Editorial: Is Body Dissatisfaction
by Jeff Venables
On the morning in mid-June when the article first appeared in The New York Times, it quickly reached third most popular, behind only a piece on the tragic Orlando shootings and news of Garrison Keillor’s retirement. The article, “Parents Should Avoid Comments on a Child’s Weight,”http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/06/16/parents-should-avoid-comments-on-a-childs-weight/?_r=0, resonated strongly with readers, as not only its high ranking in Most Popular but a scroll through the comments section made clear.
The trouble is, the article concluded from the results of a study on parental comments made about their daughters’ weight that parents should never make such comments to their children. Yet the study in question merely concluded that there can be significant adverse effects for women later in life—no men were even included in the study.
The article goes on to state that “Harsh comments about weight can send the message that parents are ‘tying weight to some kind of perception about how the child is valued,’ Dr. Puhl said, and that can trigger negative feelings.” Yet this statement represents even further mission creep from the claim made in the article’s headline. Somehow, the descriptor “harsh” was slipped in front of “comments” later in the article. We can probably all agree that harsh comments are definitely not the best approach. But the reality that comments affect children at all says nothing about whether that effect is always negative. To be fair, the study unequivocally leans toward a proscription on commenting on weight at all; but by coyly conflating “harsh comments” with any comments, the article does a further disservice to journalistic accuracy.
The study concluded: “In this retrospective study, a parent's comments about [a woman’s] childhood weight were related to her weight and body dissatisfaction as an adult.” Perhaps no good can come of mentioning body image to a young girl, harshly or not. There seems to be evidence that the practice, if not inevitably, very likely could lead to unhealthy psychological outcomes. The reader comments by and large emphatically buttress this view. To avoid a recipe for bulimia or body-image and self-esteem issues in girls, parents should probably avoid commenting.
Yet the article’s headline imploring parents to “…Avoid Comments on a Child’s Weight” is highly misleading in its implied reference to all children, male or female, and under all circumstances.
While other studies may have shown that comments to children of either gender about their weight do have the potential to backfire, I would argue that there can sometimes be appropriate and constructive ways to make comments about body weight to children—perhaps mainly boys—that can yield positive, behavior-modifying results with desirable long-term health outcomes. It is not the case that commenting always results in backfire. I say this because I directly benefited from a body-image comment made to me as a child. What was said immediately raised my awareness of where I might have been heading and caused a minor crisis of body dissatisfaction for which I am now highly grateful. I therefore wonder: is body dissatisfaction always bad?
On New Year’s Day 1980, a month and a half after my eighth birthday, I shattered my elbow in several places in a way that required surgery and a very long period of physical rehabilitation. Always an active kid, I soon found my limited ability to play sports for six months an unpleasant situation in more ways than one. In addition to a certain loss of sports prowess, a major deleterious side effect of this sedentary time was the acquisition of a significant amount of belly fat, something that was utterly new to me.
My eight-year-old self was at first scarcely aware of this stealthy incursion on my personal appearance (which was largely all that it was; I had by no means become significantly unhealthy, just a bit overweight). My best recollection is that I initially did not view my weight gain as particularly good or bad. It simply had occurred. Still, there may have been, particularly later on when my arm had more or less healed, a subconscious feeling within me that something had gone wrong that derailed my self-perception as a skinny, active person. I couldn’t have been happy with my new jeans size—yet I definitely recall that I saw no urgency to do anything about it.
It wasn’t until my older brother by 14 years, who at 22 had been living on his own and visited infrequently, remarked on my belly in a joking manner. He had the perspective my parents and other siblings did not. You might say those living under the same roof had been too close to it to notice the gradual development of my new unfit body, but this hadn’t escaped my adult brother and he spoke up, not unkindly but not at all sensitively either.
Notably, there never followed any conversation about it; it was simply an offhand, humorous remark. But it had an amazing effect. The very next day, I approached another brother much closer in age, who had been for several years a classic older-brother advisor and mentor, particularly when it came to sporting skills and physical activity in general. I told him flatly that I no longer liked this version of my body, and was ready to take steps to change it. What should I do? Without judging me in the slightest way, he suggested I start that night before bed with 25 sit-ups, do 26 the next night, 27 the next, and proceed along these lines adding one sit-up each night until I reached north of 50 sit-ups per night. I was then advised by this sage 14-year-old to simply stick with the sit-up habit at this training volume for as long as I wished.
I followed the plan, and it worked. I not only lost all of my excess abdominal fat but went on doing sit-ups, Forrest-Gump-like, for the next six years, almost never missing a night. In my freshman year of high school, in fact, I set the record for the entire student body for number of sit-ups completed in one minute. That number was 63, more than one per second.
This isn’t about washboard abs or even personal goal-setting as much as it is about the direct effect that my brother’s comment had on me back in the third grade. It was literally transformative. Yes, making comments on a child’s weight can have an effect on that child. I just caution readers to avoid drawing the universal conclusion that the effect is always bad. And the media needs to be more careful with their word choices in headlines—don’t say “child” in your headline and then write exclusively about daughters. The entire article was focused on the negative impact body-image remarks can have on girls and the women they grow into. That is certainly important, as important as the headline was misleading.
Parents (and siblings) do need to be very cautious when discussing body image with even, perhaps especially, overweight or obese children. The study looked at 500 women in their 20s and 30s and found that comments about weight are often predictors of unhealthy eating habits years later. That is not a positive outcome. But there is a distinction to be drawn between some body-image dissatisfaction in childhood that may motivate positive behavioral changes, and overly self-critical thinking years later due to inappropriate parental comments or judgments. Let us not draw overly broad conclusions or think in simplistic absolutes, particularly where boys are concerned. We need an honest dialog about what constitutes a constructive conversation, and all of the suggestions in the article for steering your kids toward fitness—keeping healthy food in the house, setting an example by being active yourself—are excellent and important.
But I can only relay my truth in this instance, and it is that for this eight year old kid, a single offhand comment pointing out a material fact—that I did not have such a large stomach before—did wonders in a way that nothing else happened to, and I do not regret the call to action it finally inspired in me.
Jeff Venables is the Editor of Running & FitNews®.