Kate Moss and Me: Can We Ever Talk to Kids About Self-Denial and Food?

by Bettina Elias Siegel on August 16, 2011

[Ed. Note:  Due to an error on my end, email and RSS subscribers to The Lunch Tray may have received a very rough draft of this post on Sunday, August 14th under the working title, "The Post I've Been Afraid to Write."  Here is the final version.]

 

Last week a Lunch Tray reader posted on TLT’s Facebook page this photo and asked me to share it with my readership:

The quote on the shirt, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” is widely attributed to “heroin-chic” fashion model Kate Moss who said it publicly in 2009 (although I’ve seen some news accounts indicating that Weight Watchers used a similar slogan before that time).  As soon as über-thin Moss uttered those words, she was widely criticized for promoting a pro-anorexia message.  Incidentally, only a few days ago the UK actually banned the advertising to children of the specific shirt shown above for the same reason (which I’m guessing is how the photo came to the attention of the TLT reader who posted it).

TLT Facebook fans immediately criticized the shirt’s message, calling it “disgusting,” “terrible,” “disturbing,” “wrong,” “dangerous,” and “anorexia propaganda.”  The first reader seemed taken aback by the outcry and while she/he backed down a bit, she/he still defended the slogan as “a powerful tool” for combatting childhood obesity.

My response to the reader on the Facebook page was as follows:

. .  . I think the concern is that we certainly want kids to be eating well and living a healthy lifestyle, but if you promote the end goal as “being skinny” (as this shirt does), it’s problematic for a lot of reasons.  For one thing, the emphasis on “skinny” creates a real stigma for people who are larger than “skinny,” sometimes due to their own lifestyle and sometimes through no fault of their own. . . . Second, a single minded focus on appearance versus health can trigger an eating disorder (the reason why the UK banned the advertising of this shirt.)  Third, “skinny” and “healthy” are not always the same thing. There are a lot of kids out there who are thin but eating a terrible diet which could have a longterm negative effect on their health just as much as obesity does. (For example, don’t know if you saw Jamie Oliver’s last season of Food Revolution, but it featured two kids, both thin, whose dad was feeding them fast food 9 times a week) . . . .

The discussion on Facebook has since died down, but following this exchange something was niggling at me, although it took me a few days and about fifteen re-writes of this post to figure it out.

It’s not that I’d take back anything I said to the reader who posted the offending photo.  With my own children – especially my preteen daughter – I strive always to speak about healthful eating only in the context of maintaining good health.  I’m painfully aware that an emphasis on eating healthfully to achieve a certain body shape can quickly lead to obsessive habits, including outright eating disorders.   I’m also aware that many people – children and adults – don’t conform to our society’s aesthetic ideal for reasons having nothing to do with their eating habits, and that the ideal itself is a ridiculously Photoshoppped fantasy seemingly designed solely to make us all feel bad about ourselves.  Good health, not the size of your jeans, needs to be the goal we promote to kids.

But in a somewhat bizarre coincidence, the day before the reader posted the photo, I’d just put the finishing touches on an essay requested by a women’s magazine editor.  I was asked to address my own body image issues and I wrote about how I’ve always been someone who loves to eat and who could stay fit with only a modicum of self-control, but now that I’m in my forties, that’s starting to change.  Over the last few years I’ve put on a few extra pounds, a relatively small but stubborn weight gain that maybe no one else notices, but I’m not at all happy about it.

Overall, my diet is quite healthful and I exercise moderately but regularly.  To the outside world I still qualify as “thin,” and I certainly fit the ideal of “healthy” that I promote to my children.  Yet, despite what I tell my kids about health being the sole goal of eating well, I still very much want to lose the weight.

Why?  Part of it is pure vanity, I admit.  There’s an undeniable pleasure in being able to wear the clothes you want to wear, in (generally) liking what you see in the mirror’s reflection, in feeling that your body is in optimal shape, whatever that means for your particular body dimensions and type.  I was lucky enough to feel that way most of my life, and I’m unwilling to give it up without a fight.   But I also want to lose the weight as a preventative measure.  I may be healthy now, but when this year’s extra five pounds is added to next year’s and the year after that, one can easily wake up having crossed the line into “unhealthy,” and losing all that excess weight becomes that much more daunting.

So even though I’m not even close to “overweight” now, even though I’m “healthy,” I find myself looking at food in a new light:  Is this this morsel worth the calories?  Is this worth the potential weight gain?  And when the answer is “No thanks, actually I’d rather fit into my pants, now and down the road,” I can’t deny that I’m saying to myself something close to Kate Moss’s controversial motto — that the food in question just isn’t worth the consequences.

But for the reasons I laid out on Facebook, this is not a thought process I dare share with my children, especially my daughter.  As a result, I feel downright furtive when I pass up some delicious dish at a restaurant that the rest of my family is enjoying with gusto, or when the entree I’ve prepared on a given night is more calorie-dense than usual so I take a smaller portion than I’m giving everyone else at the table.   If one of my kids raises an eyebrow, as they sometimes do (since they can’t fathom why someone would pass up freely available, objectively yummy food at mealtime), I feel like I can’t come right out and say, “I’m watching my weight, so I feel I need to eat less of that, even though I’d otherwise happily eat it, and lots of it.”  Instead I find myself hemming and hawing:  ”I just feel like less tonight.”  ”I ate so much dinner, I’m just not in the mood for dessert.”

In other words, I’m lying to my kids.

At the same time, though, I wonder if my silence is actually depriving them of a necessary and useful tool to navigate today’s world.  We now live in a society in which abundance, not scarcity, and inactivity, not overwork, are widespread problems.   A society about which the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention once said: “. . . if you go with the flow in America today, you will end up overweight or obese” [emphasis mine].

So maybe I should be sharing my Kate-Moss-esque mental calculus with my kids.  Maybe it’s actually beneficial for them to see that at some point (well after childhood, certainly, and maybe not until middle age), even a “healthy” person in today’s world might need to be vigilant to avoid “going with the flow.”   That it might be necessary to sometimes ask yourself if the food on your plate – even if it’s healthful – is worth it to you, both for health reasons and — yes, I’m going to say it out loud — a purely superficial (but undeniably human) desire to look your best, whatever that means for your own body.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, and if you find this topic thought-provoking, would you consider using the “Share”  button below to send the post on to others?

 

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Jen August 16, 2011 at 8:01 am

I think it depends on the age of your children, kinda like you do when your kids ask you where babies come from. It’s not necessary to go into the whole sperm meets egg thing with your five year old, but your thirteen year old could handle the science of it. I would probably shy away from going into a whole “I’m trying to shake these stubborn 10 pounds” discussion with a younger kid.

How young is old enough is a completely different can of worms. I would probably shy away from body image discussions with a 12 year old who I imagine has her own body image issues, but maybe that’s exactly the right time to do it. I dunno, but I’m very glad my daughter is 2 and not 12 at present.

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Brad August 16, 2011 at 8:52 am

Excellent post. I’ve heard the slogan for a long time in WW boards (I think longer than 2009). I really dislike the slogan myself because any deep analysis of it gets ookie as you suggest. As for your conflict, I think you are right to emphasize health-fulness AND I think at the right juncture sharing some of your own internal battles over skinny may be valuable for your child.

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Viki August 16, 2011 at 9:36 am

Thought provoking indeed.
My parents were raised during the depression. One of the things I heard a lot as a child was “clean your plate”. One of the things I don’t do NOW is clean my plate. My mom got by with this by doing what you do and not putting as much on her plate. Hard to do when you eat out. There is nothing wrong with taking half your food home from the restaurant, the portions are too large anyway.

I have found that by putting my fork down between bites means I will eat less. Having real conversation with my family helps too. I know it is all rather “French” but it does help. It also slows down the meal, which allows for your brain and stomach to communicate.
Which are all good lessons to have with your kids.
(If you put your fork down and swallow before you speak your mouth isn’t full when you talk. That is just good manners. Good conversation and Science.)

We all learn so much at our dinner table.

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Melissa House August 16, 2011 at 10:09 am

I believe when we talk to children about eating, it is safe to say that as we age our body metabolizes food differently than when we were younger. It is a lot harder to eat what ever you want the older you get. My high school kids would eat all the junk all day, and they did notice that their parents gained weight the older they got, and I would have to explain to them, you cannot keep eating that way much longer, and the habits you build now will effect you food choices later. Also, body digest food at different rates depending on the persons mood. For instance, the more depressed and unhappy you are, the slower it takes you body to metabolize food, and the happier you are the fast it will digest. There are many factors when it comes to weight gain, some are the plate size, the bowl size, and the fork. I serve myself small portions, on small plates, and eat till I slightly feel full and stop, and I never make the kids finish their plates.

Weight gain has a lot to do with eating processed foods, and foods and drinks with HFCS. If you eat real food, all the time, you pretty much can eat anything and as much as you want. Now and then a dish with some cream in it will not hurt you.

It all comes down to food education, where we lack so poorly in our world, and the more we lack it, the better the food corporations like it.

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Bri August 16, 2011 at 10:10 am

Hey Bettina,

As someone who struggled with disordered eating and body image for, well, most of my life…this really hits a nerve. Here’s the thing. I was never a skinny kid, and I’ll never be a skinny adult. I’m simply not built that way. I’m okay — I’m a petite size 6 (but on a 5’1″ frame, so there’s some perspective…) — but I have lots of curves and some extra “squishy bits” here, there and everywhere. I probably always will. There are some clothing styles that just will never look right on me. And it took me until almost age 30 to be okay with that — to the extent that from age 20 to age 28, I simply did not wear a bathing suit, anywhere, ever. I missed out on a lot of fun and a lot of opportunities because I could not bring myself to put that kind of perceived spotlight on my body.

I always loved food and cooking, and I’ve always been more drawn to healthy foods, but I remember having such a difficult time figuring out how to navigate eating once the obsession had taken hold. Even after I was no longer exhibiting the worrisome bulimic behavior that landed me in a therapist’s office at the age of 14, I had deep-seated fear and anxiety about certain food and body-related situations. I was constantly worried that other people were watching me eat and judging the fat girl for eating too much or too quickly, or for ordering the wrong things. I would stop eating before I was full, in front of others, because I thought more than 1/2 a sandwich would make me seem like a disgusting pig. When I was in graduate school, I remember calling my mother one Super Bowl having something that very closely resembled a panic attack, because my friends were coming over to watch the game and they wanted to ORDER A PIZZA. What should I do? I wailed. I really wanted to eat a slice of pizza and feel “normal” like everyone else, but I was convinced that I could never be “normal” or eat the way those around me did.

In short — it was hell. Not a day went by, from age 8 until age 28 or older, that I didn’t constantly think about my body. I mean, constantly. Sitting, standing, walking. Clothes shopping would send me into a tailspin. Not a fun way to go through life.

So do I think you should talk to your kids — especially your pre-teen daughter — about your weight? Never. Never, never, never. My mother was always concerned about her weight, and mine. And it came from a place of love, but honestly, even if she’d said nothing to me about my body, her insecurity would have rubbed off on me and the result would have been the same, I think.

It’s not lying to your kids to talk about fullness as a measure of how much you should eat, and it’s not lying to them to talk about re-evaluating your body’s nutritional needs and ability to be healthy at different ages. It may be an omission to refrain from pointing out that you want to fit into your skinny pants, but it’s not a harmful omission. I’d tell them, if they really continue to ask, that you’re getting a little older (ouch! That sounded wrong!), and at different times in our lives, our bodies need different kinds of foods. Yours is at a point where it will be healthier, and you will feel better, eating fewer sweets and rich foods and trying to get more of the “good” stuff. That’s the truth, but it’s the truth from a standpoint that doesn’t bring any kind of size-related judgment into question. And then you continue talking to your children, who are healthy, have a good perspective on food, and have no weight issues, about what’s right for THEM. And what’s right for them, right now, is continuing to eat the way they eat and paying attention to their fullness cues. That’s it.

Your example will mean far more to them in the long run than any attempt to “teach” them about restraint for the sake of weight maintenance. Trust me.

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Viki August 16, 2011 at 10:12 am

As for the Self-Denial part…If you are eating what they are is it really self-denial?
If you were feeding them pasta with cream sauce and you were eating a grapefruit…THAT would be totally noticable. (and wrong, so wrong)
The shirt in the picture sends a message that is not healthy. You want to be sure you Are sending a message to your kids that IS healthy. Kudos to you. First you have to figure it out in your own mind, before you can communicate honestly with your children. (and in an age appropriate manner.)
(as in my above post”clean your plate there are children starving in Africa” is not apropriate EVER)
That said. In my house there isn’t often dessert. If there is it isn’t served immediately after dinner. My kids knew/know this. There was no “saving room for dessert”, because mommy isn’t going to serve it until later anyway, you might as will eat your “growing food”. If I’m full from dinner, I don’t want dessert right away anyway. If it isn’t expected until later, You can get away without eating any.
As an aside, I’ve discovered it is difficult to write tenses when one child is grown and out of the house and the other still lives at home.
Excuse my mistakes.

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Karen August 16, 2011 at 2:48 pm

Deep thoughts above, and my preteen daughter read some of it with me – sorry! I’ve been worried about body image issues for my girls because my parents are some of the most weight-obsessed people I know. When my daughters were still in preschool they were telling them about fattening foods, etc. It drove me crazy, and if I they did it in my presence I corrected them immediately (my parents, I mean, not my kids). It was when I was not there that I feared a lot of this was getting communicated. I seriously had to weigh the benefits of having my folks help with childcare (huge benefit) against the known risks of having them communicate this twisted mind-set.

My oldest daughter was more zaftig than my parents liked. I heard about it a lot. Now that she’s hit her growth spurt and “thinned out” they have nothing but praise for her about her looks. In addition, she struggled this year with a lot of belly pain (reflux) and didn’t eat breakfast, or much of anything else, for a while. My parents complimented her on her weight loss. Oh, awful. [This response is getting to be my therapy session, excuse me.] I refuse to discuss my weight with my girls, I clearly demonstrate balanced eating and I talk about finding the right clothes for yourself, to look your best. We all have challenges in that department. Who except the runway walkers are going to look good in everything they try on????

Body issues are endemic in our culture. My oldest told me last week that her legs are fat. She has got sticks for legs, trust me. I asked her to show me the fat and she showed me the relaxed adducter muscle. I demonstrated how when that muscle is flexed there is nothing there but hard, strong legs. That set her mind at ease (I hope!!!).

We should enjoy our food and our meals. We should make healthy choices. We should listen to our bodies and eat when we’re hungry, stop when we’re full. If we gain a few pounds here and there, we should adjust accordingly (less ice cream perhaps? but it’s so hot!) and not go crazy with dieting. Middle age brings a wider waistline, independent of the number on the scale. It’s normal, you’re still beautiful. As an aside, I look now at old pics of Jackie O and her peers and I think they do not look beautiful, as skinny as they were in their later years. Sometimes you need some fat to fill out our sagging wrinkles!

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alyce August 16, 2011 at 3:47 pm

I think “portion education” is a big part of the healthy eating discussion with kids, especially teaching them to listen to their body and eat until they are satisfied, not “full.” (And for adults who were taught to clean their plates growing up, this takes discipline and is not easy — but doable.) Also important is teaching them dessert is something to be enjoyed in moderation.

Kids need to know that the gi-normous portions served at some restaurants are really enough to feed 2, 3 and 4 people in some cases. Those are not “normal” portions and if you cleaned a plate like that daily, yes, you will most likely gain some weight.

And how would you feel after? To me there is a big difference between feeling “satisfied” and “full,” after a meal. Full does not feel good, or healthy.

Hope you are doing well, Bettina!

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Bettina Elias Siegel August 17, 2011 at 9:38 am

I’m so very appreciative of all who commented here, especially those who shared their personal stories. Much for me to think about and digest . . . and possibly a follow-up post is in order, too.

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LiisaW May 29, 2012 at 9:37 am

[grammar nazi sigh]When was it that healthy became healthful, and, why, oh why?[/grammar nazi sigh] I can’t help it. Sorry.

I’m a recovering anorexic so my worldviews likely are not objective. Take me with a grain of salt, then.

Well, my general opinion is that one’s looks and feelings are personal and as long as they don’t bother others, it’s up to each individual how they look, including body shape, hair colour, amount of makeup etc. On the other hand, one shouldn’t always expect applause for anything they’re doing. I know there’s a blurry line and that sometimes I either conform to local customs or people will get pissed – one shouldn’t look prettier than the bride at the weddings, or at least as if they tried too much to look prettier. And body shape is quite modifiable if one chooses (not easily, admittedly) so I sort of assume that a person is happy with what I would consider extra weight on myself and I wouldn’t dare to tell them to change their body shape unless they state that they’re open to comments.

I’m of two minds when it comes to eating disorders and severe obesity – these are not good and healthy things and looking at severely underfed or overfed people is not pretty (I’m speaking from the strictly aesthetic point of view here). However, these people are ill, be it ill with anorexia, obesity or borked metabolism or what else and although they contributed quite a bit to their illness, they should be treated like people who might be intelligent, educated, well aware that they’re in trouble… but unable to cope themselves.
I always hated being told stuff like You’re fat and nobody wants to be friends with them because they’re lazy and stink. I’m built like a lumberjack, can’t ever be a fragile fairy, even when I ate twice a week (a bottle of buttermilk on Thursdays and a small cookie on Sundays or some such), I only looked like a starved lumberjack, or what some people would still call fat. It was difficult to learn to eat sort of normally, like, daily, even multiple times, because starving gave me a nice high. I love me some good chocolate or pastries but these are incomparable to the feeling I used to get after not eating for a few days.
For various reasons, I gained quite some weight. Unrelated health problems and also not being able to control my food intake after I found my way out of starving myself. Any attempt at control would be read as Hooray, starving high is upcoming so I grew a nice beer gut and similar appendices. And damn, I never liked it. I used to dance a bit and at the worst health-problem-time, I literally saw myself growing, a mirror wall is quite unforgiving. My equilibrium changed which impeded my dancing abilities, I outgrew my cool clothes, became terribly self-confident and being constantly nagged that I’m fat and ugly and will die a miserable death of painful knees and clogged arteries didn’t help anything.

I want to be reasonably thin and athletic. I don’t see anything wrong with it but I find it really tiresome to explain to anyone who likes to give unsolicited advice that it doesn’t mean starving to death. That’s a thing between me, my plate and my therapist. I like myself enough to try hard to eat in a healthy and sustainable manner. Similarly, should someone decide that they like their body with a certain amount of fat or curves or even some flabbiness – well, they live in that body, not me, and they should feel good about it. And if people don’t feel good about their bodies for whatever the reason, pointing out that they should lose weight, tone their upper arms, wear something less clingy so that their ribs don’t stick out that much won’t help at all. They know it, they probably know what can be done about it, maybe they’re working hard to change it and nagging only makes them feel worse.

It’s no secret that I was anorexic. It’s no secret that I’m on a diet at this point. If someone asks nicely, I’ll go into more details than they ever wanted to know. I refuse to see anything wrong and shameful in changing food intake to change my body, be it weight loss diet or an extra steak when I want to do some tough gardening and grow some muscles while at that.

Bettina, it’s your body and I think that not gaining weight is well within the borders of reasonable. You don’t want to lose 20 kilos in half a year and I think that encouraging a good attitude towards food in your children includes talking about a bit of restraint. As it was mentioned upthread, desserts are occasional treats, not an everyday need. I’d compare cakes and sweets to nail polish. I love my bakery, I love good chocolate and I love painted nails. However, there’s a price to pay. Nail paint chips and cracks and I need to remove it after a few days or it would look awful and it takes time and effort to keep my hands pretty. In busy times, it goes off and I’m going bare-nailed. If I know I don’t have the time, energy and willpower for extra exercise, I just won’t eat that many chocolates or the whole chunk of cake.
Healthy attitude towards food is a wide field. There are many things I wouldn’t touch with a long stick because they’re too greasy, too artificial or just not a thing I’d like, reasons unknown (Stinky cheese or garlic and me cannot coexist in one building). Still, I hear I have a healthy attitude towards food and whom I am to believe than my therapist.

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Bettina Elias Siegel May 29, 2012 at 11:51 am

Liisa: I really do appreciate your sharing your story here.

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Sara May 16, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Don’t share your thoughts of deprivation with your daughters. Why not just eat what you want when you want it and exercise. That would be “normal”. What you are doing is not normal and is not good for your girls. Everyone wants to be reasonably attractive, but the amount of time and energy you seem to devoting to you weight and diet is excessive and would depress me. I’d rather be reading a good book or spend ing time with my friends. The last thing I want to do is think about food, but that’s what people with food and eating issues do. Don’t encourage your daughters to do the same or they will be just as miserable. The recovered eating disorder community is really against this anti-obesity, food movement b/c it seems to stem from disordered eating and may even encourage it in young children.

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