October 23, 2013 7:58 pm
Updated: October 24, 2013 1:38 am

Weight shaming: Should a child’s weight be discussed in front of them?

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EDMONTON – Lauren Wood says her five-year-old daughter Lillian can’t seem to stop thinking about her weight ever since a visit to a Strathcona County immunization clinic in August.

A public health nurse described Lillian as “large” on the BMI (Body Mass Index) scale. Lillian was in the room at the time.

She and her husband didn’t fully realize the statement’s impact on Lillian until they left the clinic.

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“On the way home, she asked if she was too big, and why she was too big. And then later she was playing, and got on the scale…and asked us if she was still too big,” Wood recalled, adding how hard it is to see her daughter pre-occupied about weight at such a young age.

She says it’s hard to see her daughter pre-occupied about weight at such a young age.

“When she gets dressed for school in the morning, it’s a daily thing now, she asks us, ‘does this outfit make me look too big? Am I too big? Am I fat?’ And those are things we never heard from her before this appointment.”

The Wood family isn’t the only one whose child received unsolicited weight advice during an immunization appointment.

Darcie Harris was shocked when, at an appointment in July, a public health nurse said her four-year-old daughter Autumn is considered obese, according to the BMI scale.

“Right in front of Autumn, which was annoying because with everything that’s going on these days with girls’ self-image and self-esteem…one of the things I did comment on is ‘Are we really going to have this conversation in front of her?'”

Fortunately, she later realized her daughter hadn’t picked up on the comment.

Registered psychologist Leslie Block believes that how parents deal with a situation like that can make a difference.

“It’s ideal if a parent can intervene at that time and correct the perception for the child,” he said. “So that you, first of all, ask what she perceives from the comments, how did she take that, what did she think or feel…and then you can see where the child is going with it, and you can make corrections…give them alternate hypotheses to consider.”

A well-intentioned comment can sometimes plant a seed of uncertainty in a child’s mind, he explains. That seed can then be further cultivated by images a child may see on television later on – for instance, images promoting certain beauty ideals like being slim or tall.

“So the identity starts to be formed on somebody’s opinion on how you should look…unless corrective education takes place by the parent.”

Both Wood and Harris say their daughters are healthy, active, and eat well. They’re not worried about their daughters’ weight after speaking to their pediatricians – the Harris’ family doctor was reportedly not at all concerned with Autumn’s weight, while Lillian’s doctor told her parents in private that he felt she may be “high” on the BMI scale, but that would likely even itself out.

The two mothers are adamant that there is a time and place to discuss a young child’s weight – and it’s not in front of them.

“I think it should be addressed between you and your physician,” Harris said. “I don’t think it’s really a health nurse’s responsibility to intervene.”

Wood says a manager at the Strathcona County Health Centre told her on Monday they’re reviewing how to discuss sensitive issues with patients.

There is no directive on how these matters should be dealt with, as Alberta Health Services leaves health advice in the hands of care providers.

Lillian’s mother hopes that nurses will be more sensitive of what they say in front of children, who she believes are much more perceptive than they’re often given credit for.

In the meantime, she and her husband are working on rebuilding her daughter’s self-esteem.

“When she talks about being too big, we just tell her that she’s not and we tell her that she’s beautiful. And we hope that if we say it enough times, she’ll believe it eventually.”

You can read an opinion letter that Wood sent to the Sherwood Park News here.

With files from Laurel Gregory, Global News

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