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How to set a good example


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I come from a family in which all of the girls get really chunky around age 11-13 and then slim back down around age 14-15. I started 9th grade at 5'2" 189 lb and ended it at 5'8" 145 lb. It was a miserable year in terms of having clothes that fit and my wardrobe changed almost weekly. My baby cousin has just hit this age and is gorgeous and, um, amazonian for a 13 year old, standing at 5'9" and probably 170-ish lb. She'll probably be near six foot by the time she's fully grown. But she's feeling bad about her weight and wants to lose.... A LOT. I asked her what she thought was an ideal weight for her after she mentioned wanting to lose some and she said 120 (120!!!!! for 5'9"). Knowing her build and how our family tends to hold weight, I think a muscular 150-ish would be really slim for her. (For an idea of how we tend to hold weight, My mom and I are both 5'8" and I'm a size 6-8 at 155 lb; mom's a size 0 at 140 lb.) I'm trying to set a good example talking about how I eat lots of whole foods and lift weights focusing on full body strength, but the rest of my family swears by whatever is the newest diet/ exercise thing on the front of this month's women's magazine. I pointed her towards mybodygallery.com so that she could get a better idea of what different weights on different heights/ body shapes really looked like vs the photoshopped images she's used to, but I don't know what else to do. It terrifies me that she has such a skewed perception. Any ideas?

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I think it could be good to read some Health At Every Size stuff, because the focus you want to encourage is health, not appearance.  I mean, it's a shitty time because teenagers, but I think back to high school and I'm like "fuuuuuuuuuck" because I was on the track team as a jumper and thrower and I was barely eating any damn food, no wonder my shotput didn't improve that much, dammit.

 

Like, you have this entire culture that's totally focused on appearance, and you have the teenage "but you don't UNDERSTAND me!!!" and dieting at that age, when you're still growing, can really screw up your metabolism and growth.  But at that age you just want to fit in and stuff.  I mean, I'm 5'11" and when I started getting my height I had a lot of awkward feelings of "I am too big."  I still feel that way sometimes, but I focus on "yes, I am big - and AMAZING, and I have a right to take up all this space!"

 

I mean, does she do any performance-based sports?  Can you get her thinking about how she has to fuel her workouts?  It sounds like your family is the kind that packs on some weight first in order to fuel growth spurts, so she's going to need that mass to convert into more height.  Do you know if she's being bullied for her weight/appearance, or is it just that all her friends are dieting and so she wants to diet, too?  Is she reading those magazines that have all those workouts "based on a 125-lb woman" because those definitely made me feel like a gigantic monster when I was younger.  Like, if I ever weigh 150 lbs I'm probably about to die from some horrible illness that made me lose all that weight, but I used to think that it was the weight I was supposed to be at, even though I had passed it and still hadn't finished growing.

 

Plus, BMI charts are bullshit because they don't take lean body mass into account, the BMI was literally redefined to make a bunch of people "obese" overnight in 1997.  Like it used to be you were "overweight" if your BMI was 27+, and then they were all "nah let's make it 25."  BMI is also meant to be used for populations, NOT as a diagnostic tool for individuals (again, doesn't take lean body mass into account at all).  If anything, try to get her to realize that a stupid math formula means NOTHING about how healthy or attractive she is.

 

I don't know if anything I've said here really helps, I mean it sounds like you're already doing a lot of this stuff really.  The mybodygallery.com is something I'd have recommended if you hadn't already done that.  It's a pretty messed-up culture that we live in, I hope you can be a positive influence on your cousin.  You probably already are, it's just, it's you vs a constant barrage of "BE THIN BE THIN DISAPPEAR" and that's really tough to fight.

 

Good luck!  Cheering for you!  Fight the system!

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I'd love to make a suggestion if I may and yes you may disagree

 

When I was your baby cousin's age I did in fact develop and eating disorder that lasted me throughout my high school years. I reached a BMI of 17.2 (I plugged the numbers in, it's not far off from where she wants to be at 120) and I hated what my body looked like naked. Everyone complimented me when I was dressed at school but every rib showed. I was 5'3 and under 100 lbs (if I find a picture I'll post it so you can show her). I was eating only one meal a day and having coffee for the morning. As a result my riding suffered, my grades suffered everything.

 

13 is a time where modeling agencies start to look at the taller young girls and she may have very well been approached when she was at the mall. That or someone mentioned that there was a possibility of her modeling. It may also be bullying, wanting to conform... ect

 

My suggestion, is be the cool cousin. If she wants to lose weight "help" her. Educate her on proper eating habits, show her what Olympians look like (these woman are beauty and beast all in one) and help her design a workout plan/bring her to the gym with you (I'd steer clear of the heavy weights though). Show her what a bad@$$ woman looks like, by being one! Buy matching "fit is the new skinny" tank tops to wear to work out and take selfies in mirrors flexing; if you have to. The goal is to take the emphasis off of skinny, unobtainable numbers and on to fit, healthy, energetic and happy. By doing this you will set up healthy habits instead of yo-yo dieting. Teach her to love what her body can do! Have her choose performance based goals (splits, handstand, pushups, 5k... whatever) instead of a number (weight, bf%). 

 

Teenagers are stubborn and hard headed, if she wants something she may very well go ahead and do it. Without the proper education though, things turn ugly... fast! I know I messed up my body horribly because I didn't have the education. Women and girls should love their bodies regardless of size and shape. Truth is we don't, it takes self confidence to do that. Challenge builds self confidence. 

 

Just my 2 cents

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Agreed - I checked out the mybodygallery, and it's pretty great.

 

I agree with MedicTWO - absolutely agree to help her, but do it in a consciously healthy way.  If she fights you, do present your views and reasons, and be firm and all that, but don't fight back (and by that, I mean don't try and force her to do things your way if you can help it - absolutely push her towards the right direction if she's come to you for help).  You don't want her to resent you, because then (if she's a typical teen like that) might well dig deeper into her harmful habits.  Don't be afraid to push, but I guess keep the balance.

 

And good luck - I hope you manage to get another convert to awesome, badass-woman-hood.

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Interesting that the going consensus is actually something of a bait and switch- "sure I'll help you (but before you get unhealthily skinny I'll trick you into loving how strong and awesome you are and understanding how to properly fuel all that awesome.)" She plays basketball, but more because it's what the cool girls at her school do than because she loves it or is great at it. I've attempted getting her to train for a color run with me, but she says she doesn't run. My next thought is exploring some hiking trails this spring/summer and telling her that I want to help her find cool stuff to photograph with her new camera (she's into photography). We live near the AT, so there are quite a few trails around, and I could pack a healthy picnic to have while we're out. Introduce her to delicious things like sugar snap peas and find sights that require more and more difficult trails to get to. What else is active and so fun that she may be tricked into it?

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Anything you can watch people do crazy awesome things with can work really well - I got 'tricked' into Parkour like that.  Running, hell no.  Running with climbing and jumping and backflips and looking totally badass thrown in?  Perfect!

 

I'd also have a go at finding some offbeat sports as well - 'but the cool girls won't be able to do X, Y and Z awesome thing and they'll think that's really cool' might be worth a go at selling.

 

Above all, just expose her to heaps of different sports.  She'll soon know if she likes the look of one or another, and she won't take much coaxing to go for it.  After all, fitness does have to be a choice - you can guide her to fitness, but you can't make her choose a particular path, or a path at all.  Don't get me wrong, it's definitely a good thing to be a good influence.  Just that you can't force her to choose something.  Make the choices available, and you'll probably see results.

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Growing up fat, I was always very miserable. That changed when I started to read about feminism and sexism and the role of media etc. Then I got angry, which is an easier emotion for teenagers to access. My point being, can you get her to realise how she is being manipulated to feel this way by society around her.

The last course I taught my Year 8s focused on the use of stereotypes in advertising and the kids found it incredibly eye opening.

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This is always such a hard thing to do. I have two younger cousins that I am trying to be a good role model for, so I completely empathize with you. 

 

What I would actually recommend is the opposite of the "bait and switch" idea. Instead of offering to help her, ask her to help you. Explain that you need help staying on track or staying motivated with working on yourself and that she would be a huge help. Plan fun excursions like the hiking and picnic trips, but make it seem as though she's helping you. Thank her for coming and trying things out with you. If it works out well, it'll turn into a fun time for both of you and you can find something that she likes!

 

The next step would be to start introducing her, slowly mind you, to more body acceptance stuff. Healthy At Any Size books, blogs and so on are marvelous. The internet is full of amazing resources for body love and acceptance. I would recommend starting slow with that because it is so different from basically everything we see. Goodness knows that I had a lot of really extreme, negative reactions to a lot of it when I first encountered it. However, it would be a huge benefit to her to start traveling down that path early in life. My Body Gallery is definitely an excellent place to start. Staci's transformation is also phenomenal. There are bunch of incredible blogs out there that would serve your purpose well, although you may have to pick and choose which articles you show her. (Some of the blogs are definitely written for adults. However there are some fantastic articles within the selection that would be okay for a teenager to read.) Would you like any of those? I can send you some links! 

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