Last week I saw a little boy in the Feeding Team where I work at a children’s hospital who was referred for food refusal, picky eating, failure to gain weight and a host of other issues. We went through the visit, did our assessment and made our recommendations. At the end of the visit, the mom said to me “I probably should bring my daughter here. I am worried about her, she is only 9 years old and she has cellulite on her stomach! What should I do?” Seriously….my veins actually got this weird feeling. I really understand how they got the expression “that makes my blood boil”. My blood boils a lot these days….
Anyway, I could tell this poor mom was really concerned, and I was pretty sure she bought into the cultural mantra that being fat is bad and thin is good. And here she was, with her one and only daughter, at the ripe old age of 9 with a chubby belly. And she was worried, but I was not sure why. Was she worried about her health, or that she may end up with a fat child and wouldn’t that be horrible? I did not want to lose this chance to possibly have an impact on a young girl’s self-esteem and body image, and I knew I had to control myself. I needed this mother to buy in to what I had to say in these last few minutes of our appointment time.
So I took a deep breath and asked “How old is your daughter?” and she told me. I then went on to explain normal development and how all children are different in the way they gain weight and grow. Some kids are scrawny much of their young lives, even into their teen years, and only gain weight in their 20’s or even later. Others tend to be a bit chubby and often that fat can be in the tummy, but this is very normal. “Just remember” I said, “how small your daughter is, and how much she will be growing in the next ten years…..her body needs some fat so she can produce the hormones that are going to transform her into a young woman. Do you really think having a chubby belly at her age is important?” That mom stopped to think. So true! She has a lot of years to go before she ends up with an adult body. So if she should not worry about her daughter’s belly fat, then what should she worry about?
I went on to introduce her to the idea of promoting family health. NOT focusing on one child’s body or weight, but instead, caring about the health and happiness of everyone in the family. That includes dad who is in the habit of drinking soda, and the skinny brother who lives on potato chips and Oreo cookies. How can the entire family be healthier? I gave her a few handouts and websites on promoting a healthy feeding relationship (www.ellynsatterinstitute.com is my favorite). I suggested that she try not to talk about her daughter’s belly, or her body, or anyone’s body in the household and instead work on family health. Getting enough sleep. Limiting screen time to 2 hours or less. Cooking more at home with more family meals, less eating out, more fun outdoor play. That kind of thing. Giving your children the gift of a healthy lifestyle is something we all can work on. Trying to change someone’s genetics is fruitless at best, and worse, so damaging to self-esteem and body image (yes, we are all different, look around you, even elite athletes have different body types, yet all healthy). Your child may indeed turn out looking too thin or too large by cultural standards, but don’t you want them to be themselves? They can still be healthy, depending you what you teach them.
Anyway, I am not sure if I had an impact, or if she bought into the message I was trying to send, but at least I tried.
So, to answer the question: should you worry about your child’s belly? The answer is NO. Non. Ne. Nei. Nie. Nada.
Instead, go Hula Hooping. Now that is important.