The Link Between Parents and Obesity

Weight and body image are things I have struggled with ever since I can remember. Some of my most “memorable” (for lack of a better word) childhood moments are punctuated by a subtext of being (or at least feeling) overweight.

There was the time I awkwardly changed my clothes in the bathroom during my first sleepover at a friend’s house. I still remember the feeling of suddenly being keenly aware that I was “the chubby friend”.

Then there was the time when my Mexican grandmother came to visit us during spring break and took me shopping. I was in a funny in-between and nothing seemed to fit quite right and I remember my grandma referring to me as her “little gordita”. In Spanish, this is a strange term of endearment, but it literally means “little fat one”.

There was also the time in 4th grade when my class went swimming for one of our P.E. units. I didn’t have a swimsuit that fit me and since none in the girls section fit me I had to buy one from the women’s department. I still remember one of the skinny girls from class teasing me about how her mom had that same swimsuit.

Memories like this weren’t infrequent, and scattered throughout them were even more memories of my parents making comments about my weight. I know now that the comments didn’t come from a mean place, but at the time it was hard to differentiate.

My parents really did just want the best for me and to help me avoid the struggle that comes with being overweight, but a lot of the time it just felt like they were merely adding to that struggle.

My weight – most importantly figuring out how to have less of it – was always looming over my thoughts. Like a heavy cloud it hung over much of my youth and has continued to follow me since – over a series of gains and losses, bingeing and deprivation and every diet under the sun. Even as an adult, I struggle with finding balance and a healthy lifestyle.

I recently came upon a study, published in Psychological Science, that was eye-opening as it seemed to align very much with my own personal experience. The study found that children whose parents perceived them to be overweight, seemed to gain more weight over a 10 year time period than the children whose parents perceived them to be “normal weight”.

In the study, researchers Eric Robinson and Angelina Sutin analyzed the data from a longitudinal study of Australian children. During the study, the children’s heights and weights were measured at age 4 or 5. Then their parents were asked to describe their child in terms of their weight (underweight, normal weight, overweight or very overweight). Then, at age 12 or 13, the researchers checked back in with the children and offered them images and told them to choose an image that best depicting the way they perceived their bodies to look. The children were also asked whether or not they had engaged in any type of dieting behavior. At 14 or 15, the children’s height and weight measurements were taken again and the results indicated that the perception parents had of their child’s weight seemed to be an indicator in their weight later in life. The participants whose parents described them as being overweight at age 4 or 5 tended to gain more weight by the time they were 14 or 15. It is thought that the stigma of being labeled as overweight has a negative impact on weight gain.

This study reinforced what I have always known to be true for myself and was further confirmation that labels and pressure relating to weight are the last thing children need. Now that I am a parent myself, I find myself hyper vigilant about the things I say and the impressions I give my children surrounding body image. I have three children and each are shaped differently – from thin and lanky to rather stocky – but I am careful never to project my own bias regarding weight. I never want to praise or criticize one for being thin or too heavy. I want them to know that their bodies are perfectly made and that all of our varying shapes and sizes are just right.

Obviously this doesn’t mean that we simply ignore it when our children are clearly overweight. Weight as it relates to health is important to be aware of, but it’s so important to approach it from the perspective of healthfulness; teaching our children to properly fueling and care for their bodies. I am constantly having conversations with my kids about the vitamins in certain foods and how they help us. We talk about how foods with more protein help our bodies function well and how too much sugar can make us feel foggy.

We aren’t going to do it perfectly all the time (I certainly don’t), but it is small steps like these that can impact the future health of our children. Time to get rid of labels and replace them with positive habits.