So, Your Kid Wants to Go to the Gym: Healing the Generations
Alice Baker, MS, RD, CEDRD, LDN
My son turned 13 this summer; therefore, we have officially entered the teenage years. And this is the minimum age our local gyms require. That fact was not on my radar until a week before his birthday he asks me “Mom, could I get a gym membership for my birthday?”
My body tensed immediately. The gym is the place I excessively exercised in my Eating Disorder years ago and was encouraged. The gym is the place I maintained hurtful weight bias against myself and others and was encouraged. I had raised him to find movement he enjoyed and that did not feel like a cruel task. Would this change that? Would he be exposed to unnecessary weight bias, and how would this impact him? I put my panic on a shelf and gently asked him “What might be the reason you want to go to the gym?” He nonchalantly stated, “I would like to strengthen muscles that might help me with my basketball game.” This is a game he loves, so I calmed a little. And after speaking with friends and colleagues, I realized he does not have the same relationship with the gym as I do, and this could be an opportunity to allow him the exposure while maintaining his sense of self and body confidence. That next week we did sign up, received free personal training sessions, and through this experience, I have learned five core things that helped me as parent navigate through this sticky situation.
1. Set boundaries ahead of time.
Prior to our first appointment with the trainer, my son Jake and I talked through the services they offer which are helpful, and which are harmful. We discussed the unnecessary practice of body fat testing and how that puts the focus on numbers instead of moving his body. Thus, when we had our first appointment, he was able to be vocal that this was not something he wanted to do, and that he wanted to focus on strength, preventing injury, and improving his game. Even if you do not use a trainer, talking ahead of time what your child’s focus is on will help navigate his or her choices while there.
2. Talk about it, talk about it, talk about it.
The first trainer we met with honored our request to forego body fat testing, but in the same breath said to Jake “I am sure you want to get bigger right?” Sigh. However, I was so proud of him in that he firmly stated that is not his focus. Afterward, we talked about how that conversation impacted him. There are so many good resources out there on weight bias, and this can be an opportunity for our kids to internalize health at every size on a deeper level when it is relevant to their day to day experience. It was also an opportunity to increase his empathy. My son is a thin white male; therefore, has and will have enormous privilege. Experiencing this moment where the size of his body was put on the stand, opened him up to learning more about others experience and using his privilege to stand up for social justice issues and question the hierarchical system that says some bodies are better than others.
3. Stay involved and step in when necessary.
I did request another trainer that focused more on strength and conditioning and this trainer has been fantastic. Jake and I researched together Health at Every size material and brought in articles (see links below) he thought would have the most impact and wanted to share. While it is our kid’s story to experience, buffering with our presence can empower them to use their voice.
4. Ask questions that increase interoceptive awareness.
Interoceptive awareness is the process and skill of bringing our physical body state to conscious awareness and has been linked to a greater sense of well-being. Using machines and learning new calisthenics would have a new effect on Jake and this was an opportunity for him to stay connected to his body throughout. We regularly talked about his hunger levels and cravings which increased considerably to alert him to cover his activity with fuel. He noticed he slept harder on nights he went to the gym. He was attuned to any physical pain and rested when he needed to. He also noticed he was able to jump higher and shoot farther in basketball which encouraged him that there are things he can do to better his game that do not depend on his body shape or size.
5. Stay attuned to your own story.
It has been said that our past continues to impact our present. If we ignore our past, it will control us yet if we embrace our past, we have a choice. This experience was also an invitation for me to enter deeper healing in the painful experiences I had at the gym. I realized the gym represented times in my life where I felt powerless and without a voice. Friends and mentors have engaged me with kindness and remind me that I have since accessed my voice; therefore, the gym does not hold the power it once did. Re-engaging this part of my story has been crucial to my presence with Jake and offering involvement and support without intrusiveness and my own angst.
Parenting is certainly not for the faint of heart. Raising a child comfortable in their body requires a high level of intention, and even then, there is no guarantee. I do not know how the gym will ultimately impact Jake; however, I do know through this experience we have talked more about weight bias and weight stigma than ever before. I do know that Jake has been required to connect to his body, his truth, and his voice. And this, in my book, holds significant worth.
Alice Baker, MS, RD, CEDRD, LDN has 20 years’ experience in the field of Eating Disorders. Due to her own recovery and the freedom she found, she was passionate about eating disorders from the beginning; therefore, did her field work in eating disorders and presented her case study on Anorexia Nervosa. Alice has served clients with eating disorders through the full spectrum of care from inpatient to outpatient. Throughout, her passion grew into creating structure for her clients to heal. This includes creating nutrition protocols for multiple eating disorder programs. Alice currently sees clients in private practice in Orlando, Florida, facilitates support groups, presents regularly on Eating Disorder topics, and supervises new dietitians in this rewarding field. In 2016, Alice obtained her Master’s in Counseling to empower her to also come alongside individuals therapeutically as they courageously look at their stories and walk the healing path. Visit her website.