Q&A: kids and messages about body size/shape

Our own Charisse writes:

"Can we talk about girls and body image and weight? These 3 things have happened in the last week and it's freaking me out:

-Mouse was riding in the car with me and said "mommy, I hate this reflection (in the window), it makes my legs look fat and I never want to be fat" and stayed upset about it no matter what I said ("oh sweetie, reflections do funny things to how we look", "people come in lots of shapes and sizes" and "you use your body a lot and eat good food and you're very healthy" being among what I said)...and she is in fact a healthy weight too.

-Mouse's friend E's mom posted that E refuses to smile because it "makes her cheeks look fat" and is also very upset about this

-Mouse's friend L's mom posted that L ate half a cookie and handed her back the other half saying "I'm worried that this isn't good for my body"

All of these girls are 6. I can't speak as closely for the other families of course, but I don't diet, don't comment negatively on my own or other people's appearance in front of Mouse, talk about exercise for fun and strength and good food for pleasure and energy...Mouse sees very few TV commercials, takes dance at a place that celebrates multiple styles & body types...swims and gets lots of active play where appearance isn't the physical quality in question - in short I feel like I'm doing the right stuff, but hearing this out of her mouth at such a young age makes me feel like I'm not doing enough. Or worse, like there's nothing I can do. And I can't imagine it's going to get better. She's only 6! I would love to hear what you think, and what readers with older girls are doing about it that works."

Upon further correspondence, I revealed that my boys had been making similar comments about "not wanting to get fat." Charisse expressed surprise, thinking that this was mostly a girl issue. I think that it may have been primarily a girl thing in the past, but body issues seem to be for everyone now.

I know that I've been trying to emphasize being healthy. I talk about exercising and needing to exercise to keep my body running. And I talk about not wanting to eat too many foods that are unhealthy because that's bad for my body.

I talked to the kids about making some of the changes I talked about last Thursday. The older one was arguing with me that he was "only a kid" and wasn't going to get sick from eating bad foods. But then I pointed out that he'd told me on the way home from Cleveland that he was feeling slow and tired and fat (his word) from eating so many vacation foods. And, more importantly, health is something that's cumulative, so the best way to be healthy later is to take care of your body now.

(In other sad news, one of my kids' dad's friends from high school died in his sleep a few days ago. He was 45, and had no real health problems. It's hitting my ex-husband hard, and he's reevaluating his diet, along with pretty much everything else. So I think my kids are going to be getting a whole lot of whole grains in both households.)

From the comment Charisse quoted about Mouse's friend not wanting to eat the cookie because it wasn't healthy, I'd guess that a lot of us are communicating the same message about health. (Although apparently in a Nancy Reagan-ish "zero tolerance" kind of way.)

But what I'm wondering now is if we're not being specific enough about separating health and size when we talk to our kids. If we're talking about health health health, our kids are probably receiving the message thin thin thin. It could be just like discussing race, in that we *think* we're saying something, but our kids need to be told explicitly every aspect of it. By only talking about health, society is still getting its "Thin At All Costs" message into our kids' heads.

I am wondering what will happen if I start some deliberate conversations with my kids about how it's possible to be thin and unhealthy, fat and healthy, fat and unhealthy, extremely thin and healthy, and extremely thin and unhealthy. I wonder if being super-explicit about body size relating only loosely to health will change the self-talk my kids seem to be engaging in.

Any thoughts about this? Experiences about talking specifically about body size with your kids?