Parenting


As I have mentioned before, I am on the FlyLady email list and generally either enjoy the messages or at least find them inoffensive. But FlyLady’s “meal guru” Leanne Ely is getting more and more hateful lately. Here’s a “Food for Thought” message she sent earlier this month.

Buddy Hackett once said, ‘My mother’s menu consisted of two choices. Take it or leave it.’

That’s what my mother’s menu consisted of, too. We had the choice of eating the dinner she prepared or leaving the table hungry. If we didn’t like what she prepared, we weren’t allowed to make ourselves a PB & J. If we snuck a banana or anything else for that matter, we were in big trouble. Why? Was my mother abusive and mean? Was my family dysfunctional because the children weren’t allowed to call the shots on what was for dinner? Am I in therapy now because I was made to eat my vegetables?

Nope. My family had issues like any other family, but it was pretty ‘normal’. I’ve noticed however, that what was fashionable in the childrearing of yesterday is now considered barbaric and obsolete. Today, we are told, that if we ‘make’ our children eat what’s in front of them will develop eating disorders. Not giving children ‘choices’ will harm their self esteem, so say the ‘professionals’.

The very words ‘eating disorder’ sends us into a tailspin. Consequently, after years of permissive parenting at the dinner table, we suddenly realize our children may have never eaten an honest portion of veggies in their entire young lives. In our perfectionism (and boy, parenting is the place where we wear our maternal stripes with pride!) we have been more concerned about our children’s psyches than teaching them an important life skill–eating nutritiously. Because we want to be better parents than our own parents, we want our children to have ‘perfect’ childhoods with no conflict whatsoever. We buy all of that, don’t we? And, to use a food analogy, the proof is the pudding–just take a look at the kids.

Childhood obesity is at epidemic proportions. According to the International Obesity Task Force, there are about 22 million children in the world, UNDER 5 that are overweight or obese! In another study, the Canadian Medical Association reported that obesity among young boys ages 7 to 13 years old, TRIPLED between 1981 and 1996 […]

Blah blah blah, so on and so forth. First of all, I really don’t appreciate the scare quotes around a large percentage of the words in this essay. Any person who would so blithely trivialize eating disorders (which, let’s remember, actually kill people, unlike obesity in and of itself)  is not someone I really care to know.

Second of all, I have an eating disorder (yikes, typing that out is scarier than I thought it would be, though I’ve said it before). And I am obese. I am not going to “blame” my parents for this, because I think it’s way more complicated than that, but let’s just say my mom followed every shred of conventional wisdom regarding how to raise kids not to be fat. We were served healthy meals with fruits and vegetables, pop as only an occasional special treat, and no junk food in the house. Surprise, I am fat anyway and have been fat ever since I was old enough to be cognizant of that fact.

Certainly, on the face of it, there isn’t much wrong with my parents’ philosophy. I’m all for vegetables and limiting pop. But I think the fact that I knew all along that it was a paralyzing fear of me getting fat (and NOT just for “health”–see, I can do scare quotes too–reasons… my mom was the fat kid in school, and seemed to consider it a fate worse than death in many ways) that was driving these choices certainly contributed to some of my current fucked-up relationship with food.

Let’s not even get into how “giving kids choices” equates to “suddenly [realizing] our children may have never eaten an honest portion of veggies in their entire young lives.” Can you tell me what, exactly, is wrong with that purloined banana? Or even a PB&J (since I’m assuming Ely’s home is stocked with 100% whole-grain bread, natural peanut butter, and local home-canned low-sugar jam)? I’d say this is all about control, and the assumption that if we “let ourselves go,” we will all weigh 400 pounds. Who’s to say your child won’t (like many of us) actually LIKE some or many vegetables? Certainly some kids will remain immune to the obesity panic that infuses this approach, and certainly some parents will be able to hide it well enough that the kids aren’t affected. I commend those parents as I do any parent who puts aside his or her own issues in the service of raising mentally and physically healthy kids. But if your actual practice of feeding your kids is anything like the snotty tone of this piece, I don’t think you are doing them as much of a favor as you think.

I don’t have kids, so I know my opinion is worth basically the paper it’s printed on. But I know from listening to my friends who are parents that helping kids eat is a situation that it is impossible to be 100% prescriptive about. Some kids eat only meat and cheese, others almost nothing at all, some are junk food fiends, and some will cheerfully eat whatever you put in front of them. These interactions can be really stressful for parents–my sister-in-law describes how traumatic it was for both her and her young son when she would finally have to force him to eat after days of refusing to consume anything, and you can still see him get anxious and push his plate away without eating a bite when he is in an unfamiliar situation or stressed out, so this was clearly not a fleeting or trivial aversion. Suffice it to say, I certainly think it is safe to say that kids’ eating issues (and the “childhood obesity epidemic”) cannot be solved with a glib blanket recommendation to force your children to choke down whatever you put on their plates, under threat of punishment.

Shame on Leanne Ely, both for being smug and comfortable enough to assume that she has all the answers for those stupid parents of fat kids, and for trivializing diseases that tear families apart, ruin lives, and even kill.

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I heard a report on NPR this morning, about a University of Buffalo study on consumer buying habits when food prices are manipulated to make “healthy food” (i.e. fruits and vegetables) more affordable. I have several comments. Don’t even get me started on how the report (it is kind of a mish-mash) starts with an example of how “In a London-based study, dieters got paid when they dropped pounds.” ‘Cause everybody needs to “drop pounds,” and everybody can do it without adopting unhealthy crash-dieting tactics, right? Anyway.

Now researchers are interested in understanding how food price manipulations may influence what ends up in mothers’ grocery carts.

Interesting. Are mothers the only people who buy food? I mean, naturally they are the ones to blame for killing their families with “junk food.” Everyone knows that.

‘Then we looked at the purchasing patterns of these mothers,’ explains Len Epstein, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Buffalo who was involved in the study. He says the mothers’ choices were somewhat predictable. When the costs went down, ‘they did buy more of the healthy foods.’

But since the healthful items now cost a lot less, the moms had money leftover. Esptein says they used it to buy more junk food.

‘When you put it all together, their shopping baskets didn’t have improved nutrition,’ says Epstein — they had the same amounts of fats and carbohydrates.

“Didn’t have improved nutrition”? Fat and carbohydrates ARE NUTRIENTS. As Kate pointed out long ago (but most people have yet to get the memo): adding cheese sauce to your broccoli does not negate the nutritional value of the broccoli. In fact–although this is beside the point that in my opinion grownups should be allowed to make their own food choices–some nutrients are fat-soluble, and limiting fat does not seem to be a priori a good thing. I thought we were all on board with that these days?

I get that in this case they are talking about people buying processed snacks, but simply totting up the macronutrients in the cart and concluding that a cart containing a variety of whole foods and some processed, fatty and/or sugary foods is just as “bad” as a cart containing all processed foods (or, to put it another way, that limiting carbohydrates and fat as much as possible is something to strive for) seems ridiculous to me. (Leaving aside that my shopping cart might contain all produce one day and all, I don’t know, baking ingredients, light bulbs, and cleaning products another.) Also, I can’t find the study, but I would be really interested in knowing exactly what the composition of those shopping carts was. Were they really outside the bounds of a reasonable carbohydrate/protein/fat ratio?

The researchers, in any case, conclude that a “sin tax” is therefore the way to go. Great. That should really help poor people get the calories they need to function and survive. WHY do these people always assume that the ideal that we should all be striving for is to live on, like, vegetables and air?

The report then jumps for some reason (under the heading “Effecting Change in the Real World”–and I’m not suggesting people stop trying to find creative ways to give kids access to healthy food, but let’s recall that we learned in Rethinking Thin that even the largest, most comprehensive school nutrition intervention programs aimed at reducing obesity, which is likely the subtext of all this since again, fruits and vegetables are emphasized whereas higher-calorie whole foods are not) to an anecdote about a school which bars any snacks other than fruit during the school day. I have no problem with fruit, obviously, but I think the more telling part of this is a statement by the teacher interviewed for the report that “Once they get it every day, they’ll eat like three bananas.” Maybe these growing kids are just hungry and fruit doesn’t always cut it? How about some dried fruit, nuts, cheese, yogurt, trail mix, or something?

It also doesn’t help that every time I see a program like this gleefully enforced by an adult (as it is by this teacher, who brags that she “has tried for years to enforce a healthful snack rule in her classroom”–yeah, let’s try to control how families spend their own food budget without offering assistance), I can’t help but think that he or she has probably been dieting his/her whole life, like most people who live in modern society, and is likely projecting those mores onto kids. Making fruit available: good. Making a moral issue out of it: bad. Assuming “more vegetables and less of everything else is always better” or “fewer calories is always better”: also bad.

If you’re coming from the Fatosphere feed, you’ve already seen this, but please check out Rachel’s post on the Academy for Eating Disorder’s new guidelines for childhood obesity prevention programs. According to Deb Burgard, who was on the panel that developed the guidelines and who commented at The-F-Word.org post, the AED is “the premier international association of academic and clinical eating disorder specialists.”

Just read the guidelines, and imagine a world where they are implemented. A world where kids aren’t scapegoated, othered, or punished for being fat, but are taught and encouraged in healthy habits and activities just like the thin kids. Blub. It makes the world we actually live in (where kids are sent home with shaming notes about their weight and encouraged into dangerous weight loss surgeries… in fact, a world where low self-esteem is blamed on fat itself instead of on anti-fat bullying and harassment where it belongs, and where kids can actually be taken away from their parents on presumption of “abuse” simply because they are fat) seem like a bad dream. I hope one day that’s all it will be.

Take a look at this recent Time magazine article about the increasing trend on the part of hospitals toward prohibiting, or de facto prohibiting, vaginal birth after cesarean section (VBAC). It is eye-opening that the  “once a cesarean, always a cesarean” (as the article phrases it) concept, which was being questioned, with VBAC considered a desirable outcome, as recently as 10-20 years ago, is now once again “law” for the majority of pregnant women who have already had a cesarean. And overweight and obese women are more likely to have c-sections (including unnecessary c-sections) anyway, so you can imagine that this liability-avoidant trend will disproportionately affect plus-size women. It is worth noting that although VBAC is not without risk, neither are c-sections, obviously.

h/t The Well-Rounded Mama–please check out her multi-part post on the article. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)