In recent weeks, an intersection of two viral conversations about weight loss, diet culture, and childhood obesity left my psyche reeling. As a millennial parent who has battled with an eating disorder for 20 years and suffered through the pro-ana and thinspo culture of the late ’90s and early aughts, my nervous system has gone into overdrive. I can see the walls closing in on me. From one side leers the toxic culture in which I came of age; from another stands my kids, not old enough yet to critically interpret confusing messages about bodies and health but whose healthcare providers are being instructed to recommend weight-loss diets, drugs, and surgery to children.
In this escalating discourse, navigating my fluctuating recovery exacerbates my parental anxiety and triggers my health status. Despite the gains of the body positivity and neutrality movements, it seems we never actually left those Y2K values in the rearview mirror. Following the release of the AAP’s childhood obesity treatment guidelines, and the intense fascination with new weight loss drugs, I’m wondering now more than ever whether our society will ever overcome its anti-fat bias. And when confronted with statistics such as two-thirds of children struggling with body image, I am frozen in a defensive emergency position, desperate to protect my children from the same fatphobic societal conditions I experienced.
In January, the AAP released new guidelines for treating childhood obesity. Its updated aggressive recommendations include weight loss drugs and bariatric surgery for some kids as young as 12—translating to a recommendation of weight-loss diets for approximately one in every three adolescents.
“When I read those words, my heart stopped,” says Meg St-Esprit, who recently penned an essay about her bariatric surgery and how it informs her parenting choices under the AAP’s new guidance.
“While I do not necessarily regret my surgery, I regret every single negative comment and shaming stereotype that led up to it. The diet culture that permeated every facet of my childhood led me to that point — and to a life of disordered eating that broke my ability to have any healthy relationship with food.”
I had a similar heart-stopping sensation while reading a recent feature from The Cut, which spotlighted the use of Ozempic to achieve weight loss body goals, proclaiming it as a “status symbol rather than medicine.” Disturbing, bleak, and depressing are just some of the reactions across the internet in response to the piece titled “Life After Food.” The feature focused on an injectable diabetes treatment and so-called ‘anti-obesity’ medication, Ozempic, designed to regulate insulin, lower blood sugar levels, and suppress appetite.
I was warned not to open it; I should have heeded that advice. While the piece attempts to illuminate what the writer and others see as a troubling trend, the ironic result is almost a Streisand-like effect for those of us within various stages of recovery from disordered eating. According to the interviewees, increased cancer risk wouldn’t be so bad if it meant they were thinner, and being hungry at night wasn’t so bad since they could “drink some tea and maybe take a Xanax and sleep.” These sound like excerpts from my LiveJournal circa 2002 when I was incredibly sick.
“Despite years of therapy combined with an immersion in anti-fat bias deprogramming, my thoughts rapidly moved from This is incredibly troubling to I wonder what it would be like to try it.”
Despite years of therapy combined with an immersion in anti-fat bias deprogramming, my thoughts rapidly moved from This is incredibly troubling to I wonder what it would be like to try it. The mind-warping reality of navigating an eating disorder is like living with an anthropomorphized version of the cartoon devil and angel on opposite shoulders, whispering in your ear, fighting for control of the narrative.
Some have called out the feature for promoting harmful rhetoric about obesity; others insist it entirely missed the mark by focusing on people obtaining Ozempic illegally instead of the doctors prescribing it for weight loss, resulting in shortages for those for whom it is medically indicated. Platforming the experiences of a tiny subset of non-‘obese’ and, by all accounts, financially privileged people with no physical health issues related to the drug’s approved usage was not only short-sighted but unnecessary and reckless. The media’s breathless coverage of ‘uncovered secrets’ to staying thin was something I was certain we’d left in the past. It’s clear we simply repackaged it.
From a parenting perspective, I can’t help but connect the dots, recognizing patterns within the greater cultural conversation’s evolution, which brings me back to those new AAP recommendations. Eating disorder specialists were outraged and swift in responding, determined to illuminate the report’s numerous contradictions and inadequacies. They say these new guidelines will have an “extremely negative impact on kids’ relationships with food and their bodies,” communicating grave concern about pathologizing kids’ weight, expected growth, and development.
Writer and researcher Ragen Chastain says the entire framework of the recommendations is fundamentally flawed. In a recent Substack post, she writes, “they fail to mention that the (supposed) health benefits may have nothing to do with the very small change in size.”
Also at the forefront of these discussions is author and Maintenance Phase cohost Aubrey Gordon, who, along with cohost Michael Hobbes, took a deep dive into the recommendations on the latest episode of their podcast. Agreeing with Chastain about the AAP missing the mark entirely, Gordon says, “It boils down to something so obvious and nefarious: ‘We’re really concerned about the health of these kids. Therefore, we’re not looking at their health. We’re just looking at how fat they are.'”
This is the crux of the issue. There can be no body acceptance under such conditions put forth by the AAP and the culture writ large, in part reinforced by this overwrought and reckless Ozempic-obsession trend. We are saturated in messaging reinforcing weight loss as the ultimate solution. Children internalize this at face value. They cannot, up to a certain age, separate conversations in which their body size is the key indicator of their health from feelings of success vs. failure or good vs. bad. Even in older children, like teens, their sense of self is still underdeveloped. Once you introduce these ideas to children, there’s no undoing, no going back.
“We are saturated in messaging reinforcing weight loss as the ultimate solution. Children internalize this at face value.”
And as Gordon says, “because of our own conflicted [sentiments] as adults on this issue, we are sending profoundly conflicting directions to kids. We are training them to have conflicted relationships with their bodies, the foods they eat, and sometimes their family members and healthcare providers.”
That’s not the message I want to send to my children. That’s not the message I want my kids to promulgate throughout their peer groups or carry with them throughout the rest of their lives as their bodies change, develop, fluctuate, and age.
So, what are parents to do when faced with the realization that our culture hasn’t moved on in any meaningful way? It was easier to ignore when it was relegated to magazine covers from which you could avert your eyes. But the Internet changed all that. And though our search engine habits and social media algorithms allow us to shield ourselves from specific content, our control only goes so far, especially regarding our kids.
Maybe part of the answer is for platforms to issue content warnings — like they did for vaccine misinformation — for harmful disordered eating content related to public health outcomes, an interesting idea from dietitians Nicole Groman and Jaclyn London on the podcast The Business of Wellness. As social media giants like TikTok are the “new tabloid,” this seems prudent to consider.
Other pieces of the puzzle include adopting new food philosophies—to shift our framework entirely. As Jennifer Anderson, child nutrition specialist and founder of Kids Eat in Color, says, “the number one thing we can do is only to say nice things about our bodies in front of toddlers and preschoolers. We can also speak neutrally about food, and we don’t have to call food good or bad, healthy or unhealthy.”
Making peace with food and finding food freedom, concepts Groman discusses, means food can cease to be a source of anxiety and guilt. This is part of a larger framework of body liberation, heralded by people like Chrissy King, author of The Body Liberation Project. As she explained to Essence, body liberation is “the idea that we are inherently worthy because we exist. We deserve respect, love and appreciation, and gratitude, regardless of the reflection we see back in the mirror.”
Body liberation for all is the ultimate dream. I hope we can get there someday.
If you or someone you love is suffering due to disordered eating, disordered exercising or obsessive thoughts related to weight loss, you are not alone. You can take steps to get help by contacting NEDA’s Eating Disorder Helpline at (800) 931-2237.
Before you go, check out our favorite quotes to help inspire healthy attitudes about food and bodies:
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