Talking about my weight hurt my sons more than I realized

Feb 18, 2016 at 7:00 p.m. ET
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I am a mom of all boys. Even though I always wished for a little girl dressed in darling twirly clothing with matching hair bows, it turns out the universe knew what it was doing when it denied me the daughter I always wanted.

I was never a very good "girl" myself. While I love being a girl — the dresses and makeup and hair and shoes — I was never very good at all those things. I’m still not.

Or at least, I don’t think I am. You see, I have this huge problem with self-esteem. Specifically, mine sucks.

I’m not sure how or why it happened, but somewhere along the line I went from a happy, confident grade-schooler to a moody, unconfident teen. Now, at age 45, even though I have moments of clarity and self-assurance, I still doubt myself more than I should.

I tend to think it's OK that I still struggle with self-esteem, because after all, who is watching me? I don’t have daughters I need to fake confidence for. I don’t have any little women in the house for whom I need to be a role model.

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Boys don’t notice that stuff, do they?

Well, it turns out they actually do.

They notice what I’m saying and what I’m eating and how much I’m exercising, and they are thinking about it in terms of themselves.

At the start of the Catholic season of Lent, we were discussing what we were going to give up for the 40 days before Easter.

I talked about giving up chips and desserts in a dual effort to sacrifice something I love and to get in shape. My 10-year-old, who is naturally tall as well as a little overweight, said, “I’m giving up desserts. I need to get in shape too.”

I didn’t think much about it. Although he is active in basketball, baseball, bike riding, sledding and other things boys love to do, he also loves to eat. A few less desserts wouldn’t hurt him.

A day later, his brothers and I were lying on my king-size bed, reading books, when he said to me, “Mom, are you pregnant again?”

I looked at my belly spilling over to the side and laughed. “Nope, I’m just fat.”

Then my sweet son looked at his own stomach and said, “Yeah, I’m fat too.”

And my heart broke into a dozen pieces.

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I know he gets teased by other kids. He would never tell me, but when I picked him up from a sports-themed birthday party once, the host told me some kids were calling him fat.

His dad and I hound him about his eating and exercise as well.

If he were a girl, we would never talk about weight and food. The fear of creating an eating disorder would always be on our minds.

But the fact is that boys can develop eating disorders too. It is estimated that approximately 1 to 2 percent of 14-year-old males will suffer from an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia or binge-eating disorder. The percentages rise as young men age. In fact, 1 million U.S. men (versus 2 million women) will suffer from an eating disorder sometime in their lives.

I know some of these men — athletes who are trying to make a weight class, shave time off their mile or who are taking performance-enhancing drugs that interfere with their metabolism.

As moms, we need to be aware of our sons’ body image as well. In my case, I am the parent who is with my sons the most. I buy the food, I cook the meals, and I decide what we do on days off from school.

It is my voice they hear the most, my choices they are watching and my decisions they use to make their own.

It hurts my heart to think my own insecurities might be creating self-doubt in my son and giving him poor self-esteem, but I know there is something I can do about it that will benefit us both. We can make healthy choices at the grocery store. We can fix a well-balanced lunch for ourselves. We can walk the dog together. And we can praise each other’s successes.

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Just because I am a mom of boys doesn't mean I can be careless about self-image. I need to be a healthy role model for my sons too.