Recently, my nine-year-old daughter and I were eating lunch with my mom at a popular Italian restaurant chain. As an eating disorder survivor, I pay close attention to my daughter’s eating habits and am hypervigilant about any food-restrictive behaviors. Anyone who struggles with this knows it’s hell and that it takes a while to form new, healthy relationships with food and your body. If you can catch it before it takes root, everyone will be much better off in the long run.
I’ve never told my daughter about my own issues with food, so when she ordered pasta with marinara and a side of broccoli, I was surprised. This would’ve been fine, had it been someone else’s kid or if it was what my daughter was intuitively craving. I observed quietly and as her food arrived, I watched her pick over her pasta, barely eating anything. One could assume one of two things: Either she wasn’t hungry or she didn’t like her food. I knew it wasn’t the former, because before we ate, she was saying how hungry she was, so it had to be the latter. Not liking what you order is one thing, but I asked curiously why she didn’t order her usual alfredo pasta. Her response? She said it had too many calories. I’m like, “How do you even know that?”
This restaurant had listed calories on a kids’ menu.
As you can imagine, my head was about to explode and I had to restrain myself from storming out of the restaurant. However, I kept in mind that this was a teachable moment. I asked my sweet, innocent baby girl if my suspicions were true and if she ordered something that she didn’t want because of the calories on the menu. She was very honest, but also ashamed because we have talked extensively before about eating what you are hungry for, whether it’s a salad or a cheeseburger, and that neither choice is better than the other. I have always taught her that she has complete food freedom. She doesn’t have to be “good” when it comes to food. I spoke to the waiter explaining she didn’t like the item she ordered and that she’d like the alfredo to go. The server was kind and didn’t make me pay, but I wouldn’t have cared either way. You cannot put a price on emotional health. My daughter knew this was done out of love, and when she got in the car, she ate ALL of the alfredo and said, “Thank you, mommy, this is yummy for my tummy.” I could’ve cried.
The danger of calorie counts on menus
Based on my experience, calories should be banned from all menus because it’s extremely triggering for those recovering from eating disorders, thus potentially perpetuating these disorders, especially in young people.
In fact, according to a Psychology Today article written by psychotherapist F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W. based in New York City, many who struggle with eating issues say that “having the calorie count doesn’t do a thing for them—except, in some cases, to make them feel more ashamed of what they eat.”
I know, because I was once the little girl worried about what I ate every single day.
Since I was 12, I have struggled with an eating disorder: Atypical anorexia. Anorexia nervosa is often characterized by abnormally low body weight caused by malnourishment. However, contrary to popular stigmas around anorexia, a person can exhibit restrictive behaviors, an intense fear of gaining weight, and other features of the disorder without meeting the low weight criteria for a diagnosis of anorexia. This is called atypical anorexia. Even though I was practicing unhealthy behaviors around gaining weight, my doctors didn’t diagnose me with anorexia, because I was within a normal weight range. For me, being a woman of color and having atypical anorexia was not a common thing. In my own personal experience, we didn’t speak about anxiety or depression, so you can imagine the lack of conversation around having a healthy relationship with food. I think this needs to change for the sake of our own children.
Courtesy Achea Redd
Education, starting with our kids, is imperative. What that education is, however, is still yet to be determined. But one thing’s for sure: calorie count, whether it’s what we eat or what we burn off, is not the issue. “We need an overhaul of our national and personal attitudes towards health and beauty,” writes Barth. “It would also be helpful to let go of thinness as the holy grail of health. As a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association tells us, healthy bodies come in all sizes—as do unhealthy ones. Oz Garcia, writing for the Huffington Post, says it: ‘Being thin does not equate to good health.'”
We need to start checking ourselves on how we are making these messages that the perfect body exists, or that it’s OK to be fat-phobic and cruel to people in the world who live in larger bodies, especially around our children. We aren’t innocent of this, and it is actually shameful the way we disrespect and treat the community of women—of kids—who have larger bodies. Social media is a HUGE supporter of these messages, which fuel the decisions to put calories on a children’s menu. But the reality is that “perfect” doesn’t exist.
These are the moments where we have the opportunity to change the narrative in our daughters to be counter-culture. We have to teach our girls that they are not their bodies. They are more than what’s on the outside and that most of what’s on social media and TV is filtered. We have to teach them that beauty is the kindness in their hearts and the love in their actions. We have to show them how to have positive relationships with other women. To lift each other up, not bring them down.
It’s time to start teaching our kids that they don’t have to be anything or anyone other than who they are. Confidence is the most beautiful quality any person can have, regardless of the size body they live in. Health at every size is possible and that is the only thing we need to be concerned with. Health over a certain size waist or jean size. The message for our children shouldn’t be around calories consumed or calories burned. The message should be around their own unique wants and needs. To be free to be who they are, whatever that looks like—and for us to celebrate the moments where they choose to be themselves over any shape or size.
Editor’s note: The opinions here belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Trusted Media Brands. To submit your own idea for an essay, email [email protected].