This week, I had the pleasure of participating in a “Teach-In” at my daughter Sophia’s elementary school. Parents volunteer to talk to the kids about what they do for work or something they love. I decided to talk with my daughter’s kindergarten class about mindful eating. As I entered the class, a short but very telling exchange occurred that demonstrated so clearly for me how incredibly mixed up most Americans are about weight, health, and the relationship between the two.
My daughter’s teacher (I’ll call her Mrs. Smith, not her real name) was showing me a board on the wall where the kids had hung paper turkeys they decorated for Thanksgiving. One of the adorable five year olds yelled to me, “Mrs. Smith’s turkey is in the middle – it’s the biggest one!” And Mrs. Smith replied “Yes, that’s why Sophia’s Mommy is here to talk to us about being healthy … so I won’t be the BIG turkey!”
Translated from Big Turkey Talk, the message was, “I need to lose weight in order to be healthy.” Or, “Health is directly related to weight.” Or even, “Weight and health are the same thing.”
As Mrs. Smith made the Big Turkey comment, I could just feel the guilt and emotional fatigue enveloping her words. It had such a familiar feeling to me, both because of my own past experiences with food and weight issues, and because of the sheer prevalence of this association today. I’ve heard hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of similar comments from others about their own and others’ weight. The words might be different but the meaning is similar – and carries that undertone of guilt and exhaustion.
As I processed Mrs. Smith’s words on the way home, I realized that her little comment about weight and size symbolizes a huge burden carried by many people in society today. This burden of believing that you have to be at or under a certain weight in order to feel good about yourself, your health, and your life is a misunderstanding of the data. Less weight does not equal more health, yet this popular message spreads guilt, fear, shame, and frustration, and consumes valuable energy that could be spent on activities that truly create greater health, well-being, and life satisfaction.
I want to make it clear that I don’t feel that Mrs. Smith intentionally did anything wrong by commenting about not being the Big Turkey. I suspect that she thought she was doing the right thing as a role model by acknowledging to a health professional (me) in front of the children that size is a critical determinant of health. Of course she did. That message has been sent her way for literally decades by health professionals, family, friends, and the media. The problem is that those messages are wrong – and harmful.
What I wanted to do at that moment was what I’d love to be able to do for all of those who don’t feel quite good enough or healthy enough or beautiful enough. I wanted to give her a huge hug, look her in the eyes, and say: You are beautiful and healthy and vibrant. Your value as a person has nothing to do with the size of your body. Do not waste one more minute focusing on your weight. You are perfect just the way you are!
Instead, I did my best to instill this message in my daughter and her classmates. As five year olds, they are early in the process of deciding how they’ll feel about their bodies and what “health” truly means to them. My hope is that the work we do in Am I Hungry? will help shift the conversation in our society today so that our children have a better chance of reaching their potential and living vibrantly, free from the burden of assumptions and judgments about weight and size.
Mindful Eating Research
A growing body of data supports the ineffectiveness of diets and weight-focused programs, and the effectiveness of mindfulness, mindful eating, and weight-neutral interventions. Click here for more information and a list of references.