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puberty in the spotlight, and please let’s stop commenting about kids’ bodies

Posted by on Dec 5, 2011 in Blog Posts | 14 comments

Last summer, I was taking M to meet her day camp teachers. We went in, and there were a few kids at the table coloring, and the teacher introduced them. One girl was very tall. The teacher said, “This is Z, she’s only 5, can you believe it, she’s so tall! She’s our big girl!” She then briefly introduced the other girls, then came back to talking about Z. Z had come over to ask the teacher for something, and the teacher mentioned her height at least three more times in the five minutes we were there.

It was weird. I suppose often parents of kids who look older than they are want to explain why the kid who looks like a 6 year-old is having a tantrum more typical of a 3 year- old-because, well, he’s a three year-old, so I get mentioning it once, but poor Z’s body was THE ice-breaker, it was what everyone talked about when there was nothing else to talk about.

I felt sad for Z. Was she feeling proud? Like a freak for being singled out? Were the other kids envious of all the attention and teasing her for it? What was the point? What is ever the point about talking so much about kids’ appearances, unless, of course, as with the obesity maelstrom, “it’s for their own good.” Imagine how tired Sasha gets about hearing the cute story about her visit to the pediatrician who warned Mrs. Obama about Sasha’s BMI, and how it started a war- on obesity. How in one generation, the goal is to “solve” obesity, make there be no more fat kids. Imagine what it’s like to be a fat kid right now, or just one who isn’t skinny, because kids aren’t going to split hairs on the playground or in the hallways…

Well, now it’s Malia’s turn I suppose… This ridiculous piece of “reporting” popped up in my scanning, using Malia’s body, this time, as the hook to talk about “puberty.” At least Sasha is off the hook for now…

There were a few helpful hints, like, “After a two-year period of faster growth, things start to slow down. In that period teens can grow, she added, up to three and a half to four inches a year.” And, the fact that growing pains are real, and how they appear and how you can help young people feel better, and then, there was this…

“Growth spurts may cause kids to eat more — a lot more. Not to worry, Wood said, as long as they’re eating quality foods and not junk. But some kids can gain weight if they don’t adjust their calories when their bodies stop growing.”

I knew it had to be in there somewhere! The warning about weight. Interesting that the body knows it needs to eat more to grow, I mean, you’d think, given the way we are advised about our bodies and eating, that the article should say, “Kids who are going into a growth spurt will need more calories, here is a calculation for when you can allow them an extra cup of skim milk, or a 1/2 cup of almonds added to their usual 1500 calorie allowance…” At least the article explains that kids need more energy and doesn’t recommend putting your growing kid on a diet, but doesn’t it make sense that a child raised to eat in a tuned-in way would lessen his intake on his own when not growing so rapidly? I’ve seen it with my kid and her smaller growth spurts…

The biggest missed opportunity is not sharing the fact that weight gain often comes before the gain in height in puberty, and that the weight gain, in girls in particular, can be dramatic. If parents don’t know, and mistrust their child’s body, this is a dangerous time that I always warn my clients about. If we have eating and  weight worries in check when the child is 3, or 4, I ALWAYS tell them that there will be times when their child may eat more, and may even gain weight disproportionately.

These are scary times for parents these days with all the external attention to children’s bodies and pressure, and risky times for the child. Many, many children are put on their first diets right around the time of the prepubertal weight gain. If parents are warned that this is normal, and if their child is otherwise still eating regular, balanced, rewarding meals and snacks and is sleeping well, happy, getting the opportunity to be physically active etc… parents need to know that they can still trust the child. Don’t panic, and by all means, don’t restrict. I have heard far too many heartbreaking stories in person, and on this blog to know that right before puberty is a time when many kids are started down the torturous road of dieting and body-shame. And, perhaps you’ve heard the saying that the “diet pulls the trigger” for eating disorders? If we can save a kid from being put on that first diet, perhaps we can reduce the risk of eating disorders as well.

It brings me back to Sasha, and my hope that she can grow, and that her body can do what it needs to do without scrutiny, with trust and love and the Division of Responsibility. Somehow I doubt it is happening that way. I imagine Sasha and her mother feel very much the watchful public eye, alas that Mrs Obama invited in, that will be on Sasha’s body, as she too goes through puberty…

What do you think?

Well, it’s almost one a.m. , and my throat is killing me! Thanks to my reader who warned me that it might hurt worse 5-7 days after I got my tonsils out, boy you were right! Well, I can take my next dose of meds now, so Good Night!

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14 Comments

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  1. jaed

    I was somewhat “tall-shamed” as a child. It wasn’t as poisonous as fat-shaming can be, but it did make me feel singled out, self-conscious, and obscurely blameworthy. I definitely got the message that it wasn’t OK for me to be as tall as I was. Since there was nothing I could do to change it, it put me in a not-good corner psychologically, made me avoid attention as much as I could.

  2. cecile c

    You know, I always get that, people comment on Chiara and Lucas’s sizes all the time. I was tall too, and I remember that it really did bother me. I wished I was small, thin, and that nobody would ever comment on me !

  3. Laura Collins

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  4. Elizabeth

    I was thinking about this recently, and about my own experiences with food restriction that started around that time. I suspect there’s something else going on, at least in my family, and maybe in others’, too.

    As a parent, I know that nothing triggers the feeling that “they just grow up too fast” harder than puberty. Especially for girls, sprouting visible breasts is definitely something that a parent might want to deny. And when you’re having an argument with your daughter about whether her top is too low-cut or her shorts are too short, a great way to “blame” it on something that’s not puberty is to say that it makes her look fat. No matter how out-there she is about her sexuality, telling her it makes her look fat is going to cause her to retreat to her little-girl clothes.

    I wonder if this is what happens to lots of girls?

    • katja

      very interesting. So fat shaming as a way to cover up, or encourage some body-insecurity and tone down the beginning “sexuality?” hadn’t thought of that. It is heartbreaking to watch girls on the cusp of puberty. I remember being at the beach, and these girls were doing cartwheels (all in bikinis BTW) and running in the mud, and playing, and then some flip would switch, and they’d stop, seem really conscious of their bodies, flip their hair, move totally differently, so much more restrained and less free. it was sad… By the next summer, all the playful lost-in-the-moment times would likely be gone, with only constant body awareness.

  5. Twistie

    You know what? One day the oldest of the boys next door was a slightly fat little boy. The next time I happened to see him a couple weeks later, I didn’t recognize him. He’d suddenly become a rather gangly teenager. I saw this with my brothers when we were kids, too. Kids grow out right before they grow up.

    I was also really pleased with something I saw on television recently. I was watching Chopped on the Food Network. I love seeing chefs come up with amazing dishes on the fly out of whatever random stuff happens to be in those mystery baskets. But this was a Very Special Episode where the contestants were all public school lunch ladies, and their dishes needed to illustrate the current governmental nutritional guidelines. And they had a Very Special Guest Judge in the guise of the current White House chef.

    In the entree round, one of the contestants made a large, hearty pasta dish. At judging, the White House chef chastised her for making so much heavy food in light of the scary, scary childhood obesity epidemic. I loved her reaction. She didn’t get mad, she didn’t get defensive, and she didn’t cave. She informed the judges that the kids at her school are for the most part extremely poor. Most of them live well below the poverty level, and many of them literally don’t get anything to eat over the weekend. So she instituted Pasta Monday where she gives the kids the biggest portion she can afford to make them of the heartiest pasta dish she can manage, because she knows how hungry they are and how much harder it is to concentrate on schoolwork on an empty stomach. Also, she arranges ‘food packs’ on fridays. These are plain backpacks filled with whatever food she can safely send into homes that may or may not have cooking facilities or refrigeration available so that some of these kids can at least have access to a few snacks over the weekend.

    Funny, but nobody mentioned another word about childhood obesity for the rest of the episode. Oh, and this fabulous lady won the contest.

    It infuriates me more than I can say that in a country as rich as this one we’re wringing our hands over whether little Hypothetical Susie is too fat while roughly one in four children can’t get a square meal on a day when school is out. We have the conversation so bass-ackwards I can’t even fathom how we got here.

    Kids are growing. Growing takes fuel. The fuel is food. Make sure every kid has access to a sufficiency of food that is safe in quality, and trust them to eat it in the way their bodies can best use it.

    Oh, wait, that’s the sane approach. I forgot. Sorry.

    • Heidi

      I saw that episode of Chopped too and she was just marvelous – and you’re right, I’d forgotten that she shut them right up with the discussion of kids needing more to eat!

    • katja

      WONDERFUL STORY! I will have to see if I can find the episode! It’s pasta people! I love that she stood her ground!

    • Nicole

      Great comment, and great post, Katja. I saw a part of that Chopped episode but turned it off when I saw the White House chef there. I just knew where that was going! I’m glad to hear he got an earful.

      The thing I don’t hear people talking about is the fact that food insecurity of the type that lunchlady describes can often be linked with obesity. It is possible for kids (and grownups!) to be malnourished and fat at the same time. Sounds crazy to everyone who believes that weight is nothing more than a simple equation of calories in-calories out.

      It’s such a complex topic, yet it’s almost always reduced to ridiculously simple suggestions.

      • katja

        Yes, we know that kids who participate in school meal programs have lower incidence of obesity. Food insecurity does a major number on the psychology and physiology of doos and weight. You are right. It is complex. But the answer is “simple,” as Twistie said above, “Kids are growing. Growing takes fuel. The fuel is food. Make sure every kid has access to a sufficiency of food that is safe in quality, and trust them to eat it in the way their bodies can best use it.”

  6. Becky Henry

    Thanks Katja for this thoughtful article on such a heated topic. I’m thrilled of course to see that you mention the slippery slope that some kids can be on to eating disorders if put on a diet. It is true that diets can be the trigger in “most” eating disorders. I say “most” is the data is tricky to come by. The majority of people diagnosed with eating disorders will report that they had been on a diet prior to being diagnosed.

    When I say trigger, I mean that in people who have a genetic predisposition for an eating disorder this can be a contributing factor in the eating disorder getting started.

    Thanks for all you do and I hope you feel well soon!
    Becky Henry
    Hope Network

    • katja

      Thanks for clarifying Becky! I was thinking of you, and knew I wanted to put in more, but you explained it nicely! What I am seeing in children are the seeds of some binge eating behaviors that are pretty terrifying. “ED” is a multi-faced monster, from anorexia, to binge eating, NOS and everything in between, so it’s tough to make any kind of general comment about ED, but I do think that if we raise children to trust their bodies and to not restrict, and not diet, that would raise the chances of having a competent eater! Thanks for your great comment!

  7. Bobbini

    I also wonder if the Obama kids would be featured in these conversations if they were Maxwell and Samuel–face it, we are concerned mostly with GIRLS bodies, not just children’s bodies. How else do we get them to buy into the diet culture if we don’t start early?