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.

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