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How Should You Talk To Your Kids About Weight?

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You want your children to be kind and non-judgemental of others, while also teaching them about the need to maintain a healthy weight. Estelle Lee faces the dilemma…

As any parent knows, the most important conversations will usually happen about five minutes after your child is meant to be asleep, when you’re at your most ragged and least prepared. And so it was at bedtime recently that my son, aged seven, shared the news that a school friend had recently told him that I was, in a word, fat.

Fat. One powerful word loaded with judgement, anxiety and stigma. So much so that the straight-talking Weight Watchers last month rebranded itself as the more wellness-conscious WW. Fat must not be seen, let alone spoken about. And yet, we’re also told that obesity is slowly killing us and the NHS is in crisis because of it. Nearly 10% of British children in their first year of school are obese, rising to 20% by the time they reach the last year of primary school. So as good parents we anxiously bang on about having your five-a-day and ban sugary cereals.

With such conflicting messages, it’s hard to work out how best to pass on a ‘body neutral’ example to children. So with only seconds to formulate a thoughtful reply to this playground jibe, the silent reactions in my head went from initial outrage – ‘That child is never coming around here again!’ – to a well-worn and familiar self-loathing.

What made it worse was that my little boy, visibly distressed, had taken his time in telling me. I reassured him that kind people don’t make judgements on how others look. That true health doesn’t mean being an elite athlete with minimal body fat. But as I said the words and wiped his tears, I hotly felt his shame. After all, no seven-year-old could judge me as harshly as I already judge myself.

I’m fully aware of the turbulent relationship I have with my body – and I’ve tried hard not to pass this on. My children – I have another son who’s six – have active childhoods, the fridge is full of good food. I buy butter, bacon, eggs and far too much fresh produce each week. We’ve grown our own vegetables and, like any middle-class mum, I like nothing more than sniffing around a local farm shop. I know precisely how to eat. I never refer to ‘treats’ or use the classic, ‘If you eat your greens you can have pudding.’ Instead, I call them ‘snacks’ – it could be a banana or a chocolate biscuit. We have both and nothing is banned.

But still, occasionally, I mindlessly scoff too much chocolate in front of the TV. Wine and going out has been replaced with Netflix and sugar. Most of the time, I’m too tired and busy to properly focus on eating well and doing exercise.

Dr Jo Gee, a psychotherapist at The Priory, is clear that we need to stop shaming ourselves and others while keeping a positive familial dialogue going. ‘We need more discussions about weight and eating healthily that focus on health and exercise and enjoying ourselves, as opposed to what we look like,’ she says. It makes sense but these are often in conflict with the entrenched all-or-nothing diet culture we seem to live in – and the lifestyles of hectic working mums.

We might know more about nutrition in 2018, but behaviourally things haven’t moved on much, for me at least. I’ll go through periods when I note down everything that passes my lips on the MyFitnessPal app, and record the steps I take (or don’t take) on my Apple watch – I’m always focused on the end result. Over the years, I’ve spent vast sums of money on juice diets, fitness plans, expensive gym memberships, personal trainers and having pre-prepared ‘clean’ food delivered to my door. All with varying results. There are scales in our house but they’re rarely used – and if they are, it’s by me. I’ve been everything from a size 8 to where I am now: an annoyingly comfortable size 14.

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In her upcoming book, Just Eat It, nutritionist Laura Thomas has much to say on this insidious diet culture, the punishing standards women often set themselves and the addictive ideals we pass on to our kids. Yes, there is more emphasis on health now, but she points out it can be hard to honestly separate how much of it is still about how we look. She promotes the idea of mindful, intuitive eating, asking me, ‘Why give your phone so much control over what you put in your mouth?’ Quite. Eating intuitively is an ongoing process that doesn’t label foods ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but addresses the all-or- nothing behaviour I am frequently guilty of.

At some subconscious level, in the last year I’ve let go of my relentless desire to lose weight, letting myself off the hook and prioritising family life. But I’ve still kept the tiniest pair of white Acne jeans that I bought for my honeymoon 10 years ago as a reminder of where I’d like to be one day.

Regardless of what a silly seven-year-old says, I somehow want to find a middle ground. To teach my sons how to feel good in their own skin, but also tolerance for others and, most importantly, compassion for themselves.

Follow Estelle on Instagram: @mrsestellelee