by Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh, F.E.A.S.T.
I recently talked with a mom who was shaken and upset because her son was being bullied by classmates for his larger body size. Her instinctual response was to find a way to stop the bullying by helping her son diet.
She appealed to me as a fellow mother: her son was suffering and she wanted to help him.
When I pushed back, she argued: isn’t that the same thing I did, as a mother, in refeeding our child?
I wanted to explain to her that refeeding someone who is malnourished is not about making them look bigger. It is about addressing the energy deficit and growth stunting and the derailing of brain development that a mental illness was holding in place medically.
I wanted to argue with her for implying that higher weight was a mental health or necessarily a health issue.
But instead, I told her this story.
My mom is African-American. She grew up in a time when Black people rarely appeared in the mainstream media, advertisements, or even as dolls for little girls. There were automatic assumptions about the intelligence, the morality, and the health of those in the Black community. Employment, military service, neighborhoods, schools, hospitals and water fountains were segregated and not at all equal.
My mom and her brothers grew up in a society that portrayed and assumed them personally to be less intelligent, less attractive, and less motivated than their peers. My grandmother fought for them with resolve and ferocity: to get an education, to be active citizens, to live their lives and raise their children with dignity and self-worth. They grew up to be a teacher, a physician, and a restauranteur and they went on to raise the next generation, including myself. They rose above expectations in spite of society’s racist beliefs and bullying by peers and by adult society.
The solution to the racism they faced was not to make them White.
The solution to prejudice and bullying is not to accept the premise that it is deserved. Bullies only have power if others stand by helplessly. Our job as parents is to stand alongside anyone who is bullied, to face the bully and the prejudices together. The bullying was the problem, not this child’s body size, or skin color.
I have no way of knowing what this mother’s child’s body size was, or what his life was really like at school. I do know that my job when her son is bullied is to come alongside her, as she stands alongside her son, against pressure to conform based on his size or for any reason. This child’s health is not my business, and certainly not those bullies’ business.
I can’t lecture to this mother about what she should do about her son’s weight, but I can share what I’ve learned and believe about the futility and indeed the dangers of diet culture and weight stigma. I can share the data I have around the futility of dieting, and the value of HAES (Health at Every Size) and how I came to adopt that idea in my own life and my own parenting.
I can refuse to join in bullying of this mom, too, even while I disagree with her and worry that her fears about her son’s growing body will harm him, and harm their relationship. I know she is not alone in her thinking and I have some idea how she came to her beliefs — ones echoed and promoted by a majority of our healthcare providers and health policy-makers around the world. I once held them myself.
It is my hope that the paradigm shift is coming, that each of us is part of that. I believe I am on the right side of the science and the leading edge of societal paradigm shifting on this topic. I need to be confident in that, and vocal, and sympathize with those for whom giving up diet culture presents a terrifying acceptance of an appearance people fear, and of society’s assumptions. These are not going to change overnight.
We don’t change people’s color to fight racism. Let’s not stunt children’s growth to fight bullying.