When I stopped breastfeeding my son at 16 months, I suddenly became very aware of just how large my body seemed to be. It was spring, almost summer, and with the thought of swimsuit season looming, I decided that it was time to prioritize getting back in shape. I started slowly, tracking my food and steps each day and cutting out the late evening post-nursing snack I’d held on to even after I’d stopped breastfeeding.
As I began to lose weight, and my old clothes began to fit again, I felt happy and satisfied. As the number on the scale went down, my sense of worth as a woman went up. I wondered how much more weight I could lose.
As the summer rolled by and slowly turned to fall, I began to take my dieting more seriously. I cut out certain food groups, abandoning carbs and meat, and started logging two hours a day in the gym. By winter I had reached the weight I was in high school, well before my two babies had come along, and had purchased a whole new set of clothes to accommodate my shrinking body.
Every time I looked in the mirror, stepped on a scale, or went down a dress size, I got a hit of satisfaction. I felt accomplished despite the fact that my whole relationship with food and exercise was becoming increasingly strained and stressful—I made separate meals for my family and myself and skipped out on bedtime kisses for an evening workout each night. My happiness was perpetually tied to whether I’d stuck to my ‘limit’ of calories for the day.
The compliments were flooding in. Friends told me how great I looked, congratulating me on all the hard work I must be doing. Everyone noticed. Even my five-year-old son.
One morning, as I slid a fresh batch of pancakes, scrambled eggs, fruit and bacon onto the plates of my husband and two sons, my eldest asked me, “mommy, why don’t girls eat pancakes?” As I tried to puzzle together his question I realized that I was the only girl he saw eating breakfast each day and I was indeed guilty of skipping pancakes in favor of a small bowl of grapes. Just like everyone else, my son had noticed my dieting but it wasn’t my thinner thighs or smaller tummy that caught his attention, it was the fact that wasn’t eating full meals. “Lot’s of girls eat pancakes baby,” I responded, “I just don’t like them” I lied.
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I felt guilty, not just for lying but for eating in a way that seemed so unnatural to my five-year-old—a kid I’d always encouraged to fill his plate with delicious and nutritious foods. I felt guilty for setting up a world in which it was normal for my son to see the woman he knows best saying no to healthy, good food, in pursuit of a smaller body. A world in which he might see women’s bodies as up as projects that needed to be constantly under construction. Later that week, after he’d asked me another tough question about why ladies only eat salads for dinner. It was devastating to hear my son make such disturbing generalizations about women and even more upsetting to know that my behaviors were the cause.
Research suggests that kids as young as three years old can begin to develop a dislike of their body. Given what was happening in my own kitchen, it’s not surprising. How was my diet impacting my son’s body image?
The tricky thing is figuring out how to do better. It’s impossible to unlearn all of the harmful messages about our bodies we’ve been internalizing for decades in one exchange. It’s impossible to fall in love with your body just the way it is over the course of one meal.
Sometimes, it even feels impossible to learn to practice what we preach to our kids. Danielle* a mom in Tennessee says that her six-year-old son has noticed that she constantly measures food to make sure that each serving size fits in with her diet plan. After asking her about it repeatedly, she still measures her food though she no longer does it in front of her kids. Mary F., a “lifelong dieter,” in North Carolina, also feels challenged by the idea of dieting while parenting. “Since I’ve had kids I’ve struggled to diet more because I’ve gotten heavier. But having a five-year-old daughter has made me think about how I talk about dieting,” she says, “I try to talk a lot more in terms of health and feeling good than achieving a certain number or a certain image.”