What message do words like F-A-T, D-I-E-T, or F-I-T send out to the young?
A couple of weeks ago, I received a call on my landline at work. It was from a school-going girl. I can't say how old she was, but she mentioned she was studying in the primary. So I am assuming she must be between 6 and 12. She called to make a request, one that startled me at first.
"I want to take part in the dance show at school, but my teacher said I can't because I am fat. Could you tell her to include me because I can dance well?" she said. It took me a moment to fathom the request and information. I am fully aware of the rising rate of obesity in the region and also the issue of body-shaming in our societies. I also understand the girl's call was just one side of the story. Perhaps, the teacher meant to speak of the child's stamina, flexibility, agility, etc. Maybe, the child misunderstood and felt comfortable to call me (Young Times) and anonymously share the fact that she was being bullied at school because of her weight. The call got me thinking about how as adults we're walking the thin line when it comes to raising healthy, body-positive children.
What message do the three or four-letter words like F-A-T, D-I-E-T, or F-I-T send out to the young minds? Does it communicate the idea of body positivity, anorexia, or individuality? An apple vs. a burger for a snack. Should it be seen as a punishment vs. a treat? When did playing in the park become a way to reach the 10,000 steps count on the fitness bands? Who propagated the idea 'beauty is thin'? Is anyone speaking to them about how muscles are responsible for keeping our heart beating and for all our physical movements?
According to the UAE government portal on child healthcare, 14 per cent of the children in the age group of seven to 15 are overweight, and 15 per cent are obese. The government is doing its bit to raise awareness and provide opportunities to bring a change. On the other hand, the malls are doing their bit to rake in the revenues. Walk into a food court and the sight of trays full of fries, burgers, colas will greet you. Attend local events, with kids as the audience, you'll notice the price for a juice is higher than that of an aerated beverage. As a child, with limited pocket money to spare, I know what I'll drink.
But a lot of parents seem to be making conscious efforts at imparting healthy eating habits to their kids. During my growing up years, all it was required of my parents was to provide a meal for me during lunch hour at school, and the only expectation from me was to share my meal with classmates and ensure I bring home an empty lunch box. In contrast, parents today are awarded certificates for providing high-on-nutrition lunches.
Children are the most intuitive eaters. With a little guidance, awareness, and good examples parents can surely help them develop good eating habits for life. Mindful eating should be taught right from childhood. It can help children develop a healthy relationship with food, and allow them to stay fit to be able to dance, play, or indulge in any kind of exercise they desire.
But this calls for some introspection and discipline among the parents first. How many of us order a pizza during the late hours on a weekend? What example are we setting for our children? We as parents allow children to watch videos on a tablet whilst they eat their dinner. Why? Are we doing so because this way they'll eat fast or probably not notice the greens served on their plates, or do we believe they need the time to relax and we trust them with their device usage?
We all aspire to raise healthy children and are capable of doing so. Yet, sometimes we miss out on communicating effectively. We should talk about food, healthy living, discuss our relationship with food, make conversations and hear their concerns, too. Instead of simply labelling a child fat or weak, how about we talk to them about weight vs. growth, height, and age; the number of physical hours of activity vs. helpings of food, etc. Most importantly, as adults we should it is our responsibility to ensure that the youth don't form a toxic relationship with food they love to eat, the activities they wish to explore, and the reflections they see in the mirrors.
This piece was first published in Khaleej Times.