Is it ever right to tell your child she's FAT
When Julie's daughter hit 13 stone at the age of 13, she decided to confront one of motherhood's great taboos
Filled with despair, Julie Askew watched her 13-year-old daughter try on yet another outfit in the mirror — then fling it on to the growing pile of clothes on her bedroom floor.
‘I’m fat and ugly — and I look horrible!’ a tearful Amie wailed. ‘I can’t wear this to the school disco. It’s just not fair.’
Like most loving mothers, Julie would usually have leapt in and soothed her daughter’s feelings, assuring her she was perfect as she was. But this time, exhausted by the emotional anguish that was now a constant feature in their lives, Julie held her breath and prepared to unleash the truth.
Tough love: Amie admits she is glad her mum Julie told her she was overweight as it helped her face her problem
Julie, 48, a business development manager from Maidstone, Kent, says: ‘Normally I would have blamed the shops for selling clothes which are cut too small, told her the style didn’t suit her, or insisted she looked lovely.
‘But by this point she weighed more than 13st, and the hissy fits about how awful she looked were becoming so regular that I had to say something.
‘So this time, instead of denying it, I blurted out: “Yes, Amie, you’re right. You are overweight — and the only person who can do something about it is you.” ’
Such harsh words to an insecure child — particularly one who had lost her father to cancer three years before — might seem cruel. But, as Amie herself now testifies, it was the best thing her mother could have done.
That difficult conversation prompted Amie to look closely at her diet and start losing weight. Now, six months later, she is a stone lighter and has dropped to a size 14.
What’s more, although she is still overweight at nearly 12st, she was recently asked by model scouts to enter the Teen Queen UK beauty pageant.
As a result, she feels far more confident about her looks and is hoping to reach her target weight of 10st 7lb.
'Fat has become the new F-word. Parents are afraid to even mention it in front of their children'
While Amie’s story has a happy ending, thousands of mothers are clearly struggling with the delicate subject of their daughters’ obesity. Recent figures show that an alarming one in three children in the UK is now overweight or obese — and it’s predicted that will rise to two-thirds of all children by 2050.
Parental silence serves only to make weight a taboo issue, potentially condemning children to a lifetime of obesity. The figures show that 60 per cent of youngsters overweight between the ages of two and four are still too big at 12. Seven out of ten overweight 11-year-olds go on to become obese young adults.
Today, Julie could not be more relieved that she finally found the courage to tackle the subject of Amie’s weight.
She explains that Amie’s father, Steven, a building contracts manager, died suddenly in 2008 of pancreatic cancer when Amie was only ten, plunging the family into despair. Amie’s way of dealing with her grief was to sit in front of the TV with pizzas and cans of Coke.
Julie adds: ‘At that point, my focus was on just getting through life — Amie’s weight problem didn’t even register with me.’
Comfort eating: Mother and daughter last year. Amie piled on the pounds after her father died
When she did notice it, like many parents, she entered a period of denial, passing it off as puppy fat. She convinced herself that her daughter would naturally shed weight after puberty.
‘Even when the school sent a letter home saying she was obese and her weight was on the 97th percentile — meaning she was fatter than 97 out of 100 children her age — I destroyed it,’ says Julie.
‘After that, I refused to let them put her on the scales. I was desperate to protect my child. If Amie said: “I’m fat, aren’t I”, I’d rush to tell her she wasn’t. The spectre of her getting an eating disorder like anorexia as a result was too terrifying.’
But watching Amie’s pretty face disappear beneath chubby cheeks and multiple chins brought a different heartbreak.
Julie’s despair intensified as her daughter dressed in increasingly baggy clothes and developed a hunched posture. She knew the point was coming where she’d have to do something. Meanwhile, she was struggling to deal with the judgmental attitude of other mums.
'Food made me feel better. I ate away my pain. But then I was depressed about how I looked'
Julie says: ‘I’d see Amie’s friends in their skimpy dresses at parties and Amie would stand out. I’d think: “Oh God!” Other mums would say things like: “I’m sure it’s just puppy fat,” or “She’s tall so she can carry it.” But the subtext was: “Unlucky for you.” ’
Julie reluctantly admits that, at times, she felt embarrassed by her daughter’s size. ‘Amie used to do a lot of tap and ballet — but it was hard to see her on stage looking so chunky next to the other girls.
‘At show times, when they had to squeeze into minuscule costumes. I’d imagine the other mothers thinking: “You’re letting your daughter go on stage dressed like that”
‘I’d let Amie’s costume out or make the skirts longer, but still I didn’t have the courage to be open with her about the problem. The tragedy is that Amie finally gave up her dancing because she couldn’t stand looking at herself in the mirror during rehearsals.’
As Amie approached her 13th birthday, Julie realised she was going to have to be cruel to be kind. Amie had virtually stopped going out with her friends — and was spending most of her free time on Facebook or texting.
‘When she did make an effort for a special occasion, we’d spend hours getting her hair and clothes just right,’ says Julie. ‘Then she’d ring 20 minutes later in tears and beg me to take her home because all her friends had turned up in miniskirts, which she couldn’t wear.
‘She also got into trouble at school for not tucking her shirt in — doing so made her feel fat.’ Finally in September last year, Julie had the ‘fat’ conversation with Amie.
She recalls: ‘I have to admit I was angry with her for failing to take responsibility for herself. It had to be done — and I wasn’t telling her anything she didn’t already know.’
More confident: Amie is much happier now she has lost a stone, left
As the words fell from Julie’s mouth, Amie burst into tears, slamming the door behind her as she left the room. But later that night, Julie went to Amie’s bedroom to comfort her. It was then her daughter’s pain came tumbling out.
Julie says: ‘It turned out she’d wanted my help all along, but was too ashamed to ask for it. I assured her I was there to support her — and asked her to come to the local Slimming World group with me and some friends.’
Amie adds: ‘Other children had been calling me “Fatty” since the end of primary school. Once, when I boarded the coach for a school trip, a group of boys shouted that the bus was going to tip over. Sometimes they’d joke they could hear me coming down the school corridor.
‘I kept quiet, not wanting them to know how much they had hurt me. I didn’t even tell Mum. I just cried on my own.’
After Julie’s outburst, Amie acknowledged that food had become her escape after her father died. ‘When I lost Dad, I was angry with the world. Food made me feel better. I ate away my pain. But then I was depressed about how I looked.’
'There will also come a time when I have to tell her she’s lost enough weight'
While it’s easy for an adult to understand weight gain, it’s not so apparent when you are a child, Amie explains.
‘You’re expected to grow. So it’s difficult to tell if you’re getting fatter — or just bigger. Somehow I didn’t make the link between eating pizza and cakes and putting on weight. Because a pizza had tomatoes on it, I thought it was healthy.
‘I blamed everyone else for my problems: my friends for being skinnier than me, the shops for selling size 12 clothes that were too small — and my genes.’
The week after Julie confronted her, Amie agreed to attend her first slimming group session.
The programme they followed, which is designed for 11 to 15-year-olds and their parents or carers, doesn’t count calories. Instead, children are encouraged to make small changes, such as swapping white bread for brown, and are taught to make healthier choices when out with friends.
At her first meeting, Amie weighed in at just under 13st. Within two weeks, she had lost 7lb and she’s lost a stone overall. /03/07/article-2111788-08AA7132000005DC-674_468x311.jpg” width=”468″ height=”311″ alt=”Alarming figure: One in three children in the UK is now overweight (posed by models)” class=”blkBorder” />
Alarming figure: One in three children in the UK is now overweight (posed by models)
‘Even so, Amie probably does weigh herself too much — at least three times a week — and she can’t pass a mirror without looking in it. I have to keep her motivated if she doesn’t see results. There will also come a time when I have to tell her she’s lost enough weight.’
Psychologist Deanne Jade, of the National Centre for Eating Disorders, believes the pain mothers go through as they watch their children become obese is not acknowledged, and they need more support. She says they increasingly feel like failures in a culture where parents judge their own success — and that of other parents — by the size of their children’s waistbands.
Deanne says: ‘There is no simple answer. Childhood obesity is not simply caused by parents feeding their children junk food.
‘Some children have a harder job managing their weight. Many have emotional issues that trigger problems. Yet the parents of fat children often end up feeling like bad parents. They know people are looking at them, thinking: “Why don’t you put your child on a diet”
‘As a society, we have to appreciate how hard it is for parents to refuse their child an ice cream if their friends or siblings are having one.
‘Restricting food only makes it more desirable to children — and it’s one of the things they rebel over — so it’s hard for parents to get the balance right.’
More than 40 per cent of under-10s worry about their weight and almost a quarter have been on a diet in the past year
So how should parents broach the subject
‘There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach,’ says Deanne. ‘There are some overweight children who may feel confident about their size, while others believe they are overweight when they’re not. There are also the children, like Amie, who get comments at school but don’t tell anyone.’
Deanne believes that while slimming clubs may work for some children by teaching them about nutrition, the core issues still have to be dealt with.
Mary George, of B-eat — an eating disorder support organisation — agrees that parents need more support to face up to the problem. ‘It’s tough love,’ she says. ‘You have to make yourself unpopular. It’s key not to be judgmental but supportive.’
Amie still has some way to go before she reaches her target weight of a size 12 — but life is already starting to look brighter.
When she attended the Clothes Show Live last December in Birmingham with a school friend, the pair were approached by a model scout looking for girls to enter the Teen Queen UK beauty pageant.
Believing she was still too overweight to merit a second glance, Amie automatically stepped aside. But then the scout said he wanted her picture, too.
Julie says: ‘Amie was ecstatic, but I was worried that only her friend would be invited back for the next stage.’
But a week later Amie was asked to a fashion shoot so she could appear on the missteenqueenuk.com website.
Julie says: ‘Amie is not your average model type, but the organisers told me that’s why they wanted her: she represents the average girl today. In the end, she came sixth in her heat — and got over 330 phone votes. She was thrilled.’
For Amie, just to be picked and photographed for the website was enough to give her new-found confidence.
And she has this advice for the parents of fat children: ‘Being a fat child is a lonely place to be. It’s so good to have my mum on my side now.
‘To any mum, I would say it’s always better for your child to hear it from someone they love, like you, than from someone in the playground calling them horrible names.’
To find your local Slimming World group call 0844 897 8000. For advice on how to deal with childhood obesity, ring the National Centre for Eating Disorders on 0845 838 2040