The Hamilton Spectator
Diet culture trickles down to kids
Sarah Landry dropped 100 pounds and became obsessive about food. When she saw the effect it was having on her children, she changed her message
With a new year comes new trends. But when it comes to diet culture, a quick scan of the glossy magazines at grocery store checkouts shows how much we prize the dramatic weight loss story.
But just what effect does all this diet talk have on children? Sarah Landry — known as @thebirdspapaya to her over 814K Instagram followers — has been vocal in her efforts to change how we talk about and display the diversity of the human body.
Landry, who lives outside of Toronto, went through a transformation several years ago, losing about 110 pounds in the span of a few years, ultimately dropping to an unhealthy weight for her — 114 pounds — and a size zero.
It wasn’t until she reached her “goal weight” that she realized she wasn’t happy, nor was she healthy. People were still congratulating her, even after she lost more weight because of stress and life circumstances.
“I began to realize how many red flags there were toward diet culture and disordered eating,” said Landry. “It was unhealthy ... It was almost impossible to maintain (my weight) with how little I could eat and how much I had to exercise to stay that weight.”
She was obsessively calorie counting, weighing herself multiple times a day, and exercising out of guilt and fear around food and weight gain.
The mother of three wanted to set a better example for her children, especially her two daughters, Jemma, 11, and Maya, 13.
“It bothered me when my daughter Jemma was speaking about me and said to me something like, ‘People love you for your weight loss,’ ” said Landry.
And yet, her transformation story and her powerful posts on Instagram about accepting her body landed her dedicated followers, magazine covers and media attention.
As she struggled with where the weight loss ended and she began, she worried about what effect this behaviour was having on her kids.
“I can’t control TV and how inclusive it is but I can control the words that come out of my mouth and the conversations we have at home, and it starts with how I talk about myself and what I’m proud of,” Landry said.
After Jemma commented about the praise her mom receives, Landry made immediate changes, starting in their home.
“There’s no diet culture talk allowed at home. We’ve gotten rid of scales in the house. I don’t want there to be this defining moment for them that they have a number. I want to continue to have a redirection of conversation and a change in the ways we talk about our bodies and ourselves,” said Landry.
Kyla Fox, clinical therapist and an eating disorder specialist, tells the Star that kids are sponges to their surroundings and are acutely attuned to their caregivers and their environment.
“The ways you feel about food and your body will be a mirror for your children. More of the work is on caregivers to heal themselves and their ideologies around food and their body in order to influence a positive relationship for their children,” says Fox. “If you don’t believe in the messages you’re hoping to instill like, ‘Everything in moderation,’ ‘Beauty from the inside out,’ ‘Love the skin you’re in,’ neither will your kids.”
Fox, who has two daughters, struggled with an eating disorder when she was younger and noticed care gaps and fundamental flaws in the treatment and recovery approach, which is why she developed The Kyla Fox Centre, a clinical and holistic eating disorder centre in Toronto.
The language we use within the house around food affects kids from a young age, she said, so it’s important to be mindful when talking about healthy dietary habits.
But how can parents change the conversation to have a positive effect on their kids?
“To feel healthy is to learn how to live healthier. Perhaps the conversation is more about that. Mom wants to live her best life, feel stronger, happier, safer, share feelings more easily, take up more space in the world, go after what matters, listen to her body more, understand what makes her feel full,” said Fox. “If we lived in a world where there was more open and honest communication about how to really feel healthy, we would be tapping in way deeper to ourselves and to each other.”
While parents can monitor language at home, they can’t control external forces that play on a child’s insecurities. This includes comments by other children or things they see on social media. Fox says a parent should be attentive to a child’s behaviour and address issues as soon as they are noticed. Is your tween reading calories on labels and selecting the item with a few less? If so, this is an opportunity to have a deeper conversation to discover the root of why they’re behaving this way.
“The relationship your child develops with their body is an articulation of the way your child feels about themselves. And so being emotionally filled up — emotionally communicative, emotionally able to process, emotionally validated, emotionally supported — means that a child will be less likely to take out their feelings on their body through food. People who love themselves don’t hurt themselves,” said Fox.
“The only way to actively support others is to not hide behind your concerns, but address them. ‘Hey, I noticed you’re doing these things now that you didn’t do before, are you OK? Why do you think you have started this? Know that I’m here for you and want to be able to talk honestly.’ Opening up space for a bigger, safer conversation is key to bringing someone’s suffering/rituals/ preoccupations forward,” said Fox. Jemma now has an Instagram account, bearing witness to her mom’s positive messaging and body empowerment.
“As parents we can get so caught up being distracted by our bodies that we forget how many amazing things are going on around us,” Landry said.
Instead of asking your partner or friends whether an outfit makes you look fat or asking how many calories are in something, or constantly complaining about having to lose 10 more pounds — all of which create a negative dialogue for children — share what you love about yourself, she said.
Landry suggests “being mindful about how we speak about ourselves, and reminding each other to not comment on others’ bodies when it comes up.”
Most importantly, don’t speak poorly about yourself, she said.
It’s not easy to learn to do but, “when you take that out of the picture, you can connect more fully. More completely,” said Landry.
“I’m proud I got to change my own tune and have (my kids) be witness to it,” she said.
“The ways you feel about food and your body will be a mirror for your children. More of the work is on caregivers to heal themselves and their ideologies around food and their body ... ”
EATING DISORDER SPECIALIST