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Kids Dealing With Negative Body Image? Don't Judge, Listen

MICHEL MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. And as a holiday weekend is coming up, let's assume that many families are planning to celebrate the Fourth of July with some beach and pool time. But swimsuit season can be rough, even for children, especially girls, who worry about their weight or how their bodies look. In fact, nearly two-thirds of 13-year-old girls are afraid of gaining weight - that, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Adolescent Health. So we thought this would be a good time to talk about helping children have a healthy attitude about weight, nutrition and body image. So we're joined now by Carol Weston. She's a columnist with Girls' Life magazine and the author of "Girltalk: All The Stuff Your Sister Never Told You." She's also a mom of two, and she's with us from our bureau in New York. Welcome, Carol Weston. Thanks for coming.

CAROL WESTON: Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Dani Tucker. She's one of our regular contributors to our parenting roundtable. She's a mom of two and a fitness instructor. Dani's here in Washington, D.C. along with Karen Schachter. She's a licensed social worker and founder of Dishing with Your Daughter. That's an organization committed to helping mothers and daughters make healthier food choices. And she's also a mom of two. Welcome to you both. Thanks for coming.

DANI TUCKER: Thank you.

KAREN SCHACHTER: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: So, Carol, I'm going to start with you. As an advice columnist, how many questions do you generally get that have to do with things like, you know, weight and body image - how do I look?

WESTON: Wow, I would say almost half of them. I mean, it's extraordinary. Girl - I've been the advice columnist at Girls' Life for 20 years. And a lot of questions are about friendships and boys and parents, but after that it's really body. It's weight. It's puberty. It's breast size. It's skin.

MARTIN: Has that changed over the years? Have you seen more preoccupation with weight as people - maybe the celebrity culture's gotten more kind of - there've always been celeb magazines, right? But now you've got, like, cable channels, and things devoted to style, and fashion, and blogs and all that other stuff. Have you seen a change over the years?

WESTON: I almost want to say no. I think girls have always worried more than they really should, and need to, about weight. But, of course, what has changed in the last 20 years and 30 years is that childhood obesity has more than doubled. And let me get this right, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. That's according to the CDC. So while we worry about the statistic you had, Michel, about we don't want girls to worry about their weight, but we also don't want them to head down difficult paths. And that's why it's so hard for parents. We don't want the kid's self-esteem to suffer, but we don't want the child's health to suffer, either.

MARTIN: Dani, you're a fitness instructor. I know this is a concern of yours, as well, which is partly why you started your business. What's the main concern that your clients have?

TUCKER: Just getting healthy, and just getting on the right track. And one reason we - our policy is your kids work out with you free. Fifteen and under, they don't have to pay because that's the way you develop healthy habits with them. I worked out with my grandmother and my mother when I was little. They used to take me to aerobic classes with them. As long as, you know - there are many classes that are, you know, kid friendly. And, you know, we took what we liked to do - dance. And, basically, what I did was take that and started the business to the music that I knew would get us up. And because of that, they can work out with their kids. That's our biggest concern.

MARTIN: Yeah, I was going to say, that's been your policy from the beginning...

TUCKER: From the beginning, yeah.

MARTIN: Really, because why? What motivated that? Is it because that was just the way you grew up?

TUCKER: 'Cause it saved my life.

MARTIN: Saved your life how? Tell me.

TUCKER: Because, if my parents - like you said, I mean, we, the kids - we have a tendency to be weight conscious, but what we - when we were kids. What we didn't have was weight knowledge. What do we do about it, you know? You didn't have a lot of education on what to eat and what not to eat, you know what I mean? And exercise - they don't teach you a lot of that. I know they didn't with us now - I mean, back then. I know they do now. But when I was growing up, they didn't talk about those things. So I did it with my parents, with my mother and my grandmother, you know? And we always did it together. And I get on the front and dance my butt off, but that's what I like to do. So I never forgot that because I struggled with my weight growing up. I struggled big time with my weight growing up. And if it wasn't for my mother and grandmother taking me to work out with them, I don't know where I'd be, you know? So - and that's why, when I started my business, I remembered that. I want them to go. And I love it. My youngest is 3. Our youngest student is 3. And she dances with her mother all over the place, and it's beautiful.

MARTIN: That's awesome. Karen, what about you? Your group is called Dishing with Your Daughter.


MARTIN: So I had two questions for you.


MARTIN: The same question I asked the other ladies, which is - what's the most common question you get? - because I'm assuming it's parents...

SCHACHTER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Who are the ones who are contacting you. So what's the most common question that you get? And secondly, is it just daughters, now, or is it sons, too? Are they also concerned about weight?

SCHACHTER: Yeah. The first - the answer to the first question is the most common question I get is - how do I help my daughter be healthy, maybe even lose weight, without messing her up? - because many of the moms that I see and that I've worked with struggled themselves. They either struggled with their weight from the time they were young, or they struggled with an eating disorder. And so they want to help their daughters, but they - and their sons, but I see mostly women and girls. So they want to help their daughters, but they want to do it in a way that is not hurtful and that is actually helpful and supportive. They don't want to lead them down the same path that they felt they were led down.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking with our - we're having our weekly parenting conversation. We're talking about kids and body image. Joining us are licensed social worker and nutritional consultant Karen Schachter, fitness instructor Dani Tucker and Girls' Life advice columnist Carol Weston. So I just want to ask you each to answer this whole question. Karen...


MARTIN: I'll start with you on this one, this whole question of what to say. You know, it's a common thing that girls will say, am I fat? Or, do these pants make me look fat? And what's the answer to that? - because I think a lot of parents' instinct is to say, no matter what the truth is, oh, no.


MARTIN: You know, no, Princess.

SCHACHTER: You're beautiful.

MARTIN: You're beautiful, Princess.

SCHACHTER: You look perfect.

MARTIN: You're perfect.

SCHACHTER: You're perfect. That is parents' - we want to make our kids feel good, so we want to reassure them. The problem with that is that - A, if your daughter does have a problem, she knows you're lying. She already knows she has a problem, and she's coming to you for help, for support, for guidance. And if she doesn't have a problem and she continues to ask whether she's fat, or she puts down her body, there's something else going on, and she needs to have a conversation. So you actually need to talk about this as you would talk about anything - as you would talk about alcohol, or drugs, or bullying. So you need to ask questions.

MARTIN: And what would you say? How would you start that off? Yeah...

SCHACHTER: So I would say to my daughter, tell me what's going on. Tell me what you're wondering. Tell me why you think this. I would ask a question that is more than a yes or no, that gives more than a yes or no answer. And I would, first of all, put my judgment and fear and shame aside because many of us, if we have struggled ourselves, or just simply because we live in this culture that makes fat this shameful, terrible thing, so many of us are carrying around this fear. So we're so afraid to say anything like, oh, no, no, no. So we put our judgment aside, and then we ask those open-ended questions. And we listen. We listen to what they say. And then we empathize. That must be so hard, that you're feeling that way. How can I support you?

MARTIN: Carol, I think you're also a fan of this, too. I know you wrote a column about raising concerns about the fact that too many parents are actually ignoring weight issues among their kids. Talk a little bit about your perspective on this.

WESTON: Well, some parents are a little bit in denial about - I mean, and let me just say, I love your panelists. I love everything they've said. And I'm just nodding here in the studio in New York. But yes, there are parents who don't seem to be as aware as we wish they would be that they've got a toddler, or a 5-year-old, who is - already got a big, old weight problem that is not going to be easy for that boy or that girl to navigate for the rest of their days. So I feel that because when a kid is at risk, he's - with weight it's not just appearance. It's not just superficial. It's - you know, it becomes a health concern. You're at greater risk for diabetes, for cardiovascular troubles. So we want to be open-eyed and clear-eyed and always compassionate, and kind, and sensitive and respectful. I feel that that part goes without saying. But the advice - you know, I advise tweens and kids and teenagers. If an adult says to me, do you think I should go on match.com? I'd say, gosh, maybe. If a kid writes me and says, I'm thinking of - you know, I met this boy online, I go, no. Don't meet boys online. So when girls write me, it's not just about their caring mom who says, oh, you're beautiful the way they are - the way you are. Way too many girls - it's heartbreaking how many girls have written me to say, you know, my dad said I'm fat. And there're words I can't even say on the air, or I don't think I can. But, you know, there are parents out there who are not supportive and who aren't as loving as we wish. So we have to support the kids. And I - but, I guess, in general, I believe the take-away for parents listening is do it with love and respect. And also, you can say, you know what? We could probably both be in a little bit better shape. I think you look great. And you are my, you know, my best kid, or whatever - big hug, but I could probably get in better shape, too. So it's sort of what Dani said. Let's...

MARTIN: Do it together.

WESTON: You know, let's work out together. Or, let's take a walk together.

MARTIN: Dani, I have to ask you, though, about something. There's some culture, here, involved, too 'cause I'm thinking about the fact that this whole question of, like, what women are supposed to look like...

TUCKER: Oh, I'm glad you asked.

MARTIN: You know, there's a lot of politics involved in that. Like, you remember - a lot of people will remember the whole issue with that former talk show host, you know, Don Imus, who made these disparaging comments about Venus and Serena Williams and their physicality. And a lot of people were very offended by that because they're not, you know, they're not stick thin. And why should they be? And they're clearly, you know, fit. So the question I have, you know, for you is, particularly - you know, you and I are both African-American. And I think a lot of times, you know, feeling that the culture doesn't necessarily appreciate, you know, the body type. On the other hand, the statistics show that African-American and Latina women are also more likely to be carrying excess weight. So how do you navigate that with your - in your family and also with your clients when they raise these issues?

TUCKER: Balance - because, bottom line - excuse me. For, like you said, African-American and Latino girls, we tend to be thick and fit. And, honestly, let's keep it real. We're thick and fit because that's the way our men like it. They want meat on the bones. I mean, that's just the African-American man. Ninety percent of them want some meat on the bones. So what people call skinny, we don't like. You know what I'm saying? My doctor always tells me, you've got weight to lose. I'm all right, you know? So our thing is thick and fit. The balance is this - don't go to Golden Corral seven times a week. You understand what I'm saying?

MARTIN: (Laughing) Buffet....

TUCKER: And that's what we focus on is the balance because we know you're going to be fit...

MARTIN: Golden Corral being an all-you-can-eat buffet...

TUCKER: Right.

MARTIN: For people who are not aware of its charms.

TUCKER: Thank you. OK. Our difference is getting them to understand what P-H-A-T means - phat, that phat. You know, it is pretty hot and tempting. It also has a slang thing that I can't say right now.

MARTIN: Let's not do that. Yeah.

TUCKER: But at the same time, balance because it could also lead you to diabetes - you understand what I'm saying? - a heart attack and stroke. You can be thick. You can be thick and fit. When, you know, when they come to my classes and they see these, quote-unquote, "thick and fit" women, moving the way they're moving - yes, they are healthy. They don't have to be a size two to be healthy. You can be healthy and fit, a size 14. I am one, sitting right there.

MARTIN: OK. All right, Karen, final thought from you. You also had some word of wisdom about how to talk about food, correct? You're saying, don't ban, add. Tell us about that.

SCHACHTER: Yes, yes. I mean, I agree with everything Dani just said. I mean, weight does not determine health. Health determines health. And so we want to - A, focus on health. We don't want to put our kids on a diet because diet is all about deprivation. And deprivation makes us want to eat something more. And oftentimes - many of the women I work with, who have struggled for years and years, started their diet when they were teens. And they're going on and on. So - and it's been a problem. So what we want to do is we want to help our kids get healthy. We want to start adding in foods that balance their body, balance their brain chemistry, reduce cravings. We want to take out the processed stuff that's very addictive and compelling and marketed really well to kids and families. And..

MARTIN: OK. So - and, Carol, final thought from you. You have a rule on S's. Quickly tell me that. We have about 30 seconds left. It's no what?

WESTON: Well, try to cut back on sweets, snacks, seconds and soda. And, honestly, if parents could have water in the house and not have sugary soda at home, that would be - just make a huge breakthrough.

MARTIN: OK, sweets - tell me again, one more time. Sweets...

WESTON: Sweets, seconds...

MARTIN: Snacks, seconds...

WESTON: Snacks and soda.

MARTIN: And soda. All right.

WESTON: And it's not - again, it's not deprivation. I mean, I have a cookie, but I don't buy a whole lot of cookies.


WESTON: I don't buy a whole pack of - and I don't buy any Doritos, Cheetos, Fritos, Oreos...




MARTIN: All right, no O's, either. OK. Carol Weston's a columnist with Girls' Life magazine, and mom of two. Dani Tucker's a mom of two and a fitness instructor. Karen Schachter is founder of Dishing with Your Daughter, also a mom of two. Ladies, thank you all so much for joining us.

TUCKER: Thank you.

SCHACHTER: Thank you.

WESTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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