The number on the scales and the damage done: how forced weigh-ins damaged me for life

By Sarah Smith (Pseudonym)

To weigh, or not to weigh?  In an age of fear and media hype about childhood obesity, it's a loaded question.  A parent myself, I understand anxiety about our children's health.  And in an image-saturated culture where 'don't judge a book by its cover' seems woefully antiquated, I fully understand how we turn ourselves inside out with worry about how the world will treat our precious charges.

In a recent post on Mia Freedman's blog, 'Obesity: Helping your family's health by making them hit the scales', Freedman shares a story about 'Val', friend of comedian Wendy Harmer.  After noticing one of her children has gained a few kilos, Val decides that getting each family member to regularly step on the scales is the best way to keep them honest, and trim.  Freedman admires Val's 'no-nonsense' attitude to weight control.  I'm afraid I don't share her enthusiasm.

There's a world of difference between the way an adult with healthy body image might process that message, and a child who may be anxious about their weight.  Then there's the question of what each child's 'healthy weight' actually is at any stage of their development.  And then there's the issue of how we teach kids about moving their bodies, and making good food choices – without making too big a deal out of it.  And I'm quite sure that scales don't have much to offer any part of the problem.

Most mornings of my life between the ages of eight and fourteen, I was weighed by my parents.  Like Val, they felt I was gaining weight and worried that I'd get fat.  Like most parents, they wanted to teach me about healthy eating and weight control, and save me from the cruelty that other kids can dish out.  And they thought they could achieve all this by keeping close tabs on my weight.

They began to scrutinise every piece of food that came anywhere near me.  Weigh-ins became a lecture or praise, depending on my result.  At one stage, I was taken to evening weight loss groups, where my weight was recorded on a card and grown women smiled at me with sympathy.  They told the eight-year-old me that it was good I was starting early: I wouldn't get a boyfriend unless I was slim.  But seeing as I was growing, not shrinking, and the number on the scales reflected this, I very quickly learned to see my weight as a measure of how badly I was failing at life.

It wasn't that my family ate poorly.  My father was a health fanatic, and my mum cooked good, nutritious food.  It was just that my body was doing things my parents didn't trust.  And because I wanted to please them by producing a better number on the scales, I became anxious about starving myself whenever I could.  I really wanted to have a better body, the right body: one my parents would like.

The more control my parents exerted, the more out of control my eating became.  To curb my adolescent hunger at age 12, my mother took me to the GP for appetite suppressants.  At one point, food was locked away.  And then there were the occasional school weigh-ins.  Those days I felt so sick with fear and burning shame I'd want to run away so I wouldn't be forced to hand my peers more ammunition, or show them exactly how heavy a failure I was.

My eating was chaotic: starving to be 'good', then bingeing in secret, doused in self-hatred and shame.  I'd eliminate fat, then carbohydrates, and meticulously record all calories and fat grams in neat columns.  I'd calculate percentages of calories derived from fat and every day aim for decreasing totals of each.  I'd obsessively exercise, chain-smoke and drink black coffee to avoid eating.  I'd spit food into the bin instead of swallow it.  And the scales became a punishing ruler: I'd weigh myself dozens of times a day, filled with fear over what the number would say each time.

When I finally reached 'thin', my parents' control over my eating finally stopped.  But when the nervousness in their voices told me it was time to stop, that I'd lost enough weight, I can't deny a dirty sense of satisfaction.  No, I'd keep going, thanks.  This is what you wanted.

While it was true that age eight I had begun to gain a little weight, it was called 'puberty'.  Despite everything, until my mid-teens I was a healthy weight – if a bit heavier than most girls my age.  That makes sense.  I'm also quite a tall woman, muscular, broad-shouldered and physically strong.  I look scrawny at 70 kilograms.  And I often wonder what might have happened if, instead of reacting with fear, my parents had responded thoughtfully to my growing body.

If my parents had recognised that my body shape was more like my grandmother's than my older sisters, would my weight have stabilised, found its natural place?  If my parents had never let the scales dictate their emotions, would I never have let them rule mine?  Would I have learned how to respond appropriately to the hunger signals of my growing body?  I was never given the chance.

I've no doubt my parents thought they were doing the right thing, keeping tabs on the number on the scales, carefully watching every mouthful, joking about my fat knees and muffin top.  But the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  Parents have no way of knowing exactly how any child might respond to overt attempts to control their weight.  In the end, we need to ask if the interventions we plan for our children are going to do more harm than good.  We need to see the red flags ahead, and slow down.  We need to respond, instead of react.

A recent Mission Australia survey indicated that body image tops the list of young Australians' concerns – and this anxiety over our bodies is starting early.  It would be the rare child that doesn't listen up and listen hard to how our culture views people who are heavier than most.  We mete out harsh and relentless punishments to those whose bodies don't fit our mould, and we say we're doing it for their own good.  But we're agonisingly slow to learn that shaming people about their weight and relationship with food just doesn't work.

Despite my parents' best efforts (and mine), I didn't stay thin.  And I'm quite sure my body didn't turn out as it was meant to.  I've now lost and gained weight over a sixty-kilogram range, and I'm still technically 'obese'.  In attempting to change my body shape to suit our cultural preference for thinness,' I've told myself how stupid, worthless, hopeless, disgusting I am.  I've starved and binged more times than I can count.  I've had substances injected into me I can't even identify.  And all of this simply because I learned very early that my body was wrong, and needed to be controlled.  I was taught to pursue a body type I could never achieve, nor maintain.

In a recent submission to US First Lady Michelle Obama, author and dietitian Ellyn Satter wrote: “Research shows that children who are labeled overweight or obese feel flawed in every way – not smart, not physically capable and not worthy.  Parents who fear obesity hesitate to gratify their child's hunger for fear s/he will get fat.  Such labeling is not only counterproductive, it is unnecessary.”

I couldn't have said it better.  I am an accomplished woman, with gifts and talents I am very proud of.  I've raised beautiful children, and fought my way back from post-traumatic stress disorder and post-natal depression.  Every day I work hard to overcome the limitations these, and other traumas, have put upon my life.  And yet, there's not one waking hour that I don't obsess about my weight, my appearance, my body and the food I put into it.  There's not one hour that I don't wonder how I can starve my way into becoming a more physically 'acceptable' human.

When my parents started weighing me, I was already sensitive about my weight.  Their efforts only served to create a punishing lifelong obsession.

In subjecting her kids to a regular session on the scales, Val may think she's making a light-hearted joke.  She may not think she's making a big deal out of her children's weight and appearance.  But will her kids perceive it that way?  If they're anything like me, they might just learn the damaging message that they're only as good as their last weigh-in.  They might get the message that their body is wrong, and needs to be controlled.  They might learn to feel, like me, flawed in every way.

With many thanks to Sarah.

This piece was first published on Melinda Tankard's web site,


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