“Shit!” I exclaimed after tripping over our baby gate and landing awkwardly on my hip. My 3-year-old, who’d been playing in the living room, rushed to my aid. “Are you okay, mama?” she lovingly asked. “I’m fine, baby, I just fell down,” I reassured her. She seemed pleased with my response and made her way back to her toys. Moments later, I heard her excitedly yelling “Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!” while pretending that her plush Anna and Elsa dolls were falling off the couch.

I’ve long believed that children are like sponges. They listen to everything, even when you think they’re distracted. They pick up on mannerisms, tone, and moods. For a couple of years, they usually can’t necessarily repeat everything you say because their use of language is still so limited. My daughter’s delight at using the “S” word was proof enough that this will eventually end, though. 

Because our children do, indeed, absorb everything in their surroundings, it’s undoubtedly critical that we are mindful of the language and behavior we utilize around them. I would argue that it’s especially important to think about the ways we discuss food. Food: Something all human beings need for energy and survival, and simultaneously a thing that we learn to brand with moral implications from the time we are old enough to have a sense of “right” or “wrong,” “good” and “bad.”

Because our children do, indeed, absorb everything in their surroundings, it’s undoubtedly critical that we are mindful of the language and behavior we utilize around them.

I believe that the ways we are taught to think about food are intrinsically tied to the ways we think about bodies (both our own and other people’s). For example, we often learn to differentiate between “good” foods and “bad” foods. Good ones might be kale, grilled chicken, a banana, whole grain bread, or an acai bowl for the metropolitan Millennial. Bad ones might be French fries, a burger from the local fast food place, ice cream, or pasta drowning in Alfredo sauce.

Because we think of food as either “good” or “bad” (or, in other words, “righteous” versus “evil”), we often label ourselves “good” or “bad” depending on what we’ve eaten on any given day.

“I’ve been so good today!” you might hear a colleague joyfully muse when they realize all they’ve consumed at work is a salad. If they dare have a chocolate bar the following afternoon, however, their tone might shift to one of despair and self-loathing as they tell you, “I’ve been really bad.”

We are also (wrongly, of course) taught to assume that if a person is thin, their diet must consist primarily of “good” and “healthy” food. If they are fat, they must predominantly be eating “bad” and “unhealthy” food. We then make assumptions about their character. In our messed up diet culture, we tend to think that thin people are simply superior (for they are clever, moral, beautiful, and well) to fat people (for they are undisciplined, immoral, ugly, and unhealthy). 

Because we think of food as either “good” or “bad” (or, in other words, “righteous” versus “evil”), we often label ourselves “good” or “bad” depending on what we’ve eaten on any given day.

The link between food and body image is difficult to deny, and we are kidding ourselves if we think our children don’t pick up on this stuff. The National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) estimates that at least 30 million people of all ages and genders in the U.S. alone suffer from an eating disorder. Since 2011, studies have been finding that more children are affected by eating disorders than people ever imagined. As the UK’s The Guardian reported at the time, “More than two and a half times as many children under 10 have anorexia nervosa as previously thought, according to the first study into eating disorders among British children. On average, 1.5 in every 200,000 British children under 10 have anorexia, according to experts from the UCL (University College London) Institute of Child Health.”

Things are much the same in the U.S., where the rates of eating disorders among children ages 12 and under have been quietly and steadily increasing for years. Some studies have actually found that 10-year-olds are more afraid of becoming fat than of getting cancer or suddenly losing their parents and becoming orphaned. 

The cycle, at least to me, seems clear. We teach children, from painfully young ages, to think of food through a lens of morality. We teach them to associate certain foods with certain body types. We celebrate some body types while condemning others. We subsequently end up with little people deeply afraid of eating because they are also deeply afraid of becoming fat… because they are deeply afraid of being perceived as “bad” or “ugly.” Or, with little people who ridicule the fat folks around them for the same reasons.

We teach children, from painfully young ages, to think of food through a lens of morality. We teach them to associate certain foods with certain body types. We celebrate some body types while condemning others.

As a child, it was primarily through the women in my life that I learned about the “importance” of being slender. I still remember watching my mom or my aunts or my friends’ moms getting ready for nights out. They’d slip into their sparkly dresses and analyze their figures in front of a mirror. They’d suck in their bellies or put some shapewear on underneath their skirts or flat-out ask me or anyone else in the room whether they looked “fat;” whether they looked “good.” 

It was through the adults around me that I grew to associate dessert with shame and vegetables with virtue. It was through the adults that I came to believe I would live a happier, more fulfilled life if I avoided the snack cupboard. It was through the adults that I learned to fear food; to strip it of all the goodness it has to offer and instead eat the bare minimum required to survive.

It’s within our abilities as parents and carers to do better by our own kids. I know that shifting our language at home will not save them from the language they come across elsewhere. Our world is so enmeshed with diet culture and fatphobia that there is very little we can do to escape these ideals, or shield our kids from them. However, if you believe that the lessons we pass onto our children at home can give them a foundation for how they cope and interact with the outside, then it must be worth a try. 

Stop using moral codes to talk about food. Stop correlating diet to body shape. Stop correlating body shape to worth. Stop perpetuating the false notion that wellness begins and ends with caloric intake. 

For starters, we just have to stop. Stop using moral codes to talk about food. Stop using phrases like “cheat day,” which are similarly loaded with morality, to describe enjoying something sweet. Stop forgetting that food isn’t just a tool for sustenance, but a vehicle for bonding, for celebration, for pleasure, for time spent with loved ones. Stop correlating diet to body shape. Stop correlating body shape to worth. Stop perpetuating the false notion that wellness begins and ends with caloric intake. 

There is so much more to wellness than diet. We can encourage our children to find joy in movement simply because it feels pleasant. We can encourage them to eat roasted vegetables simply because they taste delicious. We can encourage them to find balance in all things, which means not chastising them because they want to eat a piece of cake. We can encourage them to treat food as a precious gift, because it is. Because it is meant to be enjoyed.

If we do all of this, we might just help them recognize something crucial: Food is just food. Bodies are just bodies. And there are no “good” or “bad” ways to go about either.