Body-positive parenting: a practical alternative for all Kurbo-curious parents

By Zoë Bisbing, LCSW

Several months ago, before WW (formerly, Weight Watchers) announced their partnership with a new weight loss app for kids, ages 8 to 17 years old, I learned the word “Kurbo.” I received an email from a mother whose daughter was twelve years old and had been struggling with body image issues for a number of years. They had just enrolled in Kurbo, and their coach had recommended The Full Bloom Project as an additional resource. The mother was eager to learn all she could to help her daughter with her body. She hoped that she would learn to make better (healthier) food choices and learn to accept herself.

Along with my Full Bloom Project co-founder, Leslie Bloch, we promptly googled “Kurbo” and gasped. We had spent the better part of the last twelve months developing a body-positive parenting resource and podcast aimed at teaching parents how to most effectively use the family and community environment to promote self-esteem, eating competence, and body-libertarian in children. Now we see the competition staring at us in the face: before-and after photos of pubescent children; success stories measured in pounds lost and confidence gained; a traffic-light system insisting that "all foods are allowed" so long as you can diligently budget anything other than fruits and vegetables . Testimonials from proud and relieved parents boasting their amazement at the “strong-will” and “motivation” they never thought possible in their kids. We wrapped our meeting and I bolted back to my therapy practice. My first session that day was with a long-time patient; a brilliant medical student in her mid-20s, in therapy recovering from the trauma of weight stigma, chronic dieting, and the misguided love of a parent who truly believed that Weight Watchers would give her beloved a better life.

Body-positive parenting is a parenting philosophy that integrates scholarly research from child and adolescent psychology, eating disorder prevention, pediatric nutrition, and Health at Every Size®. It invites parents and practitioners to wrestle with questions like what does healthy really mean? Why is puberty so critical to body-positivity? Why is weight stigma the biggest body-positive problem to solve?  Why should we raise intuitive eaters? How does body-positivity work for our transgender and gender non-confirming children? And what can parents actually do to help kids in larger bodies? I co-founded the Full Bloom Project because there was a paucity of resources that spoke directly to parents about the intricacies of body-positivity, diet-culture awareness, and the insidious presence of weight stigma in our society. I wanted to create a non-judgmental space for parents and care providers to contemplate their own biases, question their decades-long investments in diet-culture, and absorb new paradigms that might allow them to parent and/or practice from a new, more scientifically-informed and socially just perspective. 

I don't know if that email I received was from a parent of a child in a larger body, but I often think about a shocking study that found that 46% of respondents would give up a year of their life to avoid being “obese,” and 15% of respondents would be willing to give up ten years of their life to avoid this. So many parents get pressure from their pediatrician, concerned family members, or worse... the image of their children suffering at the hand of weight-based bullying. I was truly dismayed to learn in a podcast interview with Dr. Rebecca Puhl, an international expert on weight bias and weight stigma research, how profoundly prevalent weight-based bullying is. Research has found that children in larger bodies are more likely to be bullied than their thinner peers, regardless of other factors like gender, race, or social or academic skills. In fact, one study found the likelihood of being bullied was 63% higher for children in larger bodies and this experience is normalized; a disturbing 92% of teenagers report witnessing peers with higher weights being teased at school. I am 100% anti-diet, but if one of my kids came home in tears because someone made an uncharitable comment about their shape or size and I heard about a new weight-loss app by a reputable brand, made especially for kids... it wouldn’t be so easy to pass it up. Of course I would, but I’ve been working in the field of eating disorders and body-image treatment for nearly 10 years. The average parent has far less access to evidence that could rival the claims made by the 70 billion dollar diet industry.

The creators of Kurbo claim their app is not a diet, but young utilizers do input their weight and the “success stories” almost all include references to weight loss victories. Intentional weight loss is often thought to be a pathway to more comfort, confidence, ease, acceptance, or longevity. The pursuit, however, is not only unsustainable for most people, but it reinforces the problematic thought that we had in the first place; that we need to change ourselves to be ok. I feel for the children in those before and after photos because I wonder where they will be in five-years. Statistics continue to show us the dangers of weight-cycling and caution that well-being will likely suffer. I wonder which of them may land in my office one day riddled with worsened body image and toxic core beliefs, all pointing back to these oppressive, formative experience. And I feel for the parents who really do believe they are doing right by their kids. I imagine the feelings of relief when the bullying quells, or the peer circle expands and both parent and child get further entrenched in the belief that life really does get better when you shrink your body to a more socially acceptable shape. This is, of course, a tremendously powerful and reinforcing experience— the acquisition of fleeting thin privilege.

But if we want our children to thrive — to move joyfully, to embrace self-care, to eat intuitively, to live their values, to fully engage with the world and themselves — to fully bloom — then we must prioritize acceptance above all else. We must learn to effectively buffer against powerful entities that entice them to spend money, time, and other vital resources on efforts to “change“, especially when there are inadequate warnings about the limitations and perils of such pursuits. Remember: 95% of dieters regain their lost weight within 1-5 years. Our children need us to unite and fight against the status quo of diet-culture. They need us to show them that the world needs them just as they are, not preoccupied with the amount of space they take up. They need us to validate their unique beauty, strengths, and pain and help them access their inner-activists. They need us to practice body-positive parenting so they can focus less on changing their bodies, and more on changing the world.