EmpowerED Kids: Why I Will Always Say No to Numbers
Last week, my six-year-old daughter asked me if she could get a new watch. This wasn’t a new question; her Poppy watch had broken a few months ago and every once in a while she brought up getting a new one. You see, when you’re a kid and have just learned a new skill, it’s something you want to practice all the time. When you finally recognize that the letters floating in front of your eyes resolve themselves into words, then sentences, then actual stories, it’s a magical experience. You see letters and words wherever you go. You seek like them out like a puppy begging for treats, always wanting more.
It’s the same with time. Once your mind orients itself to a world where seconds make up minutes and minutes make up hours, it’s hard to see things the way they were before, when time was simply measured in Elena of Avalor episodes. (Or for an especially long car ride, two viewings of Tangled.) A watch helps you know where you are in time. It helps you understand how soon the school day will be over or how much more playtime is left before the bedtime routine starts.
So, yeah, a new watch isn’t a big deal. It’s what came after that that worried me.
“Mommy, one of my friends from class has a cool watch. It has her name on it and tells her how many steps she takes each day. It’s called a FitBit.”
I could hear the record scratch noise in my head. My mouth opened and closed. My thoughts raced. What should I say to her? My first reaction (an emphatic “No way! Not in this house!”) didn’t quite seem appropriate for the situation. How could I explain without demonizing? Without bringing up the issues that a FitBit can create for so many, kids and adults alike? Without talking about her eating disorder-tinted genes?
“Well, I don’t really believe in FitBits.” That was the roundabout way that I started, my warm-up to explaining myself more fully.
I talked about how we can definitely get her a watch, but that I don’t think kids should be tracking their steps. I talked about how it’s important to get physical activity, but that I don’t want her to worry about tracking herself, that all of her gymnastics and running and playing and biking and scootering and trampolining are enough. That I don’t want her to make steps into a competition, or feel bad about herself if she doesn’t “beat” her record one day.
I think she absorbed the conversation. We haven’t talked about it since. I hope that the FitBit will go the way of so many other material items sthat he notices in school: the princess crown her best friend wore one day, the sparkly shoes of one classmate and the cool backpack of another.
But even as my daughter forgets, those FitBits will still be out there, tracking and counting away. When I suffered from anorexia nervosa, FitBits didn’t exist yet, a fact for which I am forever grateful. Calorie counting existed, though. Scales existed. Obsessions and food rules existed. Exercise routines existed. And, much like a child learning how to read or how to tell time, one I knew those calorie counts, I couldn’t forget them. Once I had rules and expectations for myself, I couldn’t go back to a world without them.
It took me a long time to recover, to push through the pain and the anxiety and the stints in treatment. It took me years to realize that I didn’t need numbers or scales or food labels to tell me my worth.
Children should not be given one more way—one more depressing opportunity—to define themselves in numerical terms.
I understand that FitBits are great for some people. For some adults, that is. For many adults struggling with their weight, FitBits can help to motivate and to encourage. That can be a good thing. It can.
It can also be a very bad thing.
I recognize that I am coming from a place of privilege. Even after recovering, I still exist in a thin body. I don’t face discrimination for something that I cannot control—for the way that others’ bodies are meant to be.
That’s the thing, though—I think that so many of us would be better off if we accepted the way our bodies are meant to be, to not try to diet or exercise or obsess them into a different package, a more “societally acceptable” way of being. A way of being that is determinant on numbers and weights and calories and yes, steps. And for children, who are still developing—both in their bodies and their minds— this culture, the one that we have been steeped in for so long that it almost seems normal, is toxic.
On February 19, 2019, I’ll be releasing my next two books for middle schoolers. In the fictional Good Enough, Riley is a twelve-year-old girl recovering from an eating disorder. In You Are Enough, I share my own experiences recovering as I present a nonfiction guide to self-esteem, body image and eating disorder recovery. While researching You Are Enough, I discovered that there are treatment centers specifically for children in elementary school. That between 1999 and 2006, hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under the age of twelve increased by 119%. That 40% of nine-year-olds have already been on a diet.
Nine years old.
Twelve years old.
Let that sink in.
Our culture loves a good diet. But what would happen if we all took the revolutionary step of accepting our bodies the way that they are—the way that they are genetically designed to be? I am not saying that you can’t take steps to improve your health. I love exercise. It makes me feel great. I love challenging my body and making it feel strong.
But I don’t want my daughters measuring their worth by steps. I don’t want them disappointed because they “moved less” one day. Because their friends did more or their bodies are bigger—different, even—than their peers.
I don’t want that for you, either. For me. For anyone.
Part of me wishes I could cast a magic spell on myself to go back to the time before I thought of my body as more than simply a body. I wish I could return to the carefree days of simply “being,” of not knowing that there’s also an expectation to “appear.”
But, much like children’s transformational journey into literacy, into understanding how time structures our world, my struggle and recovery from anorexia brought me into the land of no return. And for that, I am more grateful than regretful. Because now I can use my knowledge, my pain, my hope and my determination to change the world for the next generation. I can tell my daughters that they are enough the way they are. I can tell your children.
And I can tell you.
You are good enough.
You are enough.