old daughter, watching as her daughter tried on a dress and struck a pose.

Then her mother spoke up: “Please suck your belly in.”

Sandoval panicked. In a flash, “I saw 40 years of my life go through my head,” she says.


Her mother’s constant admonitions to hide her belly as a child left a deep groove on her psyche. “I have huge issues with my belly,” says Sandoval, a mother of three who lives in Palo Alto, Calif. “I always think I have one, no matter what weight I am.”

In front of her three children, Sandoval is careful when talking about food and bodies. But as a psychiatrist for children and adolescents, she wonders how many of the hang-ups she inherited she’s unintentionally passed on.

When it comes to how we think of food and our bodies, early experiences often set the tone. Many parents grew up with the clean-plate club or the diet du jour, and they have sought to change the script. But while our understanding of nutrition and psychology has improved, the world we inhabit is more image-conscious than ever, leaving parents to battle negative body image for themselves and their children. Jill Castle, a pediatric nutritionist and author of “Parenting Food,” is sympathetic. “It’s never been more challenging for parents to raise their kids to not only be healthy eaters, but also to have good self-esteem and positive body image,” Castle says.

Sara Gonzalez never had problems with weight until recently, when a liver illness and back injury caused her to gain. In response, her doctor put her on a diet. As the mother of two teenage girls, “I started to worry: How do you try to lose weight and not have your children worry that they have to lose weight too?” Gonzalez says.

It’s a frequent topic of conversation among her parent friends: Is there a right way to discuss food, health and body image with kids? Or is any discussion potentially harmful?

What parents need to know about boys and bodies image

Many adults can easily recall comments about their bodies from childhood. Even though her parents prioritized her family meals and cooking from scratch, concerns about weight dominated Eunny Jang’s life. Jang didn’t fit the Korean beauty ideals of that time (slim, with narrow shoulders and hips), which was hammered home in encounters with family friends and distant relatives. The remarks of her were n’t just confined to weight. “I’ve had at least four different women, like friends of my grandmother or my mom, comment on the thickness of my earlobes,” she says.

She was 10 when she went on her first self-imposed diet, prompted by her mother’s example.

“I’d see my mom eat nothing but anchovy broth for a week,” says Jang, now a rock-climbing instructor and entrepreneur in Maryland. “And so it was very ingrained in me that dieting was what you did when you were dissatisfied with your body or with your life.”

Years of this have taken their toll. “When I really want to torture myself, I think about all of the minutes that I could have spent learning something or understanding myself better, but instead I was thinking about calories or how far I needed to go on the elliptical to make up for what I ate,” Jang says, calling the continuing struggle “a work in progress.” Rock climbing has been healing for her, and when she teaches the sport to students, she emphasizes the marvel of a body that can scale heights.

Jocelyn and Andrea Grayson remember constant scrutiny from their image-conscious parents, who were a cosmetics-industry power couple in the 1960s. “Our parents had an idealized view of what a person was supposed to look like — hair, makeup, weight, height — and if you strayed from that, there’d be feedback,” Jocelyn says.

Of course their parents were often reacting to their own childhood experiences with food and culture. Both sisters recognize that the critics were in some ways a product of the era. “They were trying to pass as not Jewish in a lot of their working situations, so appearance was important to them for their own reasons,” Andrea says.

Their mother had also been chubby as a kid. “I distinctly remember that she weighed herself every day,” Jocelyn says. It was a fate she hoped to avoid for her own daughter de ella, now a 25-year old in New York City. “I never wanted her to get out of the shower, look in the mirror and assess whether she was happy with what she saw.”

“And I never, ever said anything about her weight, not once,” Jocelyn notes.

Sandoval recognizes a similar sort of intergenerational trauma at work in her interactions with her mother. “My grandmother was really hard on my mom,” Sandoval recalls, “to the point that she didn’t breastfeed me, because my grandmother had told her it’d be harder to lose the weight from pregnancy [if she breastfed].”

Experts say parents can break with the dysfunction around food they grew up with and avoid passing it down to their kids, though it isn’t easy. Castle stresses the importance of “developing a family culture that’s open and appreciates all bodies, appreciates all foods.” Don’t demonize any specific food — it’s a recipe for shame. A better tact, Castle says, is to talk about food in a more descriptive and informative way.

For older children, Neha Chaudhary, chief medical officer of BeMe and a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, suggests arming them with information on how food fuels them and de-emphasizing its effect on their looks. “I see a lot of teens in my practice who are more open to eating a balanced diet when they understand why it’s important for their mind and body, and when the thought of eating isn’t wrought with guilt or shame,” Chaudhary says in an email.

At the same time, says Vikas Duvvuri, a psychiatrist and eating disorder specialist in San Mateo, Calif., the food-as-fuel narrative can be unfair and overly simplistic. Humans also eat for pleasure — and food plays a strong role in culture, traditions and memories. “So one of the key interventions is to eat together as a family,” which pays all sorts of dividends, from lower rates of truancy to decreased risks of substance abuse.

It’s easy to see why parents might feel they can’t say anything right given how loaded the language is around weight and food, Duvvuri says. “But it’s important to be able to have authentic conversations, as opposed to having to hold back every other word that comes into your head.” That openness in communication sets the stage for a supportive environment your children can rely on as they grow and change.

And sometimes we’ll slip and say something we probably shouldn’t, like “I feel so bad in this pair of pants,” says Sandoval, the psychiatrist from Palo Alto. “But it’s okay to acknowledge it and model self-compassion and say, ‘Gosh, sometimes I’m not very nice to myself, but I’m so lucky to have this functioning pair of legs and I should be kinder to myself.’ ”

Navigating food and body image issues can be tricky, especially if you’re processing your own past traumas. But Castle offers some hope: You don’t have to have all the answers to help your children, and you don’t need to forge ahead alone. Help, whether it’s through therapy or speaking with a registered dietitian, can put you on the path to a healthier relationship with food for yourself and your family.

“The dream is that they’ll be oblivious to this: They’ll live the way they want; they’ll eat the way they want, ”Gonzalez says of her daughters de ella. “But I think I’m still trying to figure this out.”

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