A New Perspective on Moms and Diets
I always think a lot about my mom this time of year since her birthday was January 8, and she died on January 9, 2000.
And it’s tricky because memories of my mom are complicated by her focus on my weight and eating. But that also made this a good time to read Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture by Virginia Sole-Smith.
While I knew some of what was in the book, I didn’t know all of it, and it gave me a new perspective in thinking about my mom – and other moms – and diets.
Blaming someone for a child’s weight
When I was a heavy teenager, I didn’t think about things from my parents’ perspective. I think that’s pretty typical of teens, but it certainly doesn’t make it easy to understand where your parents are coming from, especially when it’s something that you don’t like.
And so I can’t say I ever thought about any social pressure my parents, but particularly my mom, might have faced because of my weight.
I say my mom specifically because according to the book, many people like to blame working mothers for their child’s obesity. The idea is that working moms have less time to monitor their children’s eating habits or to prepare meals.
Now, whether blaming the mother in this way is accurate or helpful in any way is a separate question, but regardless, a mom of an overweight kid may feel judged by others because of it. Even if it’s not overt, those social messages can be hard to ignore, particularly if you don’t have another way to think about it.
Weight focus as an expression of love
The line that really stood out to me, though, was this one:
“The ‘war on childhood obesity’ of the past forty years has normalized the notion that parents, but especially mothers, must take responsibility for their child’s weight, and must prioritize that responsibility above their own relationship with their child as the ultimate expression of maternal love.” (p. 22)
That hit home for me. So much of my relationship with my mom revolved around my weight, at least once I hit adolescence, that it overshadowed almost everything else. But again, I never thought about how social pressures may have played a part in it.
It’s also quite likely that my mom never thought about it in this way. I know she truly was concerned for my health, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was hard to question that. We had no internet to search for any studies that would support or contradict those beliefs. Even if we had, I’m not sure how much it would have mattered to other people since parents of heavy children today continue to face a lot of scrutiny and judgment.
I’m also far more aware now of how bias of all kinds, including weight bias, is so much a part of our world that it never occurs to someone to question it.
This is probably especially true for someone like my mom who saw her grandmothers suffer from diabetes. She didn’t want me to have that experience, and since doctors said being overweight made diabetes likely, her response – to encourage me to lose weight – made perfect sense.
Except we now know that it’s not as straightforward as that, even if many people still think it is. And expressing love by focusing so much on what you think is wrong with someone is generally going to backfire.
Your body is not your value
After reading Fat Talk, I have a lot more sympathy for my mom, and moms and parents in general, when it comes to weight issues. Our society makes it very difficult to be the parents of an overweight child.
But take it from me – focusing on weight is not the way to go.
Instead, remind your child often, through words and actions: “Your body is not your value.”
Find ways to support them in a world that too often will encourage them to feel ashamed of their bodies. Tell them you love and accept them as they are. Prioritize your relationship with them over their weight.
And look for those who will support you in this, too, because going against societal expectations isn’t easy. But it will be worth it, for you and your child.