How can we stop our kids from becoming “Pretty Unhealthy”?
Updated: Sep 16
Today I did a radio interview with Dr Nikki Stamp about her latest book “Pretty Unhealthy”. It’s about our obsession with the way that health looks (rather than our actual health behaviours), and our misguided attempts to look healthy rather than be healthy. It’s a great read- reminiscent of ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’ (Susie Orbach), and ‘Real Gorgeous’ (Kaz Cooke), this is an iconic exploration of our obsession with appearance, and all that is wrong with the health and wellness industry.
In the book, there’s some discussion about whether we can tell how healthy people are by looking at them, and what health 'looks like' as opposed to actual science and medicine. Dr Stamp raises also concern about the qualifications of the people that are spreading messages about health. It’s well researched, and written in a really digestible format- a must read for anyone trying to unravel why they might think the way that they do about weight and health. The book reveals a lot about what is wrong with the current state of play, and how social media superstars, exercise professionals, and the wellness industry aren’t helping.
In preparing for the interview, I did a lot of thinking about what we could actually do to reverse or correct this situation- what would the world look like if we were free from shame and guilt around our bodies?
First and foremost, in this world, I think that healthy behaviours would be promoted for everyone, because they are the things that impact on our health- not our weight. Everyone would have access to, and be able to afford, nutritious food, and engage in physical activity. We would move because we enjoy it, and because it feels good, not because we ‘should’ to be healthy. We would eat what our bodies tell us to eat, when it tells us to eat, and listen to our body when it says that we are hungry or full. We would appreciate our bodes for what they can do for us, not only what they look like. Although this sounds like a utopian dreamland in comparison to the current state of play, the intuitive eating and joyful moving part? That’s (mostly) what it is like to be a child.
Children move when they feel like moving, and they LOVE every minute of it- they are so embodied and uninhibited, because they are feeling what it feels like rather than thinking about what it looks like when they move. They eat what they want to eat because it tastes good, and fills them up- their bodies ask them to eat more when they are having a growth spurt, and they follow those cues.
As adults raising children, it is important that we try to nurture these intuitive responses to food and activity, rather than convincing them to do these things because ‘they are healthy’. People who are parents today probably grew up being told to ‘finish everything on their plate’ if they wanted dessert, and to stop ‘being a pig’ if they went for seconds or thirds… by our parents, or by society. These messages helped us to ignore our intuitive cues, and take on a cognitive control of eating that is unhelpful and has probably led us to the present situation where many people are in larger bodies, or have disordered relationships with food.
In order to disrupt this ‘intergenerational transmission’ of problematic eating and body image issues, there are some key things that we can do:
1- Role model loving your body- Talk about what it can do, and what you love about what it looks like. Talk about your body the way you want your children to think about theirs. Our research shows that women who have a higher body image, and engage in less dieting, are better able to role model a positive body image. If you need to work on this, check out the evidence-based resources on www.bodyconfidentmums.org
2- Encourage their appreciation of food, activity, and their bodies- let them listen to their bodies, talk about the functional effects of food, and impact of physical activity, and model your appreciation of these things as well. Research shows that children and adolescents are more likely to engage in health eating and exercise behaviours if they are happier with their bodies, and they will be less likely to gain weight over time. For more guidance on this, check out the evidence-based resources on www.confidentbody.net
3- Critique the broader ‘health’ messages that they are exposed to. Question whether anyone is paying for an ad that they see, and what those people might be trying to sell you. Why might they have used that image to sell that thing? What qualifications does the person sending that message have? Media literacy can help to reduce the impact of the traditional and social media that children are exposed to.
Dr Zali Yager is an Associate Professor in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University. She is passionate about making people feel good about the way that they look, and developing programs and systems to embed and spread these messages as far and wide as possible.