A few weeks ago I was swimming at the gym and a young girl (I’m guessing 8-years-old) stopped me and said, “If you want I can teach you how to swim so that you’ll actually lose weight.” After my initial embarrassment (because everyone in the pool heard), I laughed it off. I assumed that she thought I looked so awkward swimming that I was getting nothing out of it. And, I may be reading too much into it, but I think there is a valid discussion point here.
(Picture to left: Me, today with the body of someone an 8-year-old thinks should lose weight.)
I posted the comment on Facebook and told my classes about it. People had differing views but many were really upset. And it got me thinking about young girls and body image.
First of all, there is the good point that I wasn’t swimming to lose weight. I was training for a triathlon. And I swim because it’s good for my joints and keeps me running. Lots of people swim because they enjoy it. Losing weight is certainly not the only reason to do something active. And for many people won’t be enough incentive to keep them active.
But what did bother me is that this little girl, who did not appear to have a weight problem thought I did. (Only I’m allowed to think that…kidding.) I’m no Victoria Secret model, but I’m pretty sure no one I know would suggest I lose weight. I’m 5’4” and 135 pounds. My waist is 28 ½ inches (I didn’t know that off the cuff; I had to measure just now.) I’m reasonably muscular. That’s not to say that I don’t have fat on my body. I do, and could I lose some? >Sure, but I don’t need to lose weight. Wanting and needing to lose weight are two different things.
I do think it’s important to teach kids to be healthy and find types of movement they enjoy to help keep them active. Research is clear: the body wants to move and physical activity makes for healthier, happier people. There is ZERO debate on that topic. I think if you have a child who is struggling with obesity it is a hard topic you need to discuss with them. And the whole family probably needs to make changes to help and encourage that child without making them feel bad.
We need to encourage kids to be healthy and active, not skinny. Skinny and healthy are not synonymous. I don’t mean to be a snob, and I don’t have the best body image (I’d be lying if I told you I wouldn’t like to lose about five pounds), but I’m not overweight and there is something wrong with a young girl thinking I am. Her perspective is warped. And I worry for her own self-worth and value and current or future food issues as much as I do when I see a really hefty child. Being too skinny can be just as unhealthy as being too heavy. Being obsessed with being skinny can make your life miserable. I’m a woman, trust me. I know I have wasted far too many hours wanting to be thinner. And though we do have an obesity epidemic, we also have a number of young people, particularly girls with eating disorders.
It is vital that we get the goal of young girls to be about health and not about how skinny they are. Because really, if you value yourself by your weight, not your intelligence, capabilities, or kindness, what are you valuing—not much at all. Motivate young girls to be active and you empower them. Motivate young girls to be skinny and you diminish them.