Diet culture tries to infiltrate my family. Here’s why I reject it.

This essay is part of Motherwell’s Parenting and Food column.

By Kathleen Dunlap

My 14-year-old son keeps saying he wants to eat healthily. This joinder typically follows his comment: “Because I’ve put on some weight.”

I try the silent response for a while. I don’t say anything. I smile, hug, and redirect him.

But then, one day, my son asks me: “Have you ever been on a diet?”

I blink.

The first response from my mouth wants to be, “You’re fine, just the way you are. Don’t change anything about yourself.”

The second response erupting from my inner self is, “Don’t go down that road! I know it too well!”

I am triggered. No longer am I his mother—a 37-year-old working professional with a husband and two kids. I am 15, standing in my cousin’s pink bedroom, staring at myself in the mirror, while she stands behind me and proclaims, “You’re fat in the face.” I am 16 and on my first diet but sneaking spoonfuls of peanut butter when my mom’s not looking. I am 23, quietly binge-eating chips and salsa in my apartment while my roommate works the night shift.

It takes a few minutes for me to remember who I am and who he is. What do I say in this moment? Do I lecture him, do I help him diet, or do I attempt a re-direction?

I opt to tell my son my truth. I tell him about every solitary diet that I have tried: low-calorie, low-fat, vegan, counting calories, low-carb, no-carbs.

“All those diets just left me hungry,” I say. “They don’t work.”

“Oh,” he says, almost sounding disappointed.

I want to swoop in and re-wire the part of my son’s brain that thinks something is wrong with his body. But, this area like others when raising a teenager is tricky to navigate. According to a recent article published by The Newport Institute, “eating disorders and problems with excessive exercise have increased among men.” The article further stated that “male body image issues can be a result of trauma connected with…childhood trauma.”

My son has only been with our family since late 2020. In 2021, my husband and I adopted him from the foster care system. Before he came to live with our family, he experienced a hard life. Food was scarce. He told me that one time he and his two half-brothers found cereal in the cabinets of their kitchen apartment. “We ate all of it,” he said. “We were so happy.”

The first day our son arrived at our home with his caseworker, we went out for burgers. Over the next year, as he integrated into our family, connecting with food became an integral part of our family’s life. We showed him how to scramble eggs, make ramen noodles, and bake a cake. We grilled burgers and roasted hot dogs. Snacks became readily available in the pantry and on the top of the refrigerator. Each meal, whether at our family table or on-the-go in the car converted into an opportunity for my husband and I to provide safety, security, and assurance.

Now that my son’s teenage body is changing at such a rapid pace that his consumption of food can’t keep up with his ravaging hunger, I refuse to pull the plug on food access for him. I won’t introduce him to the diet culture’s scarcity mindset that could trigger memories of him as a helpless, young child with no way to feed himself.

Heck, no.

I reject diet culture’s attempts to infiltrate my family. I’ve lowered the gate on our castle and pulled up the drawbridge. I have already walked down that road and only returned with the help of a licensed therapist. I will not willingly contribute to any further spread of my son’s trauma around his body. Not on my watch.

So, what is it that I can do?

Let me answer with this: A few weeks ago, on a Saturday night, I made San Antonio-style tortillas from scratch with pork carnitas. I chopped up lettuce, tomato, and cilantro for toppings. I blended a fresh salsa with tomatillos, lime, and serrano peppers.

My son filled his plate with food, then commented, “It’s so colorful!”

“Well,” my husband said. “They say the more colors on your plate, the healthier it is.”

My son smiled. “Yeah, that’s right. I knew that.”

This is what I can do: I can model the way of a balance approach toward food choices and an acceptance of my own body. I can make fresh, colorful food. I can affirm how strong and capable my body is. I don’t have to teach with words. I can show my son what a well-rounded, balanced diet looks like.

I can praise him for how strong he is when he moves his body through exercise or play, and I can join him when he does. I can teach him how to cook his own meals and how to balance his choices between a cookie and a carrot, while also teaching him that food is available, necessary, and life-sustaining. I can reinforce good ideas about him—all while snubbing my nose at any fad diet. 

Food rules don’t belong in my house, but my son absolutely does.

And, for dessert that Saturday night?

Cake, of course.

Kathleen Dunlap is a writer and mom of two wild and wonderful boys in Denver, CO. When she isn’t writing, she’s running along Colorado’s amazing trails or in the kitchen trying out a new recipe. Connect with her on Instagram.

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