My Life as a Skinny Chick: Thoughts on BMI and Teaching Kids About Food.
Before I weaned my youngest child my BMI was below 17. To put this in perspective ‘normal BMI’ is between 19 and 24. “Overweight” is 25-29.
I’ve been skinny as long as I can remember having a concept of skinny. As a child my family ate a variety of home-cooked, delicious, traditional Romanian foods. But we kids brought my parents along in the concept of proper cereals like Froot Loops or whatever had a toy prize and American snack foods: Doritos, Hostess goodies, Little Debbies, Twinkies, “fruit” snacks, etc. We were regularly stocked with soda. I distinctly remember in 5th grade being told we could bring water bottles to school and I, liking to show off my rebellious side, proudly brought my Tweetie bird thermos bottle deliciously full of …. cola! I’m fairly certain I bragged about this fact to any classmate who would listen.
I couldn’t understand why delicious McDonald’s Happy Meals were considered bad or “junk food.” It didn’t make sense to me. There was meat, bread, potato–we ate those at home in other forms–what was the difference?
I was also a heavy TV watcher and the antithesis of athletic. I was sedentary as soon as I got past that age that just about all kids like running around. Yet still thin. Thin enough for others to make comments and for me to feel incredibly insecure about my shape. But despite being thin and “able to eat whatever I wanted” (as others viewed it), my body image was awful. I would look at the models in magazines and actually wish I was as full-figured as they appeared to me to be. To me, models did not look emaciated, I did. Talk about reverse body image distortion!
At some point late in grade school I recall meeting with my pediatrician to be sure there was nothing medically wrong keeping me from the full figured body I desired. When I got assurance that my health was fine, I gladly accepted a short visit with his wife, the dietitian, in hopes she could help me fatten up. I faintly remember learning something about being more liberal with sour cream and other fatty foods. Which didn’t help much because I was never not liberal with such things. For me, exercise was for fat people. So was thinking about fatty ingredients or calories.
From about 7th grade till my senior year of high school, I probably wore shorts less than a handful of times. Even in the blazing Southern California summers I wore pants to hide what I viewed as unsightly chicken legs. I realize that those who read this blog entry who wish they were thinner might scoff at my young struggles and think sarcastically “Oh poor thing, how tough (eye roll) she had it being thin.” But I imagine that feeling ashamed about your body feels similar regardless of what end of the weight spectrum you’re on–the only difference is that I still had thin privilege and most of the world did not share in my negative opinions about myself. My life was not made harder by others, as much as by my own beliefs.
In high school, my favorite lunches were when I had money to buy Doritos and Rice Krispy treats at the student run store. If I was lucky, a soda too! Later at a different school where upper grades were allowed to go off campus for lunch, visiting the local burger joints was the “cool” thing to do.
At one point, having learned that 3500 Calories make up one pound of flesh, I sat down by the vending machine and used up all my spare change trying to get as close to that miracle pound as I could afford. There was a little “Haha World!” attitude in it too. “Look at meeee I can eat whatever IIIII want!”
Now if I had been a large girl and people saw me sitting there eating candy bars and chips, they would have given me the silent “tsk tsk” and thought about how I was ruining my health. No wonder I was so fat. Poor ignorant, out of control fat girl. But I doubt a single person really noticed my food choices since I was skinny. Nobody would have chided my hours of TV watching at home. Who needs healthy habits if I’d already won the prize? I was Not_Fat.
My sophomore year in college I took a nutrition class and it opened up a whole new perspective for me. I realized that I might not be thin forever. Perhaps I needed to change my eating habits so that I wouldn’t turn into one of those chubby old ladies who frequently reminisced to me how they too used to be skinny just like me. I was starting to like my figure and I didn’t want to lose it. I was taught that what I ate not only would influence my body’s appearance but could lead to/prevent disease! Of course all that nutrition knowledge started to take me down a different path.
Instead of trying to gain pounds, I started to do my best to control them: to carve out that perfect physique and be ‘healthy’. I’d recently started becoming interested in fitness and exercise (a huge paradigm shift for me). After doing a young-collegiate level of “research,” I became a vegan vegetarian (before it was so immensely popular). I began taking an interest in foods I’d never liked before, like beans and ethnic dishes. I began to cook. I developed a love for whole grains, veggies, fiber, tofu. Good things, in and of themselves.
But I also grew obsessed with food. With calories, fat, and the right ratio of this to that. I look back on my diary entries and when I didn’t write about my latest crush, they were filled with food logs and remorse. I looked at an apple and saw “80 Calories.” I overate frequently. And by “overate” I mean not only past my personally chosen calorie goals but also to the point of feeling uncomfortable and stuffed. I felt guilty about eating frequently. I would strive to do ‘better’ regularly and then find myself stuffing myself with desserts or raisins or bread or nuts–or 4th meal (before the term was coined by the Taco Bell). I never developed anorexia (I knew too much and enjoyed food too much to starve myself) or any other overt eating disorder. But my eating was certainly not ordered. It was chaotic and unhealthy, despite my fit appearance and generally nutritious food choices. I was a slave to “healthy eating” and it was not improving my life. And for all my striving I was going the opposite direction of my goals. My 5th year of college (yes, I took the 6 year route to a 4 year degree), I weighed more than I ever had (while still being within a healthy range) despite my valiant efforts to control what I never before worried about. How was that possible? Why was it easy before I cared and now that I cared, weight control became harder?
Two different experiences. Same person. Both times my BMI was either in the healthy range or below. Neither time in my life would a campaign to improve BMI’s have helped me one bit. Yet such campaigns are abounding across America. Weight control campaigns couched as health promotions campaigns. I’m certain the intent is good, but the goal is really weight control.
Are we trying to help children and adults develop healthy habits or are we aiming for Non-Fatness? Because while there is overlap, they are not the same thing. There were girls heavier than me who are athletic and play sports and enjoy doing things outdoors. Was I healthier than them because I was thin and sedentary? Who better meets the criteria for “healthy,” a thin girl who never eats vegetables or the chubby girl who loves broccoli and salads? What if both are veggie-phobes?
The reason I dislike BMI measurements for kids is the same reason I dislike the ‘war against obesity.’ Measurements of weight and BMI does not consider habits, behaviors, beliefs, attitudes and perspectives about food. It doesn’t address emotional responses to food. It doesn’t address bullying or body image concerns. It doesn’t address the home food environment or parent-child feeding dynamics, economic status, access to food or a myriad of other variables that influence the health of a child. It puts weight on a pedestal. It makes skinny the prize and chubby the loser. And when that is the game, there’s fallout.
Early in my career as a dietitian I used to think “If only we could start nutrition education earlier in school! If only we could teach kids about the fat in fries and sugar in cookies and show them a diseased heart and clogged vessels and expose fast food…etc…etc.” I was naive.
I am convinced now that if not done carefully and sensitively, it has potential to do more harm than good. What I’d like to see is education that starts with parents … before their child even starts solid food. To prepare them for what feeding kids will be like. To prepare them to support that child’s natural self-regulation rather than encourage them to push past fullness by bribing the eating of broccoli with the promise of dessert ‘at the end.’ To prepare them for toddlerhood and pickiness. To help them in striving to instill a right attitude toward food and eating rather than pressuring them to get 5 servings of vegetables into their child. To teach parents the value of family meals and sharing food together and making mealtimes pleasant. To instill the importance of meals, period, rather than grazing or waiting till you’re starving to eat. To prevent the good food/bad food version of nutrition where apples are pitted against cookies and guilt takes over. To help parents build their child’s confidence and self assurance so that when other girls pinch their waists and find that they…GASP…have fat cells, that their daughters won’t be sucked into body disgust.
I haven’t figured out the miraculous things to say or do that will shield my daughter from going through what I did. I hope that by supporting her own internal self-regulation and growing acceptance of a wide variety of nutritious foods with good feeding practices it will help some. But there will come that age where she’s bound to compare herself to others and be disappointed. If someone like me, who grew up with enviable thinness, could feel bad about her body, then any girl can–regardless what body type is popular at the time. I hope that I can teach her that her body is wonderful the way it is and treating it well never means obsessing about it, exercise, or food.
Just like there will always be people like me who are naturally thinner than average. There will always be a percentage of people who are naturally fatter than average. In our endeavors (I’m speaking to anyone who has a role [doctors, dietitians, teachers, etc]) to improve the health of the masses, I think we need to be careful to not make health about an ideal uniform weight or size or appearance. I don’t want to be part of a war against fatness. I don’t want to make someone’s body size the enemy. I want to help people take care of themselves, get enough good food to eat, and enjoy a well-rounded and active life.