Thoughts on meerkats, weight bias, and eating disorders

Written by Anita Pilkerton-Plumb, MSW, LCSW

Published in Lancaster Newspapers, Lancaster PA.

September 2, 2018

I was excited to show my 10-year-old daughter a lovely Associated Press photo of meerkats being weighed at a zoo check-up  in the Aug. 24 edition of LNP.

Her first response:  “Oh, how cute!”  Then, she noticed the photo caption that I had not: “Be honest — Do I look fat?” And she said to the meerkat on the scale, “No,  you don’t.” We talked about how disappointing this caption was. Her words? “That’s stupid.”

As a clinical therapist who sees people of all ages and genders who are stymied and depressed by negative body image and eating disorders, this was really frustrating. However, it also served as an opportunity to show how insidiously commonplace these phrases are in our everyday world. Even for children and adults whose media time is limited, these stereotypes about body size are hard to avoid.

We are treading a precarious tightrope in a society that awkwardly balances endemic proportions of eating disorders and obesity. We collectively reap the havoc of their associated health care costs, both in dollars and lives. For all the obsession over weight in our common language, you might think we would be trending toward healthy outcomes, but we are not.

In a new study evocatively titled, “Mom, quit fat talking — I’m trying to eat (mindfully) here,” summarized in Psychology Today, the authors studied the impact of what they describe as “fat talk” (for example, “Does this outfit make me look fat?”). The University of North Carolina researchers found that the more parents talk this way in a family, the less likely any of the family members will use mindful, healthy eating habits.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that obesity levels in the United States are at their highest rate. And fast facts from the National Eating Disorders Association reveal that 70 percent of women engage in unhealthy eating to impact their weight; 43 percent of men are dissatisfied with their body image; and 51 percent of 9 and 10-year-old girls feel “better about myself when I am on a diet.”

Nine- and 10-year-olds.

Young children are exposed more than any of us to social media that instill a message that dieting will somehow make us more healthy. That is a big — ahem — fat lie.

More from the National Eating Disorder website:

— “Weight stigma can increase body dissatisfaction, a leading risk factor in the development of eating disorders … particularly binge eating. The best-known environmental contributor to the development of eating disorders is the sociocultural idealization of thinness.”

— “Since the rise of national obesity prevention campaigns, the incidence of weight stigma has increased about 66 percent. Though efforts to combat obesity are well intentioned, the research is clear: overemphasizing weight can encourage disordered eating and have counterproductive effects.”

The evidence is strong that living in a world of weight bias doesn’t lead to thinness or happiness. Conversely, it often leads to compulsive overeating to comfort ourselves in a society where we will never be thin enough, never ideal, never a size zero (a term I refer to as the absence of size, nothingness …  not surprisingly akin to the emptiness many people feel about their relationship to food).

While it may seem too pervasive and overwhelming to tackle, we can change this tide. It starts with language. We can start with a shift in terminology and these three words and terms:

Diet. I often ask young people to look for the word inside of the word here. It’s “die.” To diet is to deprive, to give up, and in extreme cases, to kill yourself (anorexia nervosa can be a deadly disorder.)  Instead, let’s talk about healthy and mindful eating. Eating is for nutrition; it is to make our bodies go; it is to enjoy. Let’s talk about what we can eat, not what we can’t.

BMI, or body mass index. There is a growing body of research supporting the idea that BMI is an outdated and inaccurate determinant of health. It is interesting to know that many school districts still conduct these measurements and use it as a standard indicator in the health room. In the process, they are shaming children by sending a letter home describing the child’s obesity risk  (message to the child: “You’re fat”).  Schools can become part of the solution by reconsidering their options and offering nutrition and health education that is medically sound and inclusive of the spectrum of human body types. This is far more likely to prevent obesity.

Fat. The negative connotations are too great. Ask a preschooler what it means to be fat. He or she can likely tell you about the implications of this word on feeling included, having friends, being laughed at, feeling lonely, embarrassed and humiliated. It is time to talk about this word and either eliminate or reclaim it. Period.

Alternatively, let’s talk about weight bias: the discrimination and stereotyping based on one’s weight. Get educated about weight-based discrimination including lower pay in the workplace.

Turn on the TV, talk to your peers, go to a shopping mall by yourself and reflect on your perceptions of the people you see. We have internalized it — all of us. Acknowledging and talking about what we think and feel are the first steps in changing what we do.

Then check out resources on body and fat acceptance that range from enlightening to radical. An accessible place to start is

Challenging the stereotypes is important, empowering and can also be fun. Here are some caption alternatives for that AP photo (remember the meerkats?):

The caption might have read, “I am a healthy duck, er, meerkat!” “Look how cute I am!” (that’s my 10-year old’s offering), and “This fur really accentuates all my best qualities, don’t you agree, darling?”

These focus on feelings and affirmations, rather than the perceptions of others. And, hey, that last one mimics the humorous personification of the meerkat that the writer of the original caption likely was striving for.

And it conveys a much healthier message for our 10-year-olds.

Anita Pilkerton-Plumb is a licensed clinical social worker in Lancaster, Pennsylvania who works with children, teens, adults, and families. She has a teaching and training background that includes body image and eating disorders prevention.

In the wake of Parkland

Written by Anita Pilkerton-Plumb, MSW, LCSW. Published at Contact Anita at 717.850.8780

Another crucial step to prevent school shootings


One day after the Parkland, Florida school shooting, a middle school teacher contacted me looking for advice. Less than 24 hours after the shooting, a student entered her classroom and imitated a shooter, using his arms and hands to mimic an assault rifle and his mouth to spew rapid-fire bullet sounds at his peers. Sent to an alternative school in his elementary years for consistent ‘acting out’ behavior, this 12-year-old already has a history, a reputation, and likely is very aware of this. My friend was shaken, and tasked with what consequences are appropriate. In her words, “I don’t want him to stand a chance at becoming yesterday’s murderer.”  What she means is how do we keep him from becoming tomorrow’s murderer.  And, how does she simultaneously contribute to keeping the rest of her school safe?


My gut response to her was this:


Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of in-school or out-of-school suspension, there was in-school and out-of-school caring intervention? Visualize this. The child returns to school and is put in a quiet room, but not one in which he is to stare at the walls, do extra school work without support, or be consistently reprimanded for talking/snoozing/not sitting still.  Instead, the student is visited throughout the day by teachers, staff and counselors who sit at his level, make good eye contact and tell him how good he is, not how bad he is…but how inherently good. The staff digs deep, and they search for the time that he opened a door for a peer, the time he asked a question in class (any question), perhaps the one time he stopped a behavior when asked. An administrator searches records and talks to earlier teachers when possible.  They seek kindergarten records that show his early strengths. His counselor comes in to talk to him about job opportunities that exist for students with high energy, creativity, and limelight-seeking behavior. The school musical director talks to him about a part in the upcoming production, and the cafeteria supervisor talks to him about who he sits with at lunch. Community mentors come in to speak to him about his aspirations, what he would do if there were no barriers, and what they can offer him after school. He is referred to the Student Assistance Program and connected with a school mentor who helps him come up with a plan for days when impulse control and focus are difficult.  The student begins the day with a journal in which he writes what he is thinking and feeling (that will probably be anger and that the intervention is stupid….that is to be expected.) It might be surprising, though, how his writing changes through the day, through this intensive caring intervention.


As a clinical social worker, I conducted a similar type of exercise in a group setting several years ago. Students with anger management issues were partnered with school staff. Through a structured activity, the staff encouraged and bolstered the students with their strengths. We observed how difficult it was for students to accept this validation, and how easy it was for staff to identify strengths when given the time and directive to do so.


I work with many children who were exposed to drugs prenatally, experienced early trauma, and/or have brains wired for attention, focus and developmental challenges. They have trouble connecting with others, and they are often yearning for attention. But, what kind of attention do we want to give them?  People have described the most recent teen shooter as “weird”. Other shooter descriptions over the years? Isolated, bullied, disturbed.  How often do we hear that a shooter was connected, supported, engaged, respected and valued?  Hm, that’s Interesting.


Anita Pilkerton-Plumb, MSW, LCSW

Lancaster, PA


Anita Pilkerton-Plumb is a licensed clinical social worker in Pennsylvania who works with children, teens, adults, and families. She has counseled privately for 17 years, and spent 10 years prior working with adolescents and elementary-aged children in school and community settings. Her experience includes assisting middle-schoolers in anger management classes. In addition to helping young people identify sources of anger and healthy coping strategies, she also helps them see their strengths, connect with adults, and find their positive purpose within their school community.

Autism and “being normal”

Jody Allard penned this important piece for the Washington Post about a year ago. It ran on August 23, 2017. The title is “My autistic daughter isn’t going to become ‘normal’. But she is wonderful. It highlights the challenges for parents raising children with autism in a neurotypically-centered society. My favorite line, “…we often forget to remind (our children) that they are already good enough. Just as they are. No matter how their brains function, or how they perceive the world.”

Teenagers and severe anxiety

The New York Times published this lengthy and interesting article on teens and anxiety. This article may be validating to teens with severe anxiety and their caretakers. The article sheds light on intersections with socio-economic status, and looks at the impact of social media as well. Readers follow two teens on their journey through an intensive residential treatment program.

Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?