“I’m fat, and I need to lose weight,” she said. She was completely serious.
I stood in front of her trying not to let my mouth hang open in amazement, trying desperately to find the right words for her in that moment. We had only just met a few minutes before, and here she was, sharing this anxiety with me. And because of the circumstances, I so desperately wanted my response to be right.
You see, she is a lovely elementary school girl – a thin, almost petite, elementary school girl.
I was the only one of her Girls on the Run coaches standing with her and her friend as we waited for the others to arrive for the first session of our season together. She was chatting away, telling me how excited she was to learn to run, “because my mom told me running would help me lose weight.”
Me: “Do you think that’s something you need to worry about?”
Her: “Yes. I’m fat, and I need to lose weight.”
Me: “I don’t think you need to lose any weight.”
Her friend: “Well, I know I need to lose weight.”
Me: “I don’t think any growing girl needs to worry about weight.”
Those were the words spoken out loud, but I wonder what was going on in the brains of the two girls as we stood together talking. Did the girl who brought up the subject want me to reassure her that she was thin and pretty? Did the one who stood by quietly wonder how best to support her friend and decided the best way was to answer, “Me, too”? Or did they both truly believe they are fat?
During the spoken words of our conversation, I had flung up a prayer to heaven that I would say something helpful and meaningful, that my response wouldn’t come off as dismissive but instead would be heartfelt and sincere. I knew we’d have more time to address this issue as a whole group throughout the Girls on the Run season, but in that moment, I was caught off guard.
As I replay the conversation in my head, I catch myself getting angry, wondering where and when these two beautiful girls first started hearing that they might be fat. At their age, I was never concerned with such things. I was concerned with my two best friends getting along with each other, and worried about the teacher yelling at us and making us write sentences again, and wondering whether I could play outside long enough when I got home from school.
In a culture where thin = pretty
Somewhere in the space between my childhood and theirs, a horrible thing has happened. At an increasingly early age, girls come to believe that thin = pretty and fat = the opposite of pretty. And they try to figure out which category they’re in.
Maybe it’s the pervasive media images of extremely thin women that we hold up as desirable and beautiful because we paste them all over magazine covers and red carpet awards shows and billboards and super bowl ads. Maybe it’s hearing Mom say for the 100th time, “I’m so fat,” about herself. And when the young girl looks in the mirror, she remembers that everyone tells her how much she looks like her mom, and if her mom is fat, and she looks like her mom, she must be fat, too. Maybe it’s peer pressure. If your thinner friend says she’s fat, then what does that mean for you? Maybe it’s watching how adult women talk with one another about their weight.
I don’t know when I became aware of my weight, but my best guess is sometime in eighth grade. Even then, though, I never thought I was fat, much less said it out loud to anyone. Ninth grade was a different story. Despite being active and thin, I worried that I wasn’t thin enough (and knew that “not thin enough” also meant “not pretty enough”).
As an adult, I hardly feel I can escape for long without hearing a conversation about weight or food or dieting, and it makes me weep for the obsessions we are teaching our children without even realizing it. Our sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, the children of our friends are picking up our tug-of-war battles with the scale and food and our self worth and making them their own.
Please do not think I’m trying to ignore our nation’s epidemic of obesity in adults and children. I’m not. That’s one of the reasons I love coaching Girls on the Run, because I think activities such as this program help build the foundation for a healthy balance of physical activity and emotional well-being.
There’s a right time and place and way to focus on becoming healthy and to celebrate achieving fitness and weight loss goals, but it should not come at the cost of healthy young children dwelling on skewed perspectives about their physical appearance.
Dwell on these things
Philippians 4:8 tells us: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” Let’s put this advice into practice and dwell on what is positive instead of the flaws we see in ourselves and others. I can think of no better way to shape a generation of emotionally healthy children.
I’m curious to know when you first became aware that society considers your weight as a measure of your worth, as well as any successes you’ve had in helping children battle social pressure in this area. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below, but you may also fill out this form, which will be emailed just to me.
Related post: A good aunt’s soap box