Friday, May 23, 2008

An open letter to parents

Dear Parents,

I know it's hard to raise a child in this day and age for all kinds of reasons. And I know that one of those reasons is all the messages you get about your child and weight.

I know that parents often get shamed, these days, if their child's weight is too high (or too low). That there's enormous pressure for kids to slim down and look a certain way. To fit the current cultural norms around appearance and weight.

But for god's sake, I beg you, don't send your child off to a place like this. If you've ever been tempted to send your child off to fat camp, read this article in the Washington Post. Read about a "camp" where growing teenagerss are forced to eat such a low-fat low-everything diet that eight of them developed gallbladder disease in the last year.* Where six of them needed gallbladder surgery. Where kids routinely douse their food with ketchup and mustard.** Where hungry teenagers drink 12 or 15 cans of diet soda a day, all of it laced with Splenda.*** Where the director of the whole place thinks it's OK if kids gorge on cake occasionally because they'll just throw it up again.**** Where kids are put into "solo" when they break the rules.

Most of all, what a place like this does is reinforce the idea to your child that s/he is not OK as s/he is. That she's acceptable only if she loses weight. That she's not lovable as she is.

And that's the very worst part of this whole trend. As parents, we're supposed to build our children up, not undermine them. We're supposed to be voices of reason in a sometimes crazy world.

So if your child doesn't fit today's paradigm for weight or attractiveness, love her anyway. Tell her she's beautiful and strong and lovable and smart. Teach her to love herself. That's the way to health and beauty. The other will lead her down a lifelong path of hating herself. And I can tell you from personal experience that that's not the way to health and beauty.

*Gallbladder disease can be caused by weight loss that's too fast.

** A classic sign of malnutrition/starvation. The volunteers in Ancel Keys' starvation study did the same. So did my daughter when she was anorexic.

***A friend of mine was temporarily blinded by Splenda. She leaned over a pot on the stove at just the wrong moment, and was blinded by the chlorine gas released from the Splenda-laced concoction. You definitely don't want your child drinking Splenda. Especially not 15 servings a day.

**** As my friend Jane says, hello bulimia.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Harriet, for another great blog. I especially commend you for pointing out that our job as parents is to build our children up, not tear them down. We need to keep them safe, emotionally and physically, and teach them how to keep themselves safe.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mind was temporarily blinded by Splenda.

Really?!? That's frightening. I thought Splenda was scary enough as it is.

(came over via the fatosphere, and just HAD to comment.)

Anonymous said...

Every day I feel like I'm battling uphill against the messages my 6 year old daughter receives both at school and through the media. At 6 years old she should be trying all kinds of foods and digging into chocolate cake with glee. Instead she sees the word "fat" on a milk carton and starts to worry that she shouldn't drink it. The world has gone insane and I'm not entirely sure how to protect her from the madness!

Harriet said...


You just keep on giving your daughter those other messages. Keep on swimming upstream. I have to believe things will turn around eventually. In the meantime, your daughter, all of our daughters, need models of sanity in a world going mad.

Challenge the status quo with her whenever you can. Make her aware that you don't agree. Mostly, love her for exactly who and what she is right now. That means a lot.

Stephanie, yeah, Splenda emits chlorine fumes when you cook with it. You're not supposed to cook on the stovetop with it for precisely that reason. Yuck.

Lady Jaye said...

That article is crazy. I'm thinking of that football player who's so deprived with his diet that

"He tells Busch he's often tired and has been clashing with a counselor who accuses him of slacking off.

"I do everything except wake up in the morning," complained Kevin, one of the no-shows at dawn cardio, his eyes downcast."

Now, one can assume that he was likely in good shape before arriving at the camp, since he played football. Yet, he skips the morning cardio because he just can't wake up in the morning?

Also, isn't it criminal to restrict food so much yet make these kids work out 3 hours per day?

That article just makes me want to gear up and assault the camp to save the kids... Who's with me? :P

Harriet said...

I am for sure.

Ari J. Brattkus said...

I think in a few years we are going to see more and more kids with health issues directly related to the obesity scare -- eating disorders, lack of proper nutrition (kids NEED fat in their diets!!!), and food phobias -- and then all the pundants and well meaning, yet ill-informed teachers will be scratching their heads...

Maria said...

These kind of places break my heart. How soulless can we get?

Anniee451 said...

Harriet, thank you for this! I saw a whole documentary on this place and the boy Jahcombie, and it was presented as so wonderful, and wow he's losing tons of weight, blah blah - but when I saw what they were eating I was horrified! I mean genuinely scared for them. And he gained all the weight back (there was nothing wrong with his diet to begin with, is the thing) so he's got that to deal with. Now I'm gonna have to write about that too since I was screaming at my TV the whole time and other people were saying "But, what's the problem?" Gah! THIS is the freaking problem!

we_be_toys said...

Wonderful letter to parents everywhere.

My best friend has an eating disorder that goes all the way back to her pre-teen years. She and I recently started on Weight Watchers to try and get ourselves into a more healthy place with our eating habits. Some of the things we both disliked about WW is their dependence on artificial sweeteners and no-fat food-wanna-bes. I feel like those kinds of foods don't help you to rewire your eating habits, and in many cases, aren't even food.
We are also trying to NOT use words like "diet" or "cheat", or any other negatively charged words that could trigger feelings of low self worth. Its really hard not to use those kind of terms, to defeat ourselves before we've begun, but doing it together seems to help.

Thank you for fighting the good fight. We do appreciate it!

mary said...

Sugar substitutes were developed as an ant poison, a very effective one! I steer clear unless it's to pick up some packets for the annual ant parade.
You speak wisely Harriet. We really must reach people who "think" they are helping by trying to fit us all in the same mold. We have different shapes yet there is beauty in each of us. Will this era in history become known as the most shallow of all...a period where we have access to a much deeper as well as essential path?
*I can see it now where all the weight loss equipment and torture tools, the pills, the photos of surgeries before and after, are all laid out to show us how we wasted a beautiful life in vanity, not knowing that we are already fine and so are others. Perhaps the coaches who screamed at and belittled the heavier ones in hopes of shaming them into being thin like them, will be in this museum? Will they look back on us with great sadness the same way we can now logically see how ridiculous it was for woman to have ribs removed in the Victorian era with the goal being a tiny waist? Will we ever evolve into beings with higher values and compassion? I hope.It must begin at home, with each of us. There must be a healthy attention we can give to ourselves that allows us to be all that we are supposed to be....not less.
After a weekend exploring natural areas, where some amusement parks have tried unsuccessfully to copy, I am fairly certain that we must learn to follow nature. It's awesome and so are we.
*(I am not speaking of those scarred or in need but of the many who just don't know how to love themselves with what they have and with great respect to those who suffer from obesity that isn't in their best interest...same for the unnaturally thin)

Susan B said...

Gah, I couldn't even finish that article; it was just too depressing.

Anonymous said...


I have been following your blog for sometimes and while now and while I don't agree with everything you have said I do agree with you on the importance of repairing your metabolism and not starving yourself.

I have just recently recovered from a eating disorder and did so with the help of a author/trainer who is very NO BS and forward about what it takes to actually lose weight, what is healthy, and how the metabolism actually works based on science.

I wont link it because I don't want you to think I am spam but you can look up her information on google under Leigh Peele. She wrote a book called the Metabolic Repair Manual.

Anyway I think that the important thing is not scaring people in to either direction, which I do think you do sometimes. I think it is best to educate people on the truth and THEN let themselves decide.

Have a good day.


Harriet said...


I appreciate your comment, even though I do not believe in weight loss as a goal. I do believe in health at every size and in eating well, exercising, and being kind to yourself and others.

The trouble with having weight loss as a goal is that it is not achievable for everyone. A far better goal is to learn to eat intuitively. THAT, I think, is the way to repair the metabolism after we've mucked it up.

I'm not sure how you think I've scared people, but I'm open to hearing more about that.

Have a good day yourself!

the_closetpoet8614 said...

This quotation from the article kinda of explains it all, "If you go out and have pizza with your friends, there's nothing healthy about that," Even though I have struggled (and still struggle with) anorexia, that quotation caught me. Like even though I would be so afraid to do that with my friends (I try not to say can't) my non-ED voice says "it is okay and it is normal" If only that voice was stronger.

Harriet said...

It helps to hear that voice reinforced by others. So let me do that for you:

It's perfectly normal to go out for pizza with your friends!

There you go. :-)