November 22, 2013

A 10-year-old should not have to obsess over weight

Imagine if you and some co-workers were told to step on a scale. In front of everyone. Mortifying, right? Now picture doing this at age 10.

Imagine if you and some co-workers were told to step on a scale. In front of everyone. Mortifying, right?

Now picture doing this at age 10. You’re a year-round athlete. You usually look forward to seeing how much you’ve grown. And suddenly you realize your numbers are higher than most everyone else’s.

“How much do you weigh?” all of the girls kept asking Mary Anne McNeish’s tall and muscular daughter at St. Therese North School in Kansas City. “No thank you,” she replied. She didn’t know how to handle the sudden attention to her weight. Everyone was suddenly comparing themselves. Two boys picked on an overweight boy.

It happened a week ago, and it’s still a hot topic. No surprise: The culture of comparison is killing our self-esteem.

I ask the fourth-grader how she felt about stepping on a scale in front of her classmates. “Not good,” she says. “I told them, ‘Don’t look at me,’ but I feel like someone did look at me. People were talking about themselves to other people and asking, like, ‘Hey, How much do you weigh?’ I’m kind of nervous.”

No matter how hard parents try to nurture confidence and positive body-image, they are surrounded by challenges. Teens are on YouTube pushing the “Cottonball Diet,” posting “Am I Ugly” videos and downloading apps that push picture posting for affirmation.

The latest trend, fueled by celebrity obsession: the thigh gap. Skinny models like Cara Delevingne are celebrated for the space between their legs (fans created the Twitter account


). Online, teens trade tips to shed enough pounds to get the look. Meanwhile, Robyn Lawley, who is considered a plus-sized model (she’s 6-foot-2 and size 12), was called a pig because her thigh gap just can’t compare.

Did you know more than half of teen girls and about a third of teenage boys have weight shame? According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa Associated Disorders they skip meals, fast, vomit, take laxatives and more to shed pounds.

“As a mom I try to reinforce the fact that people come in all shapes, sizes and ethnicities and everybody is different,” Mary Anne says. “It’s a constant battle, but I try to lead by example and show her that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, not Photoshop or magazines. That’s my job as a mom. But what happened at school should have been handled differently. Fitness is about healthy eating habits, lifestyle and being active. It is not a number.”

She knew as her daughter got older, she would be facing these issues. But what happened in gym class was unexpected.

“Kids always want to grow up, they are excited about their weight, they want to grow up and get taller, be stronger,” Mary Anne says. “But this is the first time her weight came up, and it was a thought process of comparison and negativity. They introduced something new to her mindset that I have tried to avoid.”

Carol Lenz, the principal of St. Therese North, says the school’s policy is typically not to weigh children in front of other students.

“Our physical education teachers are very aware of the importance of reinforcing a positive body image, and they help our students learn healthy living habits, which include the importance of exercise and eating healthy foods,” she says.

This was a one-time thing, Lenz says. The gym teacher was trying to chart the students’ body mass index for the new Presidential Youth Fitness Program, but next time it won’t be done so publicly.

I’m all for pushing health and fitness, but sometimes I wonder are we really promoting body-image fixation?

It’s a fine line between teaching health and drawing too much attention to waistlines and how many curl-ups you can do. Remember the Physical Fitness Test that used to torture kids who couldn’t run fast enough, climb high enough or get in a proper push-up? This school year the Presidential Youth Fitness Program replaced it to push health over performance.

“To keep fitness in a positive mode, children’s individual fitness scores will not be used as a criteria for grading in physical education class and will be confidential between the teacher, student and parent,” Paul Roetert, chief executive officer of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, said in a


last year.

What happened at St. Therese North was a mistake. I get that. But we have to be more thoughtful and balanced in our approach toward fitness and kids. It seems we drown them and ourselves in unrealistic images and messages of beauty and self-worth that are tied to scales and mirrors. Healthy looks different on everyone. Beauty cannot be weighed by the pound.

Even the superficial execs at Abercrombie Fitch realize that. After years of making clothes for what their CEO called “cool” and “good-looking” people, the hipster chain recently announced it’s adding plus-sizes for spring. (That’s anything over a size 10 for that company.)

That means a model like Robyn Lawley, who graces magazines and Ralph Lauren ads, will finally be able to wear their clothes. Cool and good-looking aren’t defined by sizes. And that’s a lesson we might consider adding to the curriculum.

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