Raising Healthy Girls

Posted by Martha Wills on July 15, 2013 

I suffer from what I call The American Girl Disease, constant frustration over my weight mixed with the feeling of never being thin enough (even when I am) and never quite happy enough with my body (even at its most fit and healthy).

The American Girl Disease is a roller coaster that I've ridden most of my adult life, beginning with my very first attempt to whittle down (Jenny Craig, circa 1989), to my most recent attempt at finding the cure (high mileage running and the Tobacco Road Marathon, 2012).

But a few weeks ago, just one year after crossing the finish line after 26.2 miles of dirt, sweat, and blistered feet, I again found myself with a sagging middle and widening waistline.

Eternal suffering? 

Seemed so.

But what about the kids?

At 42, my cycle of body hate and use of food as a coping mechanism has the potential of affecting more than my waistline.

Would my daughters suffer from The American Girl Disease, too, based on the fact that I'm their mother?

For the past month I've embarked on a new path toward wellness, this time with my kids as a focus.

Though I've had bumps in the road (one tough night led to more than an adequate portion of Oreos), focusing on wellness for my kids has become the bigger goal.

1. EXERCISE

We all know that exercise is important to overall health, but it isn't the cure-all to weight management. Instead of making it the be-all-end-all, I've been looking at exercise differently, beginning with the word itself.

I've started to move.

An exercise video here. A run there. Swimming with my kids instead of watching from the pool deck. Googling cardio videos on rainy, boring afternoons.

The act of moving my own body hasn't gone unnoticed, and my girls have been right there with me doing jumping jacks and burpees, and going on runs (with their baby dolls in strollers).

2. GROCERY SHOPPING

Going to the grocery store has become a fun activity, and the canvas for learning about nutrition. 

The meat and cheese departments are perfect places to talk about the importance of protein and heart healthy foods. The cereal aisle provides ample opportunity to discuss sugar. The produce section allows the kids to choose the fruits and vegetables that look good to them (and me), usually cucumbers and green beans and bunches of kale for mom. Sophie bags her oranges (looking for smooth skin, not frightened by a funny looking naval). Grace prefers the grapes and taste tests for sweetness. 

Why are greens important? What exactly are nutrients? What happens to sugar in the body? 

Health-minded conversations happen easily when surrounded by the Earth’s offerings.

3. YOGA

For the past thirteen years I've been practicing yoga, one of the most amazing activities for centering the mind and breath, and finding peacefulness through movement. There's been research that yoga is really good for kids, especially girls who often feel disconnected from their bodies.

When my babies were born (and my time was not my own) I sadly rolled up my mat, abandoning my practice for bottle cleaning and diaper duty.

Eventually, I found my way back to my yoga, but it was tough with crawling littles beneath my downward dogs.

Still, the children watched and learned, and continued to steal my space. But as I have grown in my practice, my children are growing in their own.

If anything can help little girls become strong-minded women who lack the gene for The American Girl Disease, this might be it.

4. UNDERSTANDING THE BODY

Kids always have questions about the body; theirs, yours, dad's, or the boy at the pool with the big scar across his belly. Weeks ago I wrote about that boy whose scar had come from a liver transplant. The questions turned into days of googling, learning about the liver's function and importance.

Their inquiries led us to a game app for the iPad where the parts of the body are explained, and the player click/pulls the organs, systems and bones into their proper place in the human form.

As my kids continued learning about what was happening inside the body, it was easy to reiterate the importance of good nutrition.

5. MODELING

All teachers know that children learn more through modeling. If I was binge eating processed foods and driving through McDonalds every time I was too tired to cook, my girls wouldn't believe any of the lessons I'd been teaching about health and wellness.

6. CHOICES AND VIEW OF OTHERS

Yesterday Sophie asked me why a lady on the television was so round? We talked about what happens when you eat too much junk and how that lady hadn't made very good (or) healthy choices. We also talked about how my sugared up Sophie felt after she'd sneaked an entire box of fruit leather the other day. 

Choices, kid. Choices.

An obese child at the pool worried my girls, and became an opportunity to discuss the difference between how we look on the outside, and who we are on the inside. The lesson became one regarding health, but also compassion.

Does it matter that since I began this new focus I've lost eight inches and am feeling better overall? 

Of course it does.

But no matter what we weigh, or how we look, we are all the same on the inside.

This lesson, it turns out, is the most important of all.

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