It can be tough if you’re a child and the only overweight person in your family. This was Robbie’s situation. From his perspective, the only time he could be totally at ease was when he was alone and could forget the challenges related to his weight.
At school and with his peers, Robbie had to deal with being ridiculed and bullied. He usually didn’t get much support from teachers and other adults because, oftentimes, they didn’t see the bullying. In some instances, though, Robbie knew an adult had witnessed the bullying and simply overlooked it.
At home, sibling rivalry centered around Robbie’s weight again.
And then there were his parents. When they were around, Robbie never felt comfortable eating, especially when he ate foods they considered to be fattening. Eating always seemed to be associated with conflict and judgment. “Do you really think you should be eating that?” “Eating that is not going to help your weight any, Robbie.” “Why don’t you order the salad instead, Robbie?” Robbie envied family members who not only got to eat what they wanted, but also were left alone to savor and enjoy food.
Robbie didn’t know why, but lately he had been hiding food in his bedroom. It was the only time he felt he could eat peacefully. But this feeling was short lived, and soon replaced by guilt about sneak eating.
Robbie was old enough to understand that people thought there was something wrong with his size. He also had a sense that people thought eating certain foods was the cause of his size problem. His lack of psychological sophistication due to his young age, however, prevented him from having a full understanding of what was going on in his life. From his perspective, since he could see that other people ate foods that were supposed to be “taboo” for him, there must be something fundamentally flawed about him as a person. People seemed disgusted by him so he must be disgusting. His parents seemed to be disappointed with him a lot so he must be a disappointment. His siblings made fun of him so they must not like him. These beliefs made Robbie feel depressed and insignificant. Because he didn’t think his peers, teachers, parents or siblings provided the comfort he needed, he turned to the one thing he thought could: food. And since he frequently had these feelings, he felt like eating often, and a lot.
At eight years of age, Robbie can’t figure out how to work on his self-esteem so that he can stand up for himself and feel worthwhile despite what’s going on around him. He doesn’t have the knowledge to know how to eat well and also feel satisfied. He also doesn’t have the power to be in charge of food shopping, mealtimes and other things that can make his lifestyle one that will take him in the direction of health and leanness. And he can’t be expected to be able to do these things either.
In an ideal situation, the following would happen:
• Adults around Robbie would understand that he is a child, and that they can’t expect from him what they can expect from an adult. He can’t understand more abstract concepts, like the fact that his parents are just trying to help him, and showing concern for him, when they discuss why he should lose weight and why he should stop eating particular foods. A childlike Robbie interprets these comments as rejection, shaming and confirmation that he’s not good enough.
• Robbie’s parents would understand that being overweight isn’t Robbie’s issue — it’s the family’s issue — and that it can only be solved by changing the entire family’s eating and activity habits.
• Robbie wouldn’t be concerned when he’s around food because he wouldn’t have been made to feel self-conscious about it. He would have the same kind of relationship with food that other family members have. He could eat when he’s hungry and eat what he feels like eating. Because there are always nutritious and tasty options available to him and his lifestyle is full of physical activity with friends and family, Robbie wouldn’t be obsessed with food or feel the need to sneak eat.
• Robbie (as well as other people) would learn to view his body as separate from his worth and identity. Therefore, he would have a strong self-esteem that would help him be healthy for life.
When you’re the only overweight child in a family in today’s society, you need wise people around you to do the right things to help you be all you can be.
Previously published in the Tampa Bay Times