Author: Aaliyah Umm Ibrahim
As adults we know (or should know) that not all of our opinions are facts, not all of our feelings are a reality nor are all of our fears legitimate. We have much a vocabulary, to begin with, to express ourselves and our emotions to others, and even though it is a sad fact that many adults self-medicate in extremely harmful ways (such as drugs, alcohol, comfort eating or excessive exercise), we do usually know when our thoughts are healthy and when not. In the least, we can be expected to take charge of our own lives and behaviours.
Over the past two decades especially, the media has been blamed for brainwashing us with these images of what happiness looks like: to be popular, successful and in general “cool” you have to look a certain way, wear certain clothes and have a certain attitude. Many adults buy into these ideas at a subconscious level. However an adult can be expected to understand, that a model is essentially a walking clothe hanger, a perfume is not really going to make the world fall at your feet and that having a certain BMI is not necessarily going to make you a popular CEO of a supercompany – even though that’s what the advertisements seem to say. But when it comes to children, and I’m not even talking about teenagers here, it’s a whole different story.
A recent study showed that an increasing number of 4-6 year olds are concerned about their body-image.
I would like to say I had no such worries as a child, but I did. I was always a chubby child and grew up much faster than most of my friends – at the age of 9 I hit puberty (physically, by no means mentally though), and was a head taller than my school mates. I had eating issues from a very young age, being obsessed with sugar to the extent that I would suck on plain sugar cubes in the want of real sweets. Of course I didn’t realize it at the time ( since in the early 90’s no one talked to primary school kids about things like food addiction or comfort-eating ) but I was eating to comfort myself, to overcome issues of being bullied at school (funnily enough, mostly because I was “fat”) and, to some extent, being from a “broken” home and the issues that came along (sometimes badly) blended families.
I always had it in the back of my head that I was overweight and needed to lose weight – and I tried, and kept failing. From a primary school age I was very conscious of what I should weight (and look like) and felt extremely ashamed for not being able to fit into same kinds of clothes that my friends used.
Looking back now I feel sad that so much of my childhood and early teens was spent over worrying about how I looked. I never really overcame these issues – not before I realized that what I had to work on wasn’t at all my body-image but rather my self-image. Many adults confuse these two concepts, we can only imagine how easily children do too. My pregnancies have drastically changed the way I look – and not positively at all, most people would probably be devastated and consider things like surgery or at least exercise the devil out of themselves to look “the way they were before kids”, but I didn’t start finding myself pretty till I had my kids, and though things have seriously gone south (and when I say seriously, that’s exactly what I mean), I am happier with the way I look now ( with a ridiculously high BMI, floppy skin all over the place and a disfiguring but harmless skindisease to decorate what’s left of it) than I ever have been before. But weight issues (as any other issues concerning people’s looks, habits, manners, disabilities etc.) are still a very sensitive point for me. I strongly disagree with what the media wants to define as beautiful or acceptable, and I recognise the harmful effects that such powerful, yet often very one-sided images leave behind.
So what do I do when my to-be-six-year-old son starts coming up with these comments of “mum, you’re fat!”, “why is abu like a ball?” and (his recent favourite) “is this healthy or not? Today I’m only gonna eat healthy foods that won’t make you fat!” I sigh a deep, mental sigh.
My boy is as skinny as he can be, with a very athletic build – taking after his father in a clone-like way. He could probably eat a truck load of sweets without gaining a gram. However he seems to be very focused on how he, and everyone else looks like, what’s healthy, what’s fattening etc. I do find it somewhat concerning – he’s not even 6 yet, and plus he’s a boy (not that it makes any difference as to whether it’s concerning or not, I just always thought boys don’t really care about how they look. How wrong was I…) – and don’t really know how to react. Of course it’s easy to reply that “salad is healthy, chocolate is not,” but just this morning he picks up an orange and goes “mum oranges have sugar in them! They’re NOT healthy!” (another deep, mental sigh).
I’m very happy that he goes to a school where healthy food is an agenda. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But unfortunately the awareness –raising, or what he’s taken in from it, has stayed at the level of “this makes you fat and this doesn’t”, where I think it should be “you need to be moderate”. Children’s obesity is a huge problem, and I’m very happy that obese children these days are given many more opportunities to battle their weight issues than I ever was in my day, but as we live in a highly polarized world, the obesity problem seems to be “balanced” with more and more children developing eating disorders at a younger age. There are more and more children under the age of 12 developing disorders such as anorexia – many more than there were five years ago.
The society has been so fixated on overweight children, that we seem to forget that the majority of children are still “normal” weight, but bombarded with the same messages as the overweight children are –about the dangers of cream and potato chips. Combine these messages with a perfectionistic mind or a poor self- esteem, domestic problems or issues at school and you’ll soon have trouble. Children do not use food to intentionally gain weight and they rarely stop eating in order to intentionally lose weight. Food ultimately represents a control mechanism to them – there is very little in your life that you can control when you’re a child, but you can usually decide whether to eat or not. This seems to be going against what I said about the evil effects of media, but look at it from this point of view- kids see a world, where thin, healthy people who go to gyms, exercise and are all in all in control of themselves are happy, and the connection can be made quite easily. Also not eating is a proven way of getting attention, especially if you live within a culture that puts much emphasis on food and eating being a very social event.
Where we go wrong as a society, I think, is being too focused on, fattening “evil” food and exercise that’s “good for you”. What I think we should focus on instead, is teaching our children the importance of balance: balance in diet, but also in everything else. Of course in order to teach our children we should first learn this (too) ourselves.
So after my deep, mental sigh, I turn around and explain about different kinds of sugars – how the sugar in fruit is actually good for you, but how added sugar isn’t. However, I remember to add, it’s ok to eat chocolate, sometimes. The same goes for potato chips, too. Allah gave us the sense of taste, I say, to be able to enjoy yummy foods, but He also gave us a brain so that we know that it’s ok to eat one bar of chocolate, not 20. Let’s try not to tip the scales either way, but rather keep them in the middle, where we were instructed to stay at by our faith as well.
And by God, I hope my answers will suffice.
….Where Practice Makes Perfect
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