Do you have scales in your house? Are you a weigher? Obesity has just overtaken smoking as the leading cause of preventable health problems in Australia so it may be time to take a good hard look at ourselves. Or the scales. Last week I read a column by Wendy Harmer who posed the question: Would you make your family hit the scales each week (and we’re not talking the frustration kind of hitting)? That’s what a friend of hers does. Wendy writes:
My friend Val began the weigh-in when she came back from a solo trip overseas to find her 11-year-old son had stacked on two kilos in just three weeks. This was no “growth spurt”: there was the corroborating evidence of a pudgy muffin top. (Do boys have muffin tops? Let’s call them Kettle chip and Coke handles.)
Val vowed no kid of hers would miss out on the best things in life because he was fat. “We try to make a joke out of it,” she says. “But if the family’s putting on too much weight, we walk the dog a bit further or we walk to school. I cook low-fat meals, and treats are off the menu. My husband takes the boys to the park for soccer after dinner. They’re pretty quick to let me know if I’m letting the side down.
“But I enjoy the challenge. I know the boys are all happier when I’m skinnier, because I like myself more. I’m nicer to be around when I can fit into my jeans. And when my husband’s slim, he’s happier – probably because we’re having more sex!”
When Wendy told a group of friends about the idea, they all gasped in horror and she quickly realised it was because they were all the mothers of girls.
I understand this. When you have a daughter, it often feels like you walk an impossible line between obesity and anorexia. Say the wrong thing and you’re going to catapault her down the road to an eating disorder. Buy her McDonalds and she’s on the road to teen gastric banding.
Our awareness of the importance of giving our kids (espesh our daughters) positive body image messages has made many of us fearful to say anything if your child is overweight, or heading that way.
For some, the result can be a kind of paralysis, where the subject of weight becomes the ultimate no-go zone.
It’s not just with kids. The idea of telling your partner or friend that they’ve put on weight is almost as fraught.
…..when someone you love is dangerously overweight and risking their health, the stakes are higher than hurt feelings. At myfatspouse.org, a site “for discussions about obesity and relationships” the advice is to tread carefully. “Attempting to change a wife or husband’s behaviour ranks up there with, “let’s invade Russia”, on the stupid idea list. Your attempt may very well backfire, and it’s likely you’ll end up with an angry and fat spouse.”
I have a friend who is neither fat nor angry although she does insist she’s put on about 6kg since Christmas. “The other day I was grumbling about how my legs looked like sausages and Ben said, “Yes darling, they do a bit and I seem to have stacked it on too. Shall we start pilates together again?”
When my friend told me this story with an easy laugh, I was struck by how rare it is for a man to be able to answer a question about their partner’s weight honestly without triggering an emotional meltdown. Not that every man who replies “Oh noooo, you’re bum doesn’t look big” is lying but hey, some of them are.
And they lie because we make them. When we ask ‘Have I put on weight?’ what we’re really asking for is reassurance that we haven’t, truth be damned. Men understand this and they comply.
For them, it’s different. Telling a man he’s gained weight registers about the same low frequency on the self-worth indicator as telling a woman “Gee, your hair got long”. He may not greet the news with a happy jig but it’s unlikely to send him into a spiral of self-loathing. There will rarely be tears or slammed doors. He won’t go on a sex strike. Mostly, he’ll just grab a handful of gut, shake his head a bit to process the information and then either do something about it or ignore you.
But women? Like, whoa. Tell us we’ve gained weight and watch us shout or cry or go really, really quiet. We’ll prickle with shame or embarrassment and we’ll feel terrible about ourselves.
The reason men have learnt to be so fearful around the subject of our weight is because –unfortunately – our body image is so interwoven with our sense of self. This is why we often announce: “I feel so fat!” when fat is not technically a feeling. Remember that the next time you ‘feel’ fat because what you’re feeling? It’s something else. Boredom, frustration, anger, disappointment, despair, depression, loneliness….all feelings. Fat? That’s a description. You can’t feel it.
The weight conversation between my friend and her partner was refreshing because he respected her enough to be honest and she respected herself enough not to freak out. It was an observation not an indictment and she recognised it as such, knowing that her self-worth doesn’t live in her muffin.
So. My point is this. For so many women, an aspect of our self-esteem IS tied up with our weight. Shouldn’t be but often is, even if it’s just subconsciously. We’re obviously keen not to give our kids any complexes about their weight but does that mean turning a blind eye to weight gain for fear we might say the wrong thing?I’m not sure about weekly weigh-ins but I do admire the way Val is able to have such a no-nonsense attitude to weight. Gaining a few kilos in her household is not cause for hand-wringing or poor self-esteem. It’s just a prompt to move a little more, eat a little less. And is there anything wrong with that message?
Also, I don’t believe that the idea of being in a healthy weight range is in any way contradictory with the idea of positive body image. Despite what some suggest, I think it is absurd to think that images of skinny girls plastered across every aspect of pop culture will help keep people thin. People with poor body image are highly likely to binge or emotionally overeat.
How do you handle this very delicate subject in your family? And how was it handled in the family when you were growing up?
Personally, I’m not a weigher. We have scales in our house but they’re rarely used and I’m very conscious of not wanting the kids to weigh themselves regularly. Perhaps that’s wrong.
Do you find yourself walking a fine line between a fear or obesity and fear of eating disorders with someone you love?