My Personal Journey to Health + 10 Year Olds Are More Afraid Of Getting Fat Than Cancer

I have a few very vivid memories of three ages in my life.

1. My family is driving in New Buffalo Michigan during our annual summer vacation, and we’re playing one of my favorite songs, “I Think About You” by Collin Raye. I start bawling because I just turned nine, and so my favorite part of the song “I think about you, eight years old, big blue eyes and a heart of gold” no longer applied to me. It was devastating in the way you can only be devastated at nine years old.

2. I’m twelve years old and it’s 11:50 PM – I’m writing furiously in my journal about how terrified I am about turning thirteen, officially a “teenager.” I was terrified in the way only a twelve year old can be.

3. I’m fourteen years old. It’s around midnight and my best friend Kaitlin and I are in the middle of yet another summer sleepover. We always make funny videos when we’re together, and tonight is no exception. This particular night we stage a commercial where Kait is advertising Neutrogena face wash and I am pretending to jump out of a hot air balloon decoration that we take down from the ceiling and pretend is true-to-size. I think in this same night we are filming a dance to Britney Spears’ “Toxic” or something by Jesse McCartney. A lot of dances were filmed on a lot of nights, so it’s hard to remember. We eat a lot of puffy Cheetos and Twizzlers. I was carefree in the way that only a fourteen year old can be.

One thing that I never, ever, ever, ever, ever worried about when I was this age was being fat.

In a recent TED talk, Jess Baker talked to the audience about Complete and Total Body Love. I’m not going to sit here and act like what she said was revolutionary or full of new information, because it wasn’t. I’ve heard it all before. Only 4% of women will openly label themselves as beautiful. I don’t think that means 96% of women think they’re ugly, but if I had to pick a better word I would guess it’d “inferior” in some way. Inferior, therefore not beautiful, not enough. Just uncomfortable simply declaring themselves as beautiful.

There was, however, something that stuck with me.

  • 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. It’s their biggest fear. They’re more afraid of this than cancer or losing their both parents. 40% are trying to lose weight.

In high school I remember babysitting an adorable four year old girl and her brothers. The boys were throwing a football around and I was pushing her on a swing. She loved swinging high and then jumping off, just like I did when I was that age. It felt like flying. But as soon as her feet hit the ground, she lifted up her shirt, turned around and said “I’m fat” and proceeded to cry. I was stunned silent.

What kind of world do we live in where a four year old even knows what fat is?

I am a healthy person. Most people in this community are healthy or are recovering from previously unhealthy habits and are here for support to find peace with their bodies and health. I don’t talk much about it on the blog but I struggled with body acceptance for four years at the end of high school and into college. It wasn’t until my late teens that I really started to be afraid of becoming fat. I won’t patronize those of you who had very, very serious EDs but for years I thrived on a set of eating rules that, if I didn’t follow, the anxiety would build up and I would find myself in the bathroom getting rid of the “mistake” as soon as possible for fear that one bad meal would derail everything I was working towards (Side note: I followed my rules very, very well so I wasn’t doing this often, but only when I broke my rules). In college I could have the huuuuge brownie sundae after dinner but only if dinner was broccoli. I tried diet pills, laxatives and other scams. I even had one summer where I made sure to eat the exact same foods every day and follow the same workout regimen, and when it started working and I lost a ton of weight, I was terrified to change up any of the foods I ate. So there it was: 5 mile run at 5am, Kashi cereal at 7am, Supersize Diet Coke at 7:30am, Fiber One Bar at 10:00am, PB&banana sandwich + yogurt and a Diet Coke at 1:00pm, 14 animal crackers at 4:00, and a piece of fish and veggies at 7:00 after a full day as a summer school gym teacher, camp counselor, and part-time waitress. Every day for almost three months. I loved rules and I love love loved schedules. And yes, I lost weight, looked great and had a killer tan. But the anxiety that came when food was mentioned or present was downright insane. When I look back and think about how scary food was, it’s crazy and, even more so, sad.

So what changed me? Reading these blogs. I started out with KERF the next summer during a particularly boring day at my internship and the love of food blogs just spun out from there. Food was photographed, celebrated, shared, discussed, tweaked, perfected and LOVED. It wasn’t feared but it also wasn’t abused. It was simply loved. The bloggers all filled their plates with whole foods, with everything from vegetables and hormone-free chicken to chocolate and butter-laden croissants with full fat lattes. Food was food. It wasn’t a weapon or something that needed constant control. I slowly but surely got rid of the rules and ate what I wanted, when I wanted, but made sure it was mostly whole, real food, not a science experiment, something my body quickly started to appreciate. The month after I gave up Diet Coke the stomach issues that I had been dealing with for years vanished. I quit sugar-free lattes soon after and saw an even bigger improvement in how I felt. I started to realize that the improvement of my overall health was like a domino effect. I ate better, I worked out harder, I gained muscle (AND weight), and I never felt better. And it all came because I started to treat my body well because I loved it, not because I wanted to change it.

Okay so why the personal story?

This struggle, this irrational fear, happened when I was relatively old enough to understand what was happening. That’s not to say I wasn’t young and naive and had that “why aren’t I skinnier than her?” mentality, but I always knew what I was doing was wrong and I think I was just waiting for something to come along and help me get better. Bottom line, I wasn’t ten years old. When I was ten years old I was sprinting to my stereo when I heard Radio Disney play a song I loved so I could hit “record” on a cassette tape and save it forever. I was scootering past my cute neighbor’s house non-nonchalantly because I wanted to. I chased my first crush around my living room and pinned him to a chair just so I could kiss him on the cheek. I recorded videos with my best friend in my basement not because I wanted to see how many likes it would get on Instagram but because we were goofy and young and happy. I did all this, all these happy things, and was the most confident of my life, and I looked like this:

1

I snagged all the boys in junior high, let me tell you. Ok, I know it’s not THAT bad, but come on, it’s without a doubt an awkward phase. But I had no idea I was anything but me. I would have never called myself awkward, chunky, chubby, or any of the words that might pop into my head now, because I didn’t even know those words were an option to call myself.

Now, how did I look when I was following my rules, regulations, and worshiping the mental anxiety of food control?

167243_1695918554994_7040459_n

The best part is, I still thought I wasn’t skinny enough! It still took me an hour to pick out an outfit because I thought I looked too wide in most of my clothes and ended up wearing something dark and slightly baggy to hide my flaws.

I’m not sharing this to talk about me. What I can’t believe after watching that TED video is that 10 year olds around the world are going through the same pain and confusion that I went through an entire decade later, at a time when I was too busy being a kid to even know what “enough” was. I don’t know when the memo went around that we have to start “being” something or that our everyday existence just wasn’t enough anymore, but 10 year olds being more afraid of getting fat than getting cancer is TERRIFYING.

I don’t think the solution is to allow children to gain weight as much as they want and tell them that it’s all okay as long as they have beautiful personalities. Because while the inside is what’s more important, how you view your body can really affect the way you participate in the world. But the message HAS to stop being so simple. Do this, lose weight, ta-da, happiness! No. A good relationship with real, true, healthy food (butter and cheese included) will lead to a healthy relationship with our internal hunger cues, which will then lead us to have more energy to participate in active exercises, which will then require more healthy/whole foods, which will result in the best weight for our individual body (not necessarily stick thin but perfect for us as an individual), which will boost confidence and help us make healthier, more active lifestyle choices, and the whole cycle will continue into adulthood and beyond. Not everyone has to agree with me but that’s just my two cents. I can’t wait to get started on my journey into a health and fitness profession so I can start to make a difference in how people view food and fitness and then they can pass that knowledge onto their kids so this ridiculous, heinous, irrational fear can evaporate, especially in such young children.

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35 comments

  1. I think I had the exact same feeling when I was little – always afraid of growing up! Everything you’ve said in this post is so true. A few weeks back I posted the results of a research study saying that 54 percent of women would rather be hit by a car than be fat. WHAT?! I was surprised, but then again I wasn’t. We’re doing research in my lab right now showing that yes, starting at 10 girls are struggling with body image concerns. It’s why I do the work that I do. It’s why I’m going back to school. I honestly don’t know how to change it, but it has to change. There are just too many of us struggling.

    1. I can’t wait to hear about all the work you want to do. That’s so cool. It really is an unacceptable world to raise our kids in. I’ve never heard that statistic but oh my GOD that’s so, so sad. It just goes to show that we’d rather be in physical pain than struggle with the mental pain of fearing/being fat.

  2. Fantastic post, and really brave to put out there. I unfortunately do remember being extremely conscious of my weight, from an early age (at least as early as 3rd grade, if not before). I was chunky–I ate a lot and a did a lot, and I was surrounded by skinny girls. But it still didn’t really change my eating habits, I just would have those momentary panics. I started to try to control my weight after I was diagnosed at 13, which is ironic, but I gained a lot of steroid weight, and I entered high school, and there you have it. I think one of the biggest problems in our country today is the lack of education regarding actual healthy habits–the focus should be on moderation, balance, and knowing what helps us rather than hurts us. I will say that it doesn’t surprise me that children are more worried about getting fat than cancer–at that age, you still are very much in-the-moment (thus why you skirt rules about sunscreen and your vitamins, etc). So, if anything, rather than saying, this/that will stave off cancer, we need to promote that proper (but not too much) amounts of this/that will help give you clearer skin, better breath, shinier hair–cheat the system a bit, but keep it off of weight, necessarily, and instead promote proper portion control and allocation of nutrients.

  3. This post made me cry. I am SO SO SO afraid of my daughter feeling that way about herself. I was actually thinking about this last night. Betty is big for her age. She’s 2 and a half but wears 4T clothes. She has always been tall. The doctor said she’s going to be very tall when she gets older. That said, last night we were out to dinner and this nice old lady comes up to us and is telling us how cute she is. It was really kind. She was touching her face a little too much for my liking, but she was really old so whatever. Then she pinched her cheeks and told her how much she loves these chubby kids and it felt like I got a punch in the gut. When she was really little it still annoyed me when people would comment on her size, but now that she’s getting a little older and is so aware of EVERYTHING I am so afraid that someone is going to say something like that to her and it’s going to stick. I made sure to switch the subject as quickly as I could so that Betty wouldn’t have time to think about what the lady had just said.

    Anyway…that’s my rant. I know what it’s like to be afraid of weight gain and it already pains me to think of her going through what I did and then to hear that statistic just drives home how warped our society really is.

  4. Wonderful post Lauren!
    I think if you bring children up knowing what food really is – helping them to make good choices and developing their palate with different flavours – and spend time with them running around, playing and making exercise fun and something the whole family does – then a healthy child should develop into a healthy adult.

  5. I very clearly remember being in third grade and thinking for the first time that I weighed too much. Since I was all of eight years old at the time, my parents packed my lunch for me every day, and I remember deciding that for two weeks I wouldn’t eat the cookie my mom put in my lunchbox. That didn’t happen (apparently I’ve never had self-control when sweets are available to me 😉 ), but the idea that I needed to lose weight pretty much always stuck with me. It’s mindboggling to me that I thought that, especially when I look back at pictures because HOLY SMOKES was I a stick when I was little, but my goodness. I obviously didn’t need to lose weight, nor did I ever make any actual effort to lose weight (I mean, good heavens, I was in elementary school. What was I really going to do?), so I don’t know what put it in my mind that I wasn’t skinny enough, because it’s not like anyone would have ever told me that — they always said the opposite, in fact. It really makes you wonder where kids pick up these kinds of ideas about self-worth and self-image to see just how young people start body-shaming themselves.

    1. Oh my gosh I can’t imagine being eight years old and thinking I should limit my cookies haha. I had the same problem growing up – no one EVER told me I was big or anything it was all just in my head, created by my mind. So I can’t even imagine what people go through when others tell them they need to lose weight or something when they’re little. So sad! I just hate the body-shaming and that wasn’t even on my radar at that age

  6. as a female, the journey toward being comfortable with your body and learning to love yourself while still trying to maintain your health and make wise choices is something so many of us struggle with, and it’s always encouraging to read other girls’ real life stories and be able to empathize with and cheer for one another. i’ve had my own struggles with a healthy body image and what it means to be “thin” versus “strong and healthy,” and i admit there are still days where i battle with the mirror or a picture or my own internally skewed concept of what “beautiful” should look like. but your point about affecting young girls and how this is a cyclical problem is well-taken and something i hope we as women and society as a whole continues to address and work on changing. reminds me of the Dove campaigns, which i love.

    1. The battle between “as thin and possible” and “strong/healthy” is a tough one – but once you feel how great it is to be strong it’s amazing. I love Dove campaigns – I think they perfectly and poignantly get the point across.

  7. Thanks for sharing this Lauren- it definitely gave me something to think about! I would have NEVER thought about ten year olds being worried about being fat, because like you, it never crossed my mind until later in life, but with how much things have changed in society, it doesn’t surprise me all that much after I thought about it. I struggled with my weight when I was in high-school and sadly, the majority of the reason was because I was in an unhealthy relationship, but I think different people have different triggers or anxieties.

    sidenote: I had SO many cassettes of songs I recorded from the radio! makes me feel so old!

  8. This post was awesome, Lauren- It must have been hard to share your struggles but correlate it to the story- and honestly, it doesn’t surprise me- with the media and social media a pivotal part of childhood these days- I honestly can only see it taking a downward spiral. I wish I could appreciate myself back in the days when I thought myself as fat- even as a guy.

  9. Your description of being 14 is so identical to mine.. I really love this post, though. I think most girls went through a period in their life with body issues, but I love reading about when people come out on the other side a happier and healthier person 🙂

  10. Love your thoughts on this! I’ve seen a few of the Ted talks, but I haven’t watched this one yet. Can’t wait to watch it and see what she says. I’m VERY similar to you in that I had body acceptance issues, but not until my high school years at least. I can’t imagine worrying about something I can barely comprehend at such a young age. The last thing 10 year olds need to be worrying about is how they look especially in a world that focuses way too much on looks later in life. I guess it’s inevitable though with how the media is nowadays.

    1. I wonder what the solution is…it’s not like people can tell their kids not to watch TV or close their eyes when they see billboards. I really wonder if it’s enough to teach them about eating well and being active. It’s scary thought to think I could have a daughter and she could be infected so early with those kinds of thoughts

  11. I wish I could say that at ten, I wasn’t worried about my body. I grew up tall and I grew up chunky (even though I played so many sports). I definitely didn’t have a healthy body image at ten and was always dreaming of being thin. I spent plenty of years at a healthy weight hating my body, but I think I’ve finally reached acceptance that my body is what it is. I can make it stronger, but I’m never going to be rail thin, and ya know what? That’s perfectly okay with me.

    1. I love hearing that you finally grew to love your body and what it can do. I think a huge factor in that, one that helped me, was realizing how cool it is to be strong! It’s not as black and white as “fat” or “thin”.

  12. Awesome post, girlie. I think you’re right – we have to treat our bodies well – healthy foods, exercise – and naturally that will make us fit and healthy. We truly can’t be fat and healthy or skinny and healthy – there has to be a balance.

    1. Exactly – it can’t be about black and white terms “fat” “thin” “good” “bad” it has to be about a lifestyle of healthy choices. And sometimes healthy choices include three slices of pizza and a beer, no regret 🙂

  13. Wow I love this post. It is so sad to me that 10 year old girls are on diets and worried about their weight. I don’t remember exactly when I started to become aware of my body image but I know it wasn’t that early. I was probably 13 or 14 when I became aware of it, but never dieted or anything. I coached Girls on the Run last fall and there’s a lesson where we talk about eating disorders, and one girl told us when she was in 5th grade she starved herself and would only eat cheese cubes and ice when she felt like she was going to pass out. That hit me really hard and had a huge effect on me. Something needs to be changed. We need to stop labeling people as fat and skinny. I cringe when people say I’m skinny, it’s not a compliment to me and it shows how messed up society is today. We need to work on being healthy not skinny or thin or anything else!

    1. Oh my gosh I can’t believe a little girl was starving herself like that! That’s horrendous! I love that you coached Girls on the Run – doing something like that probably had a huge effect on some of the girls without you even knowing it. They really need to see people who have a healthy relationship with both food AND fitness.

  14. Awesome post, and one that I can totally relate to! That stat is so, so sad. I think that as a society, as mother, as sisters, as friends, as fathers and brothers, we need to put much more emphasis on self-love and being healthy rather than just being skinny. Easier said than done, but it’s necessary to have a healthier society of women. I hope to have daughters one day, and I definitely will focus on telling them that they’re not just pretty, but also, smart, creative and strong!

  15. Thanks for sharing your personal struggle. It is so terrifying knowing how concerned with their bodies young people are. At 10 years old, I was running around playing “lava” in my yard and making up stories with my beanie babies. The world is rapidly changing; and I would be interested to find out how advances in technology and the age in which children start using these technologies relates to fear of gaining weight and childhood obesity.

    I think that the majority of women today struggle in some way with their appearance. It makes me so sad to hear that such a small amount of women would call themselves beautiful. Nobody is perfect and it is so easy to pick ourselves apart and find something we want to change. I certainly am not innocent of this. I definitely feel that I live a healthy life- both physically and mentally. However, I find myself saying very damning things like calling myself fat or not photogenic. There is a constant comparing to people I see on the internet or TV, and I can only assume that most women are guilty of doing this.

    It is funny how some things in your life just STICK and you cannot forget them even if you tried. I read something on the internet a while ago about how something that women never say to their daughters is that they love their own bodies. In my own experience, I only remember my mom dieting or worrying about losing weight. Never once has she told me that she loves her body or that she feels beautiful. Children don’t fear gaining weight or worry about their bodies just out of nowhere. This is learned. We will never be able to shelter our children from the media, but I think it is important to let our daughters one day know that no one is perfect, but that does NOT mean they are not beautiful. We need to be role models by showing these children that we are not only comfortable in our own bodies, but that we LOVE them! Perfection is not a goal, it is IMPOSSIBLE. We need to strive to just be healthy, and feel gorgeous, because every woman deserves to feel that.

    1. BEAUTIFUL sentiment, Moni 🙂 I think technology has a lot to do with it too. When I was that age I hardly ever saw pictures of myself, and if I did it was when I was doing something special with friends or family, not me looking for physical approval from other people (especially people on the internet!). I really hope to shield my kids from all of that one day, but of course that can backfire as well. It’s so tricky…I honestly think you have to accept the way of the world and combat it with more good. So instead of keeping my daughter from reading a magazine with photoshopped models on it, I’ll ask her to make dinner with me or go for a bike ride or something. Something that helps us bond but also gives me the opportunity to show her all the good traits she has besides her physical characteristics.

      1. It’s definitely tricky since we cannot just shield, but instead instill more important values in our future children. Good relationships with both female and male role models is something that definitely helps kids with self-esteem.And hopefully the world slows down a bit, and our future generations like to play outside as much as we did as kids!!

  16. Wow…thank you so much for posting this!! I am so heartbroken to know how much our youngins suffer from that kind of anxiety. I really pray for our young generation because they’re really hurting. :/ Every culture and country has something crazy big going on, and this epidemic of skewed thinking is definitely worth fighting against!

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