On Raising Children
of Substance

By B. Shanewood
An interview with author and therapist
Jane R. Hirschmann

From Radiance Fall 1998

It is 1969, and I am at the lunch table in the cafeteria, sipping at my half-pint of cold milk and dreading what may await me in my Flintstones lunch box. I look around. Caroline has her usual squat thermos brimming with saucy ravioli or spaghetti loops with baby meatballs. That would be yummy. Of course, my favorite is right across from me in Maria’s brown bag: peanut butter and grape jelly on airy white bread, which is stained purple in the spots where the jelly has seeped through.

All I have been wanting for lunch lately is that purple-splotched sandwich, but my mother calls it candy and says it’s too fattening. Instead, I get tuna fish without mayonnaise, or chicken on whole wheat, a salad with homemade low-cal dressing, and an apple or an orange. My sister gets a better lunch. They say she is too thin and needs to put on weight.

Because my mother refuses to give me what I want, it has become a daily struggle between us, resulting in tantrums and punishments. I seethe. Why are there rules for my lunch that the other kids don’t have?

I vow that when I have a child she will have whatever she wants for lunch. I also vow that I will find a way to feed myself without my mother knowing.

It is 1989, and I am driving home from work when something catches my eye. I pull over to watch a ragtag group of children playing softball, coached by a handful of excited parents. Up at bat is a little fat girl. She is the fattest of the bunch. Fatter even than I was as a child. She is fat. Her little round belly sticks way out over the top of her shorts. I feel my heart start to pound and my vision blur. They are going to laugh at her. She’ll give up before trying to hit the ball and let her turn go by, the way I often did.

But this little girl is not me. She swings at the ball, tosses the bat, and surges toward first base, and then second and third and the ball is in the outfield and has eluded everyone. All the adults and the other children are cheering her on, and her stomach shakes and jiggles merrily as she runs, until she’s home, and I yell out for her through my window and pound my steering wheel.

Sadly, this scene is not typical when a fat child is involved. There are many kinds of violence in this world, some of which we have begun to address in the past few decades. But rarely do we address the emotional violence perpetrated against the fat child in our society.

The subject is very close to my heart.

In the following interview, Jane R. Hirschmann, M.S.W., a well-known psychotherapist and eating disorders specialist, and coordinator of the National Center of Overcoming Overeating, talks about the painful world of the heavy child and how we can make it better.

Although Hirschmann graduated in 1969 from the School of Social Work at the University of California at Los Angeles, she claims that her best training came from the years she spent as a compulsive eater on "every diet imaginable, going up and down, up and down, gaining it all back plus some more, once I was off the diet."

She began to work on her own issues with food in the early 1970s. Carol Munter, who, along with Hirschmann, wrote Overcoming Overeating (Fawcett, 1988) and When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies (Fawcett, 1995), formed her first antidiet group in 1970. In this group, in which Hirschmann participated, they posed certain questions: Why are we gaining weight and becoming depressed and sullen? Who says fat is bad? Where did we learn that? Is the problem with us, or with the diet industry?

Hirschmann began to believe that it might be possible, to give up dieting, make peace with food, and love her body at whatever size it happened to be.

And then she had her twin daughters and found herself fascinated by what was going on in parks, playgrounds, and schools. A mother would take food out of her child’s hand if the child was heavy. If a child was particularly thin, then he or she would be followed around by a mother wielding cookies and crackers and trying to stuff them into her child’s mouth.

Hirschmann wanted to take the approach she had already been using to help women with their food and body image issues and teach parents to help their children develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. She began to talk with therapist Lela Zaphiropoulos. Their book, Are You Hungry? (reissued in 1995 by Gurze Books under the title Preventing Childhood Eating Problems), first came out in 1985.

Hirschmann and Munter’s "Overcoming Overeating" seminars have gone national, and Hirschmann has twice appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show to talk about children and issues of body size.

We began our interview where it all began for many of us: with food.

SHANEWOOD: Why did you write Preventing Childhood Eating Problems, and when do the problems start?

HIRSCHMANN: I became very interested in how we might raise children without food and weight problems, how we might raise them to be totally comfortable with whatever size they are—because we come in all sizes and shapes.

As I see it, the problems start as soon as a mother takes her child for the first visit to the pediatrician’s office. The infant is placed on a scale, and at that moment every mother knows what’s happening: it is she who is being weighed in. It has nothing to do with the weight of the child. The mother asks herself, "Am I doing well at this job of mothering? So right at that first doctor’s visit, the mother not only questions her own abilities to mother, but weight is being flagged as potentially problematic as the pediatrician starts to chart the child’s height and weight.

Now, the doctor should tell the new mother, "You know, there’s a broad range of weights for children, and we want to chart your child to see that your child stays on his or her path." But that’s not what happens. What happens is, if the child is in a normative range, the mother breathes a sigh of relief. But if the child is in the high percentiles, the pediatrician will start discussing what the mother can do. What is she feeding the child? How much? How often? And the doctor might try to persuade her to manipulate the child’s appetite, which also manipulates the mother. If the child is in the lower percentiles, the pediatrician coaxes the mother to feed her child more food more frequently.

Nobody says, Isn’t this wonderful?, the way one might discuss the color of your child’s eyes. You’d never think of changing your child’s eye color or height or shoe size. So mothers shouldn’t get so caught up in numbers. The important thing is that the child is healthy. And you can tell that by a number of factors: appetite, skin tone, and activity level, for example.

SHANEWOOD: The book talks about self-demand feeding. What is that?

HIRSCHMANN: The body is self-regulatory, and eating is as natural as going to the bathroom or sneezing. Nobody has to tell you to do these things. But eating has become an obsession in this country, and we think that we should manipulate people’s hunger and satisfaction cues. We’ve been so manipulated by the diet industry to lose weight that the natural connection between hunger and eating has been severed.

Demand feeding is the process of eating when your body is hungry, exactly what your body requires at that moment—which only you can know, because that information comes from inside you—and stopping when you’ve had enough.

Now, if we believe that infants know when they’re hungry and when they’re full, why would we think that the infant can’t use this information throughout life, as a child and then as an adult? Why should we tamper with this basic instinct? Because as soon as that spoon hits the child’s lips for the first time, unfortunately, we lose confidence in her ability to feed herself in her own way, on her own time clock, at her own pace.

SHANEWOOD: What about parents who are obsessed with maintaining thin bodies: how can they help their heavy children develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies?

HIRSCHMANN: You see, that’s the problem: parents worry about what size their children are going to be because they themselves have not made peace with size issues. They have not figured out how to feel fabulous and beautiful and entitled at whatever size they are. They do not know how to be in the world the way they want to be, and they do not know how to let go of the notion that they’re not good enough just the way they are.

When a child is laughed at, or picked on, or not picked for the team, it’s very painful. It’s important that parents not collude with the culture. Even if they’re struggling with their own issues about self-acceptance and self-image, they must speak up against fat hatred on behalf of their children.

Parents need to say, "There’s really nothing wrong with my child’s size. What’s wrong is that the seats aren’t comfortable, the desks aren’t large enough, and the clothes aren’t comfortable...." Or, "Yes, my child is large, and she would like a candy bar." And that’s perfectly fine, because you don’t have to be punished for being large. She or he can have what everybody else has in this world. All children want candy bars.

If you stand up and take the subject on, you teach people that size is just a physical description, not a moral indictment. When a loving aunt says, "Do you think that she really should be eating that? Don’t you think she should be losing some weight?," parents get very thrown off. They either get very defensive—"Don’t tell me what to do with my kid"—or they get quiet. This sends a message to the child that there is something wrong with her body. What parents could say instead is, "You know, I think she should direct her own eating. She is a large child. She looks exactly like Uncle So-and-So, and she’s got our genes, and she’s just terrific."

SHANEWOOD: So we have to make this issue of size a nonissue.

HIRSCHMANN: Right. We have to be willing to speak up about it. We have to take on the subject wherever we see it even when kids are watching television. My kids are sick of me: here she comes with the social commentary. But you have to say to your children, "How many of the people you know look like the people on TV? Do you know many people who are this thin? Let’s look around and see all the shapes that people come in." Or, "Why are they making fun of that fat person? What is so funny about this?"

I want to tell you about a talk show I saw last week. The topic was teenagers over 400 pounds. My kids called me in to see it. The show’s heavy kids are depressed and crying and saying how terrible they feel. Then they bring on Richard Simmons. For forty-five minutes, he asks the kids in all different ways if they are ready to make a commitment. I remember thinking, What the hell is he talking about? What is he asking them to commit to? None of us could understand it.

Then he brings out each kid’s folder and talks about how many hours a day they watch television and asks if that’s what they want to do for the rest of their lives.

The best part was the surprise the show’s host had for Simmons. There was a heavy boy who had been on the show a year earlier, and Richard Simmons had worked with this boy, who was very desperate to lose weight. They bring him back on for a surprise reunion. So the boy walks out on stage, a lovely boy, who looks almost the same as he had the year before, which seemed perfectly fine to me. He sits down and someone asks him how much weight he lost in the past year, and the boy says twenty pounds. Simmons’s face drops. "Well, I guess you’re just gonna have to recommit," Simmons says. And the boy says that he has new role models. Simmons is one and Rosie O’Donnell is the other. He says that he wants to be an actor, that nothing is going to keep him from his dream, that he used to walk down the street with his head lowered because he was so ashamed, but now he walks down the street with confidence.

But for Simmons, this isn’t enough. He tells the boy that he’s been lazy and that he has to recommit.

It was so sad. The boy has confidence and goals and self-esteem, and all Simmons could say was that he had to lose the weight.

SHANEWOOD: How can we help children of substance develop a healthy sense of themselves?

HIRSCHMANN: "Children of substance": That’s an interesting phrase. I see all children as children of substance: it has nothing to do with size. Children are creative, spontaneous, and inquisitive. But adults often try to take that substance away by molding children into what they think is appropriate. Why would we want to do that?

One thin mother of a very large daughter came to see me because she wanted to know what to do with her daughter, who loved parading around in a bikini. The child thought it was just terrific. She loved the rolls on her body and wasn’t ashamed. She loved to dress up in clothing that showed off her body, and she enjoyed her body. She liked to move, liked to dance around, and was an athlete. The mother said, "I know it’s my problem, not hers, and I want to know what to do about it." This child was lucky to have such a mother.

SHANEWOOD: But often, even if a large child seems to be thriving and enjoying life, no matter what the kid does or achieves, the focus is on the weight.

HIRSCHMANN: True. I was working with a parent whose daughter was a very gifted rower. The daughter was gaining weight, and the school became concerned about whether or not she could go in the boat and stay on the team. She was headed for college rowing and was a very skilled and powerful athlete. Everyone wanted her to lose weight, and I told the parent that it was really the wrong way to go. I suggested that the mother go to the school and say that her daughter was becoming more and more powerful, that maybe her position in the boat was the wrong position, but that her daughter didn’t need to change her body size. Further, I said, just because she didn’t look the part didn’t mean she couldn’t play the part.

The parent had to work within herself to be able to do this, because she had swallowed the negative message about her daughter. Once the parent got clear about the issues, she could start supporting her daughter, and they became a strong duo.

SHANEWOOD: What about children who are afraid to move their bodies—to play outside and to exercise—because they’re fat?

HIRSCHMANN: So often movement seems to be used as a punishment for large children. When you say to your child, "Let’s take the steps instead of the elevator," who are you kidding? That child knows that this is the punishment for not being the size that Mommy and Daddy think she should be. "Normal" children are all taking the elevator—pushing the buttons and getting to their floor—instead of using their legs to get up there. The message—movement is in the service of changing your body because you’re not right—is terrible.

I’m very much for movement for children of all sizes, if it can give them pleasure and help them feel competent. That’s the goal of movement. So she likes to play volleyball? She should play volleyball. But to put her on a sports team just so that she’ll move and maybe lose some of "that weight" is problematic, because she will not be happy.

I would ask a child, "What do you like to do?" Maybe she’d like to dance. So let’s go to a tap dance class. Who is this child? Maybe this child doesn’t like to move. Maybe she likes to read, or draw, or do pottery. The goal is to think about what you would say to your child if she were in a thin body. Moving the body is healthy for everybody, but some kids are active and some are not. That’s who your kid is. Some kids are funny and outgoing; some are reserved. What’s the personality here? Don’t let the fat define the personality. It’s just one aspect of who the child is.

SHANEWOOD: I’m in the doctor’s office. with my heavy child, who is frightened about being weighed, about the inevitable lecture on obesity, about being reprimanded and humiliated.

HIRSCHMANN: If you have a large child, you need to call ahead to the doctor’s office and speak to the staff who are going to treat the child: all of them, office staff, nurses, doctors, all of them. This is what you need to say: "I have a large child and we’re coming in for an office visit. I don’t want any discussion of weight. I don’t want it. I don’t want you to talk to her about it. I don’t want you to put her down. This is a check-up. If what I want can’t happen, then I’ve got to find another physician."

If an office staff member says, "Well, we have to chart her height and weight," ask why. There’s no reason to do height and weight if you see a child regularly. Besides, the first one who’ll know if a child is not growing is the mother.

Many, many adult clients have told me how dreadful childhood visits to the doctor were. Nobody was advocating for them. If you had a child who was afraid to go to the dentist, you would take all precautions to make the visit a smooth one. You’d alert the dentist to the anxiety, you’d ask the dentist to explain all the steps to the child. You would walk the child through it and protect her. When we walk into pediatricians’ offices and let them say whatever they want to say, it really is not fair to the child. The child needs to be protected.

The minute you hear a weight discussion coming, you have to say, "Excuse me, we’re not going to have this discussion now. Please finish what you are doing, and then later on, you and I will talk and I’ll tell you some of my views, because I think she’s just fine the way she is."

A doctor is a paid consultant. You are paying him or her to consult with you about your child’s medical care, not to abuse your child. If a doctor is rude and condescending and authoritarian, why would you be there? How could you get good medical care that way?

If the nurse starts with the weighing business, you could say, "You know, we don’t do weight. We really feel that our daughter is growing fine. She’s lovely just the way she is, and she’s growing and she’s large. This is who she is, and we aren’t going to hop on scales. But if you want to bring it up with the doctor, because I know it’s your job to weigh each patient as part of the routine, I’ll tell the doctor what my thinking is on this issue." By witnessing this, the child will learn to protect herself in other instances.

SHANEWOOD: So what do you say to the doctor who tells the parent in private that it’s unhealthy for the child to be fat?

HIRSCHMANN: The doctor might say that he or she is so concerned about your large child, that it’s so unhealthy, that we know all the statistics on overweight children becoming obese adults. And you can say, "You know, all the statistics aren’t in yet on the relationship between health and obesity. But one thing is for certain: diets are unhealthy and make you fatter. We want our child to be very healthy and to live as long as she can and lead a very productive life. She’s been very healthy. She goes to school, she rarely comes to this office, she doesn’t have a million ailments. She hasn’t been sick. Why are you focusing on this? I understand where you’re coming from, because there are a lot of phobias in this country about fat people. And misconceptions: not all fat people are going to be sick as dogs and die early. My daughter is healthy."

Now if you have a large child who isn’t healthy, you’ll need to go another route. You might say, "You know, it’s true that my daughter has had a lot of colds this year. Let’s think about what we can do to prevent that for next year, because she’s missed a lot of school. But let’s not jump to the conclusion that it’s because she’s fat. Let’s get clear on this: I have a fat kid. That’s who she is. We’re not putting her on a weight-loss regime, because then she’ll get fatter and fatter and fatter. So are you willing to work with me on giving her good medical care?"

SHANEWOOD: How do we stand up for our heavy children in the school environment?

HIRSCHMANN: I support parents who try to help teachers become more aware of issues concerning children. A parent can go in and say, "My child comes to school and things are said that are very painful to her, not only by the children, but also by the adults. I really want there to be some awareness in the school about what it means to be large in this society, and for you to take this on as an issue, the way you take on other issues with the children."

SHANEWOOD: Suppose a child says that gym class is upsetting. Perhaps she never gets to choose sides for softball or basketball, or perhaps, despite the child’s obvious trepidation, the gym teacher forces the kids to compete with the more athletic kids.

HIRSCHMANN: You call up the gym teacher and say that you’d like to know why your child never gets chosen as a team captain. Children go to school to learn a lot of things. Why shouldn’t all children have the opportunity to move their bodies and play sports? Why should the gym teacher be determining ahead of time what the children are good at and what they’re not good at? We just can’t know unless we give everyone a fighting chance. A parent could say to the gym teacher, "I know that there’s a lot of prejudice out there about fat kids, that they don’t run as fast and may not be as good as others at certain sports, but they have just as much a right to enjoy something as any other kid in the class. Why not choose two large children to be captains next time?"

If you get nowhere with the gym teacher, you go to the principal. You organize with other parents, bring in articles, and start discussions. If the same problem happened in an academic class, you’d move in quickly. What’s important is for children to enjoy gym class and not feel upset about it. Why not figure out a way for the kids to do something in gym that everybody will have fun doing and be good at? Maybe get a friendly teacher to help you organize new activities.

SHANEWOOD: If you could change school curriculum to help children learn about the issues of body size, food, and eating, what would you do and when would you start?

HIRSCHMANN: When would you start? In nursery school. Absolutely. You need to start sensitizing kids when they are really young. People are going into junior high and high school these days, but I don’t know that anybody is starting with the very, very young. When my children went to nursery school, they did life-size body drawings and hung them up around the room. The kids lay down and traced one another’s bodies and then decorated the drawings and discussed the differences between the bodies in a nonjudgmental way. This kind of thing needs to be structured into school programs, and issues of body size need to be made more a part of the curriculum. Bring in people who are large to talk to the kids. Allow the kids to ask questions. Start educating them.

We want to help large kids get rid of what Carol Munter and I, in our book When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies, call bad body fever. We need to make sure they don’t stay infected with this disease into adulthood. We want to work not on slimming the children down, but on helping them get rid of all the bad body thoughts and accept who they are and their bodies. Parents can do this by all kinds of modeling and by speaking up.

I’ll tell you a wonderful lesson that I learned from a woman who was a member of REDO, the Rochester Eating Disorders Organization. She was a very short woman and very large. On our way to Rochester, where I was going to give a talk, we stopped at a mall to pick up food for the conference. We walked into the mall and suddenly a little girl said to her mother, "Mommy, look at that fat lady!" Her mother hushed the girl up and began to pull her away, totally embarrassed. My colleague walked over to them and said, "You don’t have to hush her up. You don’t have to take her away. This is not an embarrassment." She said to the little girl, "Yes, I am probably one of the fattest ladies you’ve ever seen. I am very fat. And you know what? I’m also a schoolteacher, I love to paint, and I have a son your age. What do you like to do?" And they started to talk back and forth.

That was a very early lesson for me in size acceptance. It was fabulous. The large woman didn’t feel defensive. She taught the mother something, and she taught the daughter something: I’m not embarrassed about who I am, is what she said, and, Yes, this is me. And there’s much more to me than my size. Let me tell you how much more there is. And who are you? This is the kind of exchange we need to make available to children.

SHANEWOOD: So how do we help our fat child in a similar situation, when she comes home from school after being confronted about her size and feels demoralized?

HIRSCHMANN: We have to help the child learn to speak up. She could say, "Yes, I’m fat. So what? Why is that a problem? I don’t like the tone of voice you’re using. I think you’re trying to make fun of me, and I don’t get it. Just because I’m fat? Do I make fun of your height or the grade you got yesterday? I don’t do that and I don’t like what you’re doing." Or, if the kid can’t do this, she might just say, "Ouch. That hurt."

There’s no standard response. But you have to say to your child, "What’s wrong is not you. What’s wrong is the children who are being cruel. You don’t have to hide or be ashamed of who you are. Let’s figure out how you can respond. How might you stand up to these bullies? We’ll work on it together. We’ll practice."

You’ve got to help the child find her voice. We need to tell her that it can be a tough world out there. You might say, "There will always be cruel children who’ll pick on other children, so I don’t think it’s a question of changing your size. I think it’s a question of learning to speak up for yourself."

SHANEWOOD: What should a teacher say to children who tease the large child?

HIRSCHMANN: I think that teachers need to be aware of all kinds of teasing, and they need to stop it. They might say, "We don’t speak that way here. We don’t like to see children attacked. Any kind of attack hurts." A teacher who sees a fat child being teased could jump in and say, "Yeah, that’s right, Susie’s fat. It’s part of who she is. You’re short. He’s tall. This one has blue eyes. This one has brown hair. What do you think is wrong with being fat?"

The kids might reply, "Well, it’s not good to be so fat. She can’t run like we can."

And the teacher might say, "Maybe she can’t run like you can. Can you do math like she can? Can you spell like he can? You know, we’re all different here. We all have different qualities. Where did you get the idea that everyone has to be skinny? What do your mommy and daddy look like? Is there anybody fat in your family?"

"Yeah! My grandma!"

"How does it feel to hug your grandma?"

"Oh, I like it!"

"It’s nice to be hugged by someone fat, isn’t it? Who else knows fat people? Let me tell you about some people I know who are very successful and very fat."

Then the teacher could teach a history lesson on various fat people: musicians, historical figures, movie stars, and so on. She could bring in pictures and put them up. She could ask the students to bring in a list of the five fattest people they know and love. With very young students, Santa Claus and Rosie O’Donnell would be at the top of the list!

SHANEWOOD: It seems that in the media, fat children are depicted as buffoons or weaklings or sad sacks or crazies. Many children rebel against the very idea of socializing with a fat child, even before meeting the child. How do we begin to turn this around?

HIRSCHMANN: We have to believe that change is possible and begin inside ourselves. Many of us have swallowed the cultural ideal, and it’s necessary to challenge this thin ideal. Then we can look at our children and say to ourselves, There is nothing about my child that needs fixing or changing. What needs changing is the fat hatred in the world.

We need to see the beauty in our children. ©

B. SHANEWOOD is a teacher and writer from Connecticut, where she lives with her two cats, who are teaching her about peace of mind.


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