Sunday, January 2, 2011

Body Image and Your FIVE YEAR OLD?

Q: Maya, age 5, keeps coming home from kindergarten telling me she doesn't want to get fat! What is she learning? Who is telling her this stuff and what do I say??

A: You want to know who's telling her this stuff? Ask her! The first thing you need to do, before you react, is find out what's going on in Maya's world. Who's she been talking to, what are they saying, and why doesn't she want to get fat? Why is fat "bad?" Does she know how people get fat? What does she know and what does she believe?

Once you find out exactly what you're dealing with, there are several issues you need to tackle. The first one is self-image. If you don't tell Maya, she won't know that the most important part of her, and of any person, is what's inside. No matter what she or anyone does, nothing's going to change who she is. If she's a good person who cares about others, helps them and shares with them, she's a beautiful person INSIDE and that's the only part of her that matters.

Ask her who she likes to be with. What do these people have in common with each other: Do they look alike? Are they all tall? Brunettes? Blue-eyed? The same age? Probably not. These physical, external factors do not make them the people they are - the people she wants to be around. She likes who she likes because they are kind or fun to be with. That's what makes them beautiful inside. And people are going to like her if she displays those same qualities - it doesn't matter what she looks like on the outside!

The next issue you should discuss with Maya is health. It's true that in general it's not a good thing to be overweight, but that's not because of how it makes you look. It's because usually it's not healthy for your body. What's important here, though, is that she learn a lesson in good nutrition. At the end of the day, again, it's not what's outside but what's inside that counts. If Maya - or anyone - eats the right foods in the right amounts, it doesn't matter what she looks like because her insides are healthy.

I'd teach her about the food pyramid. (Is the food pyramid even the model nutritionists go by anymore? Who cares, really. It's a good, simple way to teach the food groups and what's healthy and what's not.) Teach her about the different kinds of food - starches like bread, rice, cereal and pasta - and what they do - give our bodies energy. Dairy products - milk, cheese and yogurt - help build strong teeth and bones, etc. Show her on the pyramid how many servings of each we need to make us grow healthy and strong. At the top of the pyramid are sweets and junk. This means not to eat very much of them because not only don't they contribute any nutrition to our bodies, but they also fill us up so we don't have room for the healthy foods our body does need.

If we follow the food pyramid and eat the right amounts of the foods that are good for our bodies and help us grow - and we keep fit by exercising, playing outside, and not sitting around being couch potatoes - chances are we won't get fat.

Finally, I'm sure you're well aware of how much what we parents say and do seeps into our kids' minds and hearts. I'm on a low-carb diet but I am very careful not to let on to my kids because the next thing I know they'd be saying they don't want to eat bread or pasta or cereal either. Once in awhile they'll offer to share their candy with me and I'll say "No thank you, Mommy tries not to eat junk because it's not healthy." But be aware of how you talk about and look at your own body, because even when you think Maya's not paying attention, she is!

When it comes down to it, Maya needs to understand that getting fat is not something she needs to worry about. The most important message you can give her is that all she needs to focus on is being a good, kind person, because at the end of the day, that's what's going to make her friends like her and that's what's going to take her far in this world.


  1. These are FANTASTIC ideas - I especially like the one about asking her who she likes to be with, and what they have in common. I will start this - TODAY!

  2. 12.5 for certain. This is a wonderfully written post. I have been concerned for years about the public archetypes set up by the media, which these children, tweens, and teens, not to mention fully grown women, and men feel they need to aspire to. The inside of a person is what matters. I always say that I can meet the most beautiful person in the world, but once I get to know who they are on the inside, they become the most ugly, and on the other hand, I could meet the most (society defined) ugly and fat person, but once I get to know them, they are pure beauty.
    This is a huge problem. It needs to be dealt with, and quickly. This site, thank you so much for posting it is a fantastic beginning to the journey required to end these issues once and for all! M

  3. Great post.

    On the food pyramid, there's a lot of debate these days. If you reverse the proteins and the carbs, it's more like what a healthy diet should look like. One gram protein per pound of body weight per day, or more. Fat's not as much of a problem as we've been led to believe...

  4. Thanks, all.

    Hilary - I hope it's helpful. Please keep us posted.

    Mordechai - I always say the same thing. No matter how "attractive" a person is, they're not attractive if they don't have a good personality. That's why it's so ironic that people take "she has a good personality" to mean "she's fat" or "she's plain-looking."

    Melissa - I've been looking for a more accurate model of the food pyramid.
    Depends what kind of fats - healthy fats, like avocado and nuts, in moderation, are very good for you. But that top section of the pyramid also includes sweets, junk food and saturated fats.

  5. I could not agree more with the premise to star by knowing where your child is at. As well turning the issue to health as opposed to body image is spot on. I do however agree with Mordechai that the food pyramid may not be the best place to find the best nutritional guidance.
    May we all raise our children to be good people above all!

  6. Phillip - First of all, amen!!

    I know the food pyramid I posted is not the most up-to-date, but it's easy for a five-year-old to follow. I'd be happy to get references for a more modern version. But my point was that kids should have a general understanding of nutrition - what different foods do to fuel our bodies and how much of them we need to eat in order to be healthy.

    Thanks so much for reading and for posting. Where did you find my blog? Please pass it along to other parents who might enjoy/benefit from it.


  7. Very well written and VERY interesting! I loved reading this.
    For us it's the opposite. I'm the one who's afraid Eden will get fat. She LOVES bread and sweets and I see her getting fat. It scares me b/c extra fat is very hard to get rid of once you gain the weight, esp. for a kid. My friends keep telling me that I'm talking nonsence and she's not fat at all. I KNOW that but am afraid she will be... I will def. use your examples to try to explain about the healthy foods, I loved the sentence "it doesn't matter what she looks like because her insides are healthy" awww... so true, that's what matters most!

  8. While I agree it is so important to talk about what is really important, I think the first thing your kid needs to hear is that he/she is not fat. Otherwise, he/she might get the idea that he/she is fat and you're just trying to make them feel better. Think when your spouse asks if he/she is fat. If you say that he/she is beautiful on the inside, he she will think that he's fat...

  9. I disagree. This is something we, as adults, have learned over time. Five-year-olds don't have that ingrained in their heads yet. At this age they're still soaking up information, so what's most important is the information you give her:

    1) It's what's inside that counts.
    2) It's being healthy that counts.
    3) You can take control of your body by eating and exercising appropriately. Therefore getting fat is not something you have to worry about.

    Besides, in this particular case, Maya didn't say she was fat. She said she was afraid she might get fat one day.

  10. My five year daughter, Ariana, is maturing too fast!!! Her body is like any other five year old. She's even starting to grow pubic hair and when she plays and sweat, she'll get musty. Anyone with an answer please help me or advise me, I'm so frightened for her. At this rate, by the time she's 10, she'll be in a "C" cup.

  11. Anonymous: I suggest first of all you talk to Ariana's doctor to find out exactly what is causing her premature development and whether it is an indication of any health risks. Then I suggest you take her to a child psychologist who can teach her how to handle the changes - mentally and emotionally - and the comments she will no doubt get from her peers. You may want to consult with a psychologist yourself to help you deal with the feelings you are having about the situation as well.

    Good luck!