the HAES® files: Mommy, Isn’t That Lady Beautiful?

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Joanne P. Ikeda, MA, RD

Last year I met with a group of mothers of young children who asked me to come and talk to them about feeding their families. I am not sure how they found me, but quite likely it was through a search on the internet. I am a retired faculty member in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at UC Berkeley, and my area of expertise is pediatric overweight.  All of the media attention focused on pediatric obesity has raised parental awareness of this problem, and now along with ensuring that a child gets into an Ivy League University, most parents are burdened with the responsibility of ensuring that their child does not get fat. Parents take this responsibility very seriously but most of them are confused about the mixed messages they are getting and they are worried that they are sending mixed messages to their children.

The most poignant example of this was the voluptuous and attractive woman who was concerned because one day her 5 year old said that she never wanted to get fat when looking at herself in the mirror. While in line at the supermarket, the same 5 year old pointed to a woman on the cover of Vogue magazine and said, “Look how beautiful that lady is, Mom! Isn’t she pretty? I want to look just like her when I grow up.” Mom didn’t know how to respond, especially in light of the fact that she wears a size 16, so she said, “Yes, she is beautiful,” and left it at that. Mom expressed her worry saying, “She’s so young. She’s too young to be worried about her body size.” I felt like responding, “At what age do you think she will be old enough to take on this task?” But of course I didn’t.  Instead, I listened with a great deal of sympathy, recognizing that this woman was trying to deal with a problem that has become endemic in our society – that of body dissatisfaction.

According to cultural anthropologists, body dissatisfaction has become a “cultural norm” among women and girls in this country, and is afflicting men and boys in greater and greater numbers. Last year I met with a group of UC Berkeley freshman, and the topic of “body bashing” came up. Both males and females admitted that they often sat around with their friends and disparaged their own bodies as well as the bodies of others.  When I suggested that the next time this happened, they refrain from participating and even try to change the discussion topic, they all looked at me as if I was from Mars.  Admittedly, as a 67 year old woman, it is difficult for me to understand why anyone would want to engage in a diversion that is so obviously hurtful and damaging to everyone involved. But the students didn’t see it that way – for them it was a rite of passage, something they expected to do and did do. My concern is, will they ever mature to the point where they can appreciate and value the bodies they have? Sadly, these students failed to understand how they have been conditioned by our society to think that body dissatisfaction is acceptable and appropriate. No one has ever challenged them to question their attitudes and actions.

In contrast to the students, the mothers I talked with recognized the link between self-esteem and body esteem. They understood that their children will have difficulty liking, accepting, and respecting themselves if they are unhappy with their bodies. Still, they wondered how to promote and sustain body satisfaction when our culture features an ideal body that is unattainable by the vast majority of females.

I asked the mothers, “What if we liked our bodies just the way they are and helped our children do the same? What if we didn’t expect to look like the people on magazine covers and didn’t promote that expectation in our children? What would happen then?” Would everyone everywhere become fat! Oh, horrors! Then we wouldn’t have fat people we could legitimately discriminate against and stigmatize. There would be no one to feel superior to because, “I may be fat, but I’m not as fat as she is!” People couldn’t make snide remarks about “pretty faces on bodies that need to lose weight.” We wouldn’t be able to blame the fat people for driving up health care costs in this country.   On the bright side, the weight loss industry would prosper. Diet books would continue to be on every best seller booklist. Bariatric surgeons would be in high demand.

Seriously, though, what does happen when children, teenagers, and adults love and appreciate their bodies? Do they neglect those bodies by feeding them junk? Do they fail to appreciate the “high” of being physically active? Do they practice unsafe sex? Fail to wash their hands after using the rest room? Rarely get enough sleep? Never wash their bodies or brush their teeth? Of course not! Loving one’s body motivates people to take care of their bodies. People with high body esteem and self-esteem want to keep their bodies healthy. They view themselves as valuable people who have something to contribute to society, and they want be around as long as possible to make that contribution.

Human bodies come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes.  We intuitively know there will always be small people and tall people, big people and little people, fat people and thin people. We know that the “ideal body” is something conjured up by the people on Madison Avenue who have ulterior motives, almost all of which are financial. We can reject the superficial value system that leads us to believe that beauty is flawless skin, silky, shining hair, long legs, puffy lips, and an emaciated, cellulite-free body. We can promote an alternative definition of beauty.

In answering the Mom who wanted to know what to say to her daughter who thought the woman on the cover of Vogue was beautiful, I said, “Tell her you don’t know if that woman is beautiful or not. You have never met her. You don’t know if she is kind or cruel. You don’t know if she treats others with respect or disdain. Is she obsessed with being thin and poorly nourishes her body to stay thin? Before you can decide if a person is beautiful, you need to know how this person treats others as well as how she treats herself.”

As a Cooperative Extension Nutrition Education Specialist and Co-director of the Center for Weight and Health at the University of California, Berkeley, Joanne Ikeda has been a leader in efforts to refine approaches to the prevention and treatment of “obesity” at the local, state, and national levels. She is a Health At Every Size® advocate and has published articles advocating non-dieting approaches to health promotion in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association and the Journal of Nutrition Education. She is also a recipient of The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance Community Awareness Award.

6 Responses to “the HAES® files: Mommy, Isn’t That Lady Beautiful?”

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, “now along with ensuring that a child gets into an Ivy League University, most parents are burdened with the responsibility of ensuring that their child does not get fat.”

    Its not totally a vanity thing. Its at least in part an economic thing. Even if they can’t quote statistics about it, I think most parents realize that fat people face serious discrimination in many aspects of life. I think at some level they do know that fat people face employment discrimination, educational discrimination, health care discrimination, housing discrimination, etc., etc., etc. These things cannot be obviated just by instilling a strong sense of self esteem in a child who will still be discriminated against if he or she, particularly she, is fat.

    Its the same reason the parents want to get their children into Ivy League universities. I’m sure it is “partly” for the status, bragging rights, etc., but it is also partly because they realize that an Ivy League education would open a lot more doors, give their child a lot more options for their future than if the child dropped out of high school, or attended community college.

    The same is true of being fat. A child who grows up not-fat and becomes a not-fat adult has a lot more doors open, a lot more options, including a better chance at economic security, a better chance at getting an education and a job commensurate with his or her talents and interests, access to appropriate and unbiased health care, etc. Its not just a matter of whether the child can resist school-yard bullies and somehow develop a positive self image.

    I can see exactly why parents want to try to ensure these privileges for their children (especially girls), and why they are terrified of “not doing enough” to prevent their children from becoming 2nd class citizens.

  2. I wish a 5 year old could understand that answer. Maybe instead she could let her know that beauty and people comes in all shapes, sizes and colors. Have an ingoing didcussion on the beauty of differences and diversity. Get the child to notice how amazing this diverse world is and get her to point out diversity without opinions, just noticing. Ask her why she thinks the woman is beautiful. Expose her to beauty as kindness, generosity, compassion and love with stories that reflect that.

  3. really really great post…would love to repost on FB but can’t figure it out…boo Laurelee Roark, MA, CCHT Co-founder of Beyond Hunger 415-497-8910 cell

    **freedom from the obsession with food & weight**


  4. When my oldest (now 23) was a six year old in ballet, I listened to a conversation between her stick thin classmates obsessing over having “gained weight”. Seriously. Six year olds weighing maybe 35 pounds obsessing over having “gained weight”.

    My only solace was in the fact that my own six year old, she of the strong, muscular thighs, a veteran not only of ballet but also of tae kwon do, who probably outweighed her classmates by 15-20 pounds… was busy working at the barre (read, swinging on it upside down like a monkey) and didn’t hear the conversation. Because at that age I had managed to still raise a child who hopped on a scale simply because there was one in the bathroom and exclaimed, “Hey, mommy! Look how big and strong I’m getting!”

    I now have eight children… and for the most part they are naturally body-size neutral. They’re all over the place in terms of their own unique sizes. The one who has trouble accepting the message is somehow the person who raised them to “get” it… me.

    Because my OWN mother is one of those people who is convinced that a person’s waistline and worth as an individual are inversely proportional. She put me on starvation diets starting at age 12 and told me every day of my life, “If you don’t watch out, you’ll be as wide as you are tall!” in a tone that told me how worthless a human being I would be when that happened.

    I fight against congenital hypothyroidism. It makes gaining weight easy when my meds aren’t right and losing it very very difficult, even when they are fixed. I know that every other measure of my health shows that I’m eating right and exercising. I’m a RN. My body is strong and healthy… and fat.

    I had a doctor a few years back who clearly had never battled weight a day in his life tell me that I was clearly just one of those people who could eat crap and not have it impact my health measures. I’m not sure that’s a real thing… and if it is… then why isn’t just as likely that I’m one of those people doing everything right… who still doesn’t lose weight?

    I watch videos about HAES… and then youtube autoplays to the next video (if I don’t look to see what’s up) which is all about HAES is just code word for “I’m a lazy glutton and you’d better not say anything about it” and the hate… well, I just don’t understand anyone hating another person that way.

    I wish I could be the six year old I raised because I’m tired of looking in the mirror and hearing my mother’s awful, hateful voice.

  5. Joanne, you are my hero. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with those moms, and with us.


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