The puberty pudge and why body-positive parents aren’t afraid of it.

Elle developed breasts twice. The first time, she sensed this was not safe and so she willed them away. It was frightening and amazing to experience the power of body manipulation. Fierce determination; more likely, crude starvation. The second time there was less to be done other than surrender to the assault of change. When belly fat and stretch marks emerged her loving mother grew pale. By the look of her reaction Elle quickly understood that something was wrong. She was all wrong. Her grandmother fondly nicknamed her “mushy tushy”. Her mother dubbed her left breast “sad”. Asymmetry wasn’t something to be proud of.

Elle is one of too many young women who learn body-shame before they have the chance to grow into their adult shape with curiosity or respect. Her mother is one of too many women who knew no different and now may rightfully self-identify as a victim of a generation and diet-culture that taught her that female bodies are for looking at and should therefore look a certain way. Sometimes it is the most dedicated, loving, and well-meaning mother who takes their thickening, pubescent child to Weight Watchers for a chance to slim down. Maybe even after a trusted, well-meaning pediatrician commented that her twelve-year-old was gaining too much weight and might consider cutting back on the snacks and juice.

Research shows that puberty is a significant risk period for the development of eating disorders and ED symptoms, particularly among girls. Puberty is a time of significant weight gain — fifty percent of adult body weight is gained during adolescence — and these changes for girls move them farther away from beauty ideals. These changes are extraordinary, but they can be overwhelming to both child and parent. Our babies morphing into adult bodies can bring an overwhelming sense of loss and can kick up our anxiety, particularly if we have not yet addressed the internalized weight-stigma or fat-phobia we have all inherited from diet-culture. Their lanky, innocent shapes spread, expand, and chunk into reproductively capable beings moving them further and further away from the youthful shapes we have grown accustom to. Both pubertal status and timing of puberty in comparison to peers have been found to influence development of eating disorders and eating disorder symptoms. Early timing of puberty is associated with increased eating disorder risk for girls. In addition to environmental risk factors, genetic risk factors for eating disorders have been found to be activated during puberty. In other words, puberty is a delicate flower and as parents we need to nurture both our children and ourselves through it with extreme care.

To help your child fully bloom:

  • Educate yourself and your child about the incredible changes that bodies go through during puberty.

  • Emphasize that weight gain and changes in body shape are normal in this time period.

  • Be aware that even excellent and well-meaning pediatricians are living in diet culture, have weight stigma, and may make comments about your child’s body that are not body-positive.

  • Use your child’s annual check-up as a time to emphasize body-positive messages and remind them that weight is not a perfect metric of health.

  • Highlight genetic diversity: talk with your children about how all bodies are not supposed to look the same. Draw their attention to diversity in nature, like trees and animals, and how it is the same with people.

  • Use visual tools like photos of ancestors and family to show your child their genetic lineage.

  • Make it clear that positive qualities come in all sizes and shapes.

  • Relate these characteristics with stories and the functions of those traits

  • Recognize and celebrate your unique body traits as part of your genetic and ethnic heritage

  • Don’t criticize your own body.

  • Build awareness of your own weight bias by examining your automatic reactions, feelings, and beliefs about people in larger bodies

  • Help children from a young age develop a set of values that includes body-positivity and size-diversity.

  • Learn more and educate your kids about the hazards of diet and “wellness” culture

  • Separate health from weight in your thoughts, words, and actions.

  • Encourage your child (regardless of their shape and size) to think of themselves as healthy.

  • Help your children understand that their well-being and health does not hinge on their body weight.

  • Be kind to yourself! This work is hard. Don’t go it alone. Reach out for support and find others who you can talk to about all of the joys and complexities of body-positive parenting.