People often ask me what my daughter thinks of my bodybuilding. And often—not always, but often—what they really want to know is how I talk to her about what I’m doing. With two degrees [well, almost] in Women’s Studies and a reputation for being a feminist who hates Barbie and destructive body ideals, I agree that I come off as a bit of a conundrum. How can I talk about bodies in the media, and then stand on stage half naked? How can I talk about loving and embracing our bodies, and then go on extreme diets for months at a time? And then to do it all in front of my daughter, who is learning half of what she knows by watching me?
I am happy to talk about this, because of course health, fitness, and nutrition are all very big topics in my house. My daughter has grown up in the gym. Literally. Powerlifting gyms, fighting gyms, commercial gyms—she has seen it all and learned something new at each one. Now that she is old enough to make choices, she participates in boxing and jiu jitsu herself. In our home, going to the gym is as much a part of our life as eating, sleeping, and going to school/work. But just as important as knowing how and when to work out is knowing how and when to rest, and that is the difference between a healthy gym habit and a forced obsession.
Health is another big topic in my house, and this is much more difficult than you may think. How does one approach such a broad term that is defined differently by every subculture? Everywhere you go in America, including elementary schools, there is some misinformed idiot preaching about “health.” A lot of my job as a parent is to not only help her conceptualize health, but also to help her understand how to define it herself so that she can stand up against the junk they preach at school. One of my goals is to prevent her from equating “healthy” with “thin.” Another is to prevent the anxieties that many women experience with food.
And what about nutrition? How do we talk to our children about dieting, when everywhere they go they hear about it? You must think I talk about dieting a lot because I do it a lot—but the truth is, I NEVER use that word to describe what I’m doing. I have spent years teaching my daughter about moderation, and now I have a child who will enjoy a piece of cake when it’s time to enjoy a piece of cake, but who will stop when she feels like she needs to stop, at her own discretion. There is no food guilt in my household. No, “I shouldn’t have eaten that,” no equating cake with getting fat, no equating fat with unhealthy.
There are many times when my goal requires me to eat or not eat certain foods, and I do demonstrate this in front of my daughter. But for the most part, I try to keep things normal for her. She eats fish and chicken, loves broccoli and asparagus, and on nights I don’t eat starches she just enjoys them without me and doesn’t notice that I don’t have any rice on my plate. I still take her out to lunch (and adapt in the ways I described in my last post) or we have picnics at the park so that I can bring my food. Sweets, such as ice cream, have become a joke in our house. Isabella understands that I’m CHOOSING not to eat them for a little while, and she knows that I will eat them again soon. So they love to team up and make fun of me by exaggerating how good the ice cream is…haha!
And, just to be sure she understands that I’m CHOOSING not to eat some things for a small amount of time, and to reinforce that it’s ok to eat them, we have a “crazy meal” once a week. For me, it’s a refeed that is necessary for several weeks during my prep. But by involving her, I show her that it’s ok, that Mommy isn’t doing anything too extreme, and that there is a TIME to eat everything. I never use language of deprivation—I never say “I CAN’T” eat something. I always say that if I want to reach my goal, then this isn’t the right time for some things.
Based on my own experience as a competitive athlete with a child, here are my tips for talking to children about health, fitness, and nutrition:
- Never use the word DIET. You don’t have to be competing in bodybuilding to want to change your nutrition to produce desired changes in your body; if you’re thinking about making changes to what you eat, don’t be the parent whose kids think, “oh no, mommy is on a diet again. I guess we have to eat broccoli now…” Make it a seamless transition so that being healthy doesn’t appear to be something temporary.
- Don’t think of foods as “bad” or “good.” Think of them as having different values. Some you eat more, some you eat more moderately. This will prevent you from using the language of food anxiety around your children.
- Never say you CAN’T eat something. The truth is, you can. You’re choosing not to.
- Introduce them to the processed foods discussion: talk to them about chemicals and why you wouldn’t want to eat them. Talk to them about the difference between fast food and the food you make at home.
- Listen to their interests and reinforce them! My daughter wanted broccoli last night, but my nutrition plan called for spinach. Does it really matter? By making broccoli I reinforced her good choice and interest in vegetables.
- Be a team, and make it an adventure! Everything I do, I invite my daughter to be on my team. I involve her in some way so that she feels included and understands what’s going on. If you are starting a new nutrition or fitness regimine, bring your child with you on the journey. Explain why you are doing it, and invite him or her to “help” you. This helps them to understand what you’re doing, makes them feel closer to you (instead of driving you apart, as dieting often can do), and instills good values.
- Invite children to enjoy vegetables: involve them in the process. Let them help you choose them, clean them, and cut them up. I often let my daughter choose from three similar options, such as broccoli, spinach, or asparagus. She loves helping me break up broccoli into bits, peeling carrots, or de-stemming collard greens.
- Allow children to make choices—but be there to provide guidance from time to time. But sometimes I give her the opportunity to choose between a healthy snack and a not-so-healthy snack. Sometimes she chooses the healthy snack and enjoys the reward of feeling good about her choice. Other times, she just wants the damn cookie—and that’s ok too. I trust her to make a good choice—but best of all, she trusts herself. And I think that’s key in avoiding food anxiety and food guilt.
- Make seamless transitions. Isabella and I have a few rituals that often involve little treats. For instance, every time we go to a particular playground on a hot day, we stop at Sonic for a cold treat. Giving that up because of my nutritional restrictions would only make her sad and cause her to dislike having a mommy who competes. So we still go, but I get a Diet Coke with sugar free cherry flavoring. It feels like a treat when you haven’t had anything sweet in a while, and she doesn’t realize I’m not enjoying the same thing she has.