Talking About Your Body in Front of Your Children: It’s a Fine Line

diet talk children

The diet industry is a 10 billion dollar a year — yes, per year — industry. In fact, reports estimate that by 2027 it will be worth USD $257.7 billion. That’s nine whole zeros. And the industry is now coming for our children, whether we mean it to or not. According to an article from ABC Newschildren as young as 11 are presenting with full eating disorders — like anorexia.

Although there are no ways to prevent eating disorders, according to MayoClinic, they do suggest parents avoid dieting around their children — oh, and avoid criticising their own body in front of their child.

An obvious one, perhaps, but with diet culture being so pervasive in our generation — and often something we internalised from generations before us — sometimes we may not realise we’re even partaking in it.

Take diet talk for example. Amber Rules, director and founder of Rough Patch, an affordable counselling and mental health care service, calls diet talk “pervasive, seemingly innocent rhetoric that reinforces unrealistic, unattainable and often unhealthy ideas about how bodies ‘should’ be”.

Not only is diet talk damaging to ourselves, but when people talk about dieting or changing their bodies, they’re “inadvertently communicating to others that there is a ‘right’ or ‘ideal’ way to have a body — and that if others don’t fit that ideal, there’s something wrong with them,” says Rules.

Now imagine if a child of single-digit age, or one who is about to go through the rocky, hormonal time known (feared) as puberty overhears that — potentially multiple times. They internalise it. The result? It’s not pretty.

At the end of the day, “children learn by example” — more than this, “they don’t have brains that are developed enough to discern what is helpful and what is damaging.” So yes, children may overhear you calling yourself bad for eating so many carbs, they may then take that to mean that eating certain foods is a moral failing.

Rules tells us that “The more they hear this growing up, the more likely they are to have complicated relationships with their bodies and food.”

And it doesn’t necessarily stop there. “Some of us are more prone to lasting repercussions than others,” Rules explains. These repercussions? “Shame, guilt, self-punishments.” It can get even more severe — “A merry-go-round of diets, restricting certain foods, bingeing, purging, having ‘rules’ surrounding food.”

If you’re worried you’re one of the parents that have taken part in this — or you know you are, and you’re beating yourself up — don’t blame yourself too harshly. “Diet talk and diet culture is the air we breathe; it’s inescapable,” says Rules. But there are ways you can adjust and move forward.

First, Rules talks about things to avoid (not food, obviously). Moralising food with phrases is one thing to avoid — things like “I’m so bad”; “this food is naughty; “I’ve been so good today and only eaten this”; “too much sugar makes you fat.”

Dictating when and what you eat should also go out the window — “Your body intuitively knows what it needs (if you haven’t experienced disordered eating behaviours), and your nutrition needs ebb and flow.” This is an area you should actually turn to your children for inspiration — kids are pretty damn good at eating intuitively.

Rules suggests that if you notice yourself saying things steeped in diet culture, instead stop and ask yourself “What am I feeling right now?” Often it’s feelings of shame, guilt or worry that drives the language we use. Instead, give yourself time and compassion to sit with the feeling.

If other people are taking part in diet talk — especially in front of your children — feel free to shut it down with a prepared statement. “We prefer not to talk about food or bodies as bad” or “We eat a variety of things that make us feel good” or “There’s room for all types of foods and we eat them all,” are just a few preprepared statements Rules provided.

Her personal favourites? “I feel uncomfortable talking about diets and moralising food” or “My body, my rules!” At the end of the day, even if people don’t get it, you don’t owe them any explanations and you don’t have to engage.

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