Archive | June, 2013

Baby weight (or banishing fat shame)

7 Jun
This is how we celebrate food and our bodies!

This is how we celebrate food and our bodies!

Yesterday, I was crouched on the floor at our neighbourhood baby drop-in. Daphne was proudly pulling herself up and babbling, as I stared at her with sleep-deprived, adoring eyes. A woman who takes care of three-year-old twins across the street looked over at her and declared: “Wow, she’s getting fat. What are you feeding her?” As I struggled to come up with a sufficiently smart-assed response, she continued:

“And you are getting so skinny. Not chubby like before. Do you remember how chubby you were? I thought you would never lose the baby weight.”

Once, again I was too shocked to respond with a sarcastic retort. Instead, I mumbled something about how it took nine months to make a baby and another nine to get back into my jeans. But I found myself stewing all day, wishing I had taken the opportunity to challenge this woman on her snap judgements about weight, attractiveness and general health.

There is so much to unpack in that brief exchange. First and foremost, the notion that an 11-month old baby is “too fat” represents the projection of our cultural obsession with thinness onto a child who hasn’t even taken her first steps. And it’s such a pernicious contradiction from the messages that mothers get in a baby’s first few weeks of life. At first, we are told that our babies’ weights need to double and triple. Breast feeding women are pushed to supplement with formula, even if their babies are perfectly healthy and getting plenty of breast milk. But after a few months, we are told to worry about whether our chubby babies will turn into obese adults. Adding to the general panic, many breast feeding advocates argue that formula will inevitably lead to childhood obesity, piling even more guilt and worry onto mothers (like me!) who choose to bottle feed their babies.

When I was growing up, the media focused a lot on the dangers associated with eating disorders and the importance of improving girls’ self-esteem. As I wrote about a few years ago, the societal obsession with the “obesity crisis” has changed the conversation completely and only increased the pressure on teens and young girls. Instead of focusing on food security, walkable neighbourhoods and physical activity, the discourse is focusing almost entirely on the number on a scale. And as Paul Campos (and many Health at Every Size advocates) argue, the “obesity crisis” is largely a manufactured one. There is so much I would love to quote from Campos in this article on the moral panic over obesity, but here are a few good tidbits:

The correlations between higher weight and greater health risk are weak except at statistical extremes. The extent to which those correlations are causal is poorly established. There is literally not a shred of evidence that turning fat people into thin people improves their health. And the reason there’s no evidence is that there’s no way to do it. 

(…)

… the increased risks associated with being heavy come from (such as they are), many of them come from weight cycling, which is clearly bad for people, and which is the outcome of 98% of diets. Others come from the stress and social discrimination generated by having what’s considered an inappropriate body in this culture. Others come from diet drugs, eating disordered behavior, poverty — all things strongly associated with higher than average weight.

(…)

…  if there’s one thing fat kids need, it’s to be made to feel bad about feeling fat. The current stigmitization of fat kids is essentially child abuse as government policy, and the people behind it are, as far as I’m concerned, either incredibly stupid or very evil or in some cases both.

The other part of yesterday’s exchange that was disturbing was the approval I was suddenly granted for being less fat. Let’s be clear — I am not a small person. Even though I have now lost all of the “baby weight,” I wear a size 14 and my weight is still considered “too high” on the (flawed) Body Mass Index. I cook and eat healthy food and get a reasonable amount of exercise. I make it to the gym or a yoga class when I can and rarely use the car. But unless I severely restrict my caloric intake (weighing and measuring every bite that goes into my mouth), my weight will continue to hover where it is now. And I am okay with that.

I wasn’t one of those women who dropped all of the pregnancy weight after a month of breastfeeding. It took almost a year to be able to wear my clothes again. And though I am loathe to admit it, I did use a commercial diet program for a few weeks, to help me get a handle on my eating habits. I felt sheepish about that decision, but I soon returned to the form of intuitive eating that works best for me. I feel comfortable in my skin, but am deeply disturbed when people give me approval for being “less fat” than I was a few months ago.

Even though my daughter is only 11 months old, I work hard to model positive attitudes about food and eating. The only message I want to impart is that food is delicious and that we are so lucky to be able to afford to fill our bellies with such healthy and appetizing choices. And I will kiss her chubby belly and squishy arms every second I can.

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The people in our neighbourhood

4 Jun
Neighbourhood slide showdown with her BFF

Neighbourhood slide showdown with her BFF

I grew up in the suburbs and didn’t really know our neighbours. For some reason, the street we lived on in Thornhill, Ontario was rather transient in nature. We lived in our house until I moved away and went to university, but many other families only stayed for a year or two and then moved deeper into the 905 regions of Markham and Richmond Hill.

I vaguely remember hanging out with a few other kids when I was really young — ex-pat Jewish South Africans who didn’t stick around into the mid-1980s. But I didn’t have much connection with my street, because I always went to schools that were out of our neighbourhood. At first, my parents sent us in taxis to a private Jewish school, and then I attended specialized arts public schools that required me to take at least two public transit buses. I received an excellent education, but my friends never lived within walking distance.

My parents moved to a new house when I was away at university, so I rarely go back to the street where I grew up. My sense of family isn’t rooted in a particular community or geographic place. So I never randomly bump into people I went to high school with when I go home to visit family.

My roommate in first year university was the child of a single mother and grew up in the heart of Toronto’s Little Italy. She was the quintessential downtown kid — comfortable riding the street car at 2am, quietly street smart and cultured in a way that I envied. My family was never really suburban in the traditional sense of the word. We went downtown often, attended lots of theatre and ate in interesting restaurants. But it was always a long schlep to get anywhere. We needed to leave the house an hour before any dinner reservation. And I always had to make sure to catch the last TTC ride home, curbing late-night teenage adventures. I hated walking across the deserted parking lot of Finch subway station to retrieve the family car and drive the rest of the way home. It was too quiet. I always preferred the noise and bustle of downtown to the eery silence of deserted suburbia.

I am delighted to be raising a baby in an inner city neighbourhood. Our house cost a lot more than an equivalent property would have in the suburbs, but the trade-offs are so worth it for us. I have never felt isolated as a new parent, not even for a second. The coffee shop down the street is a magnet for young families, and the baby drop-in at the elementary school nearby is always bursting at the seams. The neighbours across the street with 3-year-old twins routinely drop off boxes of hand-me-downs. The family members living on a fixed income down the street are the first to assist elderly neighbours with snow shovelling and other physical tasks. A woman I met at a breastfeeding drop-in at the community health centre recognized me eight months later and invited us to a block party. Daphne has five close friends who live within a ten-minute walk away.

We live near a busy intersection and our nearest pharmacy is home to a methadone clinic. When we put our recycling out at night, all of the beer bottles are removed by morning by people who could use the spare change. I occasionally see a couple of sex workers on Gladstone street, discreetly conducting their business. None of these things bother me. They are part of the fabric of a city. I want my child to grow up knowing that not everyone grows up in a privileged environment and that our neighbourhoods have room for all sorts of people.

Luckily, Daphne is too young to discriminate. She enthusiastically waves “hi” to everyone we see. The people in our neighbourhood.