Feature Archive

Mommy, Am I Fat?

Your child's self-image.

WebMD Feature

June 12, 2000 -- From the moment a cartoon entitled "Am I Fat?" appeared on a popular web site for adolescent girls, an email frenzy began. The cartoon poked fun at a teenager who worried constantly about her weight and felt guilty about eating a satisfying hamburger. But the email messages -- the largest response to any item ever displayed on Gurl.com -- were calls for help.

"I'd go anorexic if I had the guts," responded one teenage girl. "I am at the end of my pitiful rope," said another. Still others chorused: "I won't wear a bathing suit in public." "Boys only like me for my body." "I am 5 feet 6 inches tall and weigh 135 pounds. Am I fat?"

Eating disorders are the third most common illness among adolescent girls in the United States, according to a 1998 report by the American Medical Association. Even more shocking is a California Department of Health Services (CDHS) study showing that 80% of fourth-grade girls are dieting, statistics that have been echoed in many other places. Instead of reading Catcher in the Rye or playing the trumpet or kicking a soccer ball, girls are counting calories and fretting that their thighs are chubby. Boys have their share of troubles, too. While girls want to become wispy, boys want to become Hulk-like, with muscular shoulders and massive necks.

So what can parents do to give their children a healthy appreciation for the bodies they have?

A lot, says Karen Johnson, a vice president at the National Organization for Women, sponsor of the third annual "Love Your Body Day" set for September 20, 2000. She suggests a two-fold approach.

First, parents themselves would do well to stop looking in the mirror and saying some variation of "I'm so fat." "Parents can start by accepting their own bodies," says Johnson. "There are a lot of mothers who are defining themselves by what they're not." And fathers, too, can fall into that trap.

Second, she says, parents can give their children a strong dose of skepticism about whether the models on the pages of Sassy, say, represent a realistic ideal. "Models today weigh 23% less than the average woman," notes Johnson, citing statistics from the CDHS. Twenty years ago, models weighed only 8% less."

And exactly what does it take for models to maintain their emaciated faces, pencil-thin figures, and protruding collarbones? Lauren R. Weinstein, who draws the "Am I Fat?" cartoon, depicts fictitious models who describe themselves in these kinds of terms: "I'm a 16-year-old junkie," says one, alluding to the waif-like "heroin-chic" look currently popular in fashion ads. "I've been surgically altered," says another. As for the allegedly fabulous men these models date, says one of Weinstein's models, "They are mostly rich creeps who use me as a symbol of their power."

Debunking the myth that a flat tummy equals divine happiness is a service for self-conscious teenagers, and so is teaching children sane eating habits. According to Barbara Storper, MS, RD, founder of Foodplay Productions, a Northampton, Mass. company that stages performances across the country about healthy eating, the rule is astonishingly simple. "When you're hungry, eat," she says. "When you're full, stop."

"We don't suggest that parents put kids on diets," she says. "It sets up a cycle where people are craving what they can't eat." Instead, have healthy food around the house, don't get over-involved in how much the children are eating, and make exercise a part of daily life. Rather than collapsing on the sofa after dinner, she says, why not take a family walk?

Since food is inherently tied up with comfort, Storper also suggests listening to the emotional messages that a child might convey through overeating or undereating. "Try not to judge your children," she says. "Really listen." They might be saying, "You haven't been here," or "I'm really starved for attention."

Encourage children to pursue their interests with passion. The more they love astronomy, the less they'll obsess about wishing they could look like Julia Roberts or Richard Gere. The goal is for them to have fun and develop a sense of self, says Heather McDonald, one of the founders of Gurl.com and a co-author of a guidebook called Deal With It! "Encourage them to get involved in things that make them happy," she says. "They should know that exercise is more about movement that makes you feel good than 'I must get this weight off.' "

As cartoonist Weinstein wrote in response to the sad pleas she received from her teenage readers, "Imagine what we could do (and how much more fun we'd have) if we just focused on what we loved!"

Jane Meredith Adams has written for WebMD and numerous national publications including The Boston Globe.

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