No, I won’t weigh your daughter

measuring tape on a weighing scale

“She just doesn’t understand that she can’t be like her friends. They all go out and get chocolate bars and junk food and I just need someone to make her understand that she’s not a normal teenager. Dancers can’t do those things.”

The woman on the phone kept up her diatribe, hardly drawing breath.

“I’d also like her weight and body fat percentage measured so that she can monitor that. Do you do that?”

Finally, an opportunity for me to speak. I should probably have been a bit more choosy with my words, but then hindsight is 20-20, right?

“No, I don’t weigh any of my clients and I don’t do skin callipers either. I deal a lot in the disordered eating space so I think we have to be very careful how we speak about food and bodies, especially with teen athletes like your daughter.”

“Oh yes, of course…”

“I’m more than happy to see you and your daughter. We can look at how to maximise her training but I’d also look at her relationship with food. Make sure that’s healthy, you know?”

“Oh okay. Well, I’ll have a look at my calendar and get back to you.”

She never did back to me. Looking back, I could have handled the situation with lot more sensitivity. When you deal with a lot of these ‘dance mom’ types, it can be easy to demonise them. It’s so obvious to me that they are fuelling disordered eating in their child. And it’s easy to forget that they’re probably doing that because they themselves have issues with food and their body, and they could probably use some help, too.

Over the last decade of working in the disordered eating/eating disorder realm, I’ve discovered that there are many well-meaning parents, coaches, teachers, and health professionals giving advice. But their advice is misguided and they are actually creating eating issues.

I should know, because I used to be one of them.

Long, long ago, in a time known as the pre-COVID era, I got my first dietitian job. Part of the job was to conduct nutrition sessions with kids in primary schools. Sounds like a young, naive, dietitian’s dream, right?

I would enter the classroom and sit the kids in a circle on the mat. And then I would lay out cards of different takeaways. The classic McDonalds meal, sushi, Subway, Wendys, you name it.

“Yum!” the kids would call out and I’d chuckle at them before dramatically pulling out test tubes of dishwashing liquid (pretend fat) to show much fat was in each meal. The “Yum!”s quickly turned into “Ew!”s and then came the part I hated. I would hold up a card showing clogged arteries.

Their shocked little faces shocked me. “Is that what happens when you eat McDonald’s?”

No, child, it’s not. This is a scare tactic we grown ups use to make you feel bad for wanting McDonald’s.

From my very first session, I felt weird about it. I didn’t like scaring the children like that. After a while, when I was on my own and not with a colleague or a supervisor, I’d just leave that clogged artery picture in the box. But even then, the whole test tubes of fat thing felt wrong. This uncomfortable feeling would gnaw at my insides and I would dread those sessions. Was I damaging those children?

Because really, we should let them have McDonald’s. But we should only do it occasionally, as a real treat. And when we take them, they can have whatever they want and we shouldn’t make them feel bad about it, because we know it’s not a common occurrence and most of the time they get served food that helps them grow and stay healthy. That’s what modelling a healthy relationship with food looks like. But I sure wasn’t doing it in that job.

Teachers doing activities with the class that have them divide foods into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ categories. Mums refusing cake saying things like, “Oh no, I better not, I’m trying to watch my weight.” Coaches weighing their athletes and monitoring their body fat. These things make a difference, but it’s not the positive difference they think. They add fuel to the fire of disordered eating.

And it’s why I won’t weigh my clients. But next time I talk to a parent who is ruining their child’s relationship with food and their body, I’ll try to remember that they mean well. Like I meant well with those kids that I did the nutrition sessions with. They’ve just been taught the wrong way to go about it.

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