If the violence with which I have to twerk just to get my skinny jeans over my derrière is anything to go by, I’ve put on weight over lockdown. I’m not overly panicked by it and can identify my incessant baking as a pretty definite reason. I’m not normally guilty of schadenfreude, but the fact that lockdown weight gain seems to be a regular occurrence comforts me somewhat that it’s not solely down to gluttony – lifestyle change has certainly had an impact too. Gaining 5lbs hasn’t killed me. I’ll lose it and in no time I’ll only have to softly twerk to get into my jeans.
With lockdown weight gain being a bit of a trope, it was inevitable that children would fall foul to it too. As millions of parents desperately try to keep their children amused for long enough to allow them to complete a Zoom meeting without doing a Robert Kelly, it’s understandable that a high percentage of these distractions will include being sedentary in front of a device whilst devouring a snack of sorts. If that’s the case, then I am not judging in the slightest. As an aunt of a gorgeously cute and murderously energetic four-year-old who requires mental stimulation during every waking moment, I cannot fathom how millions of parents are smashing the “working from home” lark whilst also keeping their children sufficiently amused. If that Herculean, and frankly medal-worthy, task requires a few snacks then by God I’m not going to deny them a couple of Hobnobs here and there.
Children gaining weight comes with the obvious side-effects of poorer health, which nobody would agree is a positive. However, we are all running a dangerous risk of imposing long-lasting mental damage on these children if we overly catastrophise their weight gain. Our attitude to their weight gain as well as the language we use – if we get it wrong – can be an instant trigger resulting in a life-long unhealthy relationship with food.
As a former chubby child, I am a strong believer that over dramatizing puppy fat incurs far graver problems than if it were just left to balance itself out. Despite my chubbiness (OK, if we’re calling a spade a spade, I was a fat child…it’s cool though, the chubby cheeks made me adorable) I was never really aware of it so it never bothered me. I wasn’t greedy, I didn’t chow down on junk food, I just had adult-size portions of the food I was eating. I was never bullied or picked on for being fat, so I was pretty much blissfully unaware. However, it is no coincidence that the times at which I did over-eat specifically for comfort were after visits to the doctor. Even though the condition which required my frequent doctor visits were not weight related, as part of my health checks I’d need to be measured and weighed. Seeing the nurse dot my weight in the red zone of her ominous graph made me feel so ashamed of myself, that I would then seek comfort from food. Between appointments, when I’d gotten over the embarrassment and returned to blissful infantile carefreeness, I never comfort ate. Sure, my portion sizes were problematic, but my relationship with food was healthy. I sought nothing from it, that was until my next hospital appointment when the nurse’s dot would mockingly dance in the red zone, reminding me how ashamed I should be of myself. Cue the self-hatred and digestives to follow.
Maintaining a healthy relationship with food is key to helping children reach a healthier weight. That isn’t my opinion or just my lived-experience, that is fact. The same is very much true for adults too.
With this in mind, when I heard on Jeremy Vine today (10/08/20) that there are calls for weigh-ins at schools in September to monitor which children have gained weight over lockdown, my jaw hit the floor. I listened on in horror at the suggestion that pupils could be weight twice in a term to monitor their ‘health’. By ‘health’, let us be clear that this pays absolutely no regard to their mental health. In fact, this would actively induce conditions such as body dysmorphia, anorexia and obesity, all of which are already ubiquitous thanks to our society which tells young minds that if they are overweight, they are worthless.
Not only would this weigh-in scheme basically hand mental illness to children on a plate, it’ll cause large swathes of pupils to refuse to go to school. I was one of those annoyingly enthusiastic who gleefully enjoyed handing in the homework I’d been slaving over and would beg the teacher to tell me where I was ranking in the class, but I can tell you with unequivocal certainty that if I knew there was a potential for a weigh-in to be sprung on me, I’d have point blank refused to go to school. I’d have burned my beloved homework and slid down the greasy pole to the bottom of the class as there would have been more chance of hell freezing over than me crossing the threshold into that school.
I would not have been alone. Could you honestly envisage a teenage girl, whose sole priority is just to fit it, willingly having herself weighed and assessed like livestock ready for market? The fear and anxiousness would be crippling and wildly distracting, even for those who did brave the school gates.
A cousin of mine who I speak to regularly has recently turned fourteen. For the first time, she’s started showing an interest in her weight. It feels like shards of glass slicing though my skin every time she says she wants to lose 4lbs, or that she’s found a workout that’ll give her a thigh gap. I’m watching on helplessly as she begins placing value on her weight instead of on her endless talents, her intellect or her ability to understand other people. More and more, the words ‘scales’, ‘toned’ and ‘clean eating’ are creeping into her parlance and there’s nothing I do about it. She’s a product of the society within which we exist – a society that values our Kylies over our Malalas.
But must we reinforce this at an even younger age with actual weigh-ins? Could we not just let children be children and worry about their weight later? They have plenty of time to judge the credentials of a sweet potato fry over a classic chip, or to weight out their rice to ensure they don’t breach their macros. But, in the meantime, please let us give children childhoods they don’t need to recover from.