I couldn’t be more thrilled at the person my tween boy is becoming. He’s smart and handsome and has an amazing sense of humor. And he also likes to let everyone know how smart he is. When it comes to his brain, he has all the confidence in the world. When it comes to his body, it’s a different story.
We’re constantly hearing about ad campaigns and programs and mentoring programs to help build the self-esteem of young girls and help them to seem themselves in a body-positive light.
Dove taught us that “real beauty” comes in all shapes and sizes. Always taught us to throw “like a girl.” Under Armour showcases women who are “unlike any.” Campaigns like these are empowering. They may have even brought a tear or two to my eyes. And I hope they are having an impact on girls.
Boys, on the other hand, don’t need body-positive images, right? Because boys are ATHLETES! They grow into men who wear Old Spice! They’re tough and rugged and rambunctious and full of energy. They’re too busy being boys to worry about stuff like how they look.
But I’m here to tell you otherwise and to tell you that it can be a weary path to navigate.
My son is technically obese. His BMI has been off the charts for a few years with his weight currently putting him in the 96th percentile for his age. It’s frustrating for me as a parent and it’s frustrating for him as a boy. It’s not something we take lightly but it’s not as uncommon or as unhealthy as it sounds.
Evan was actually a pretty normal-sized baby. In fact, until he was 5 years old, he always ranked pretty high for his height and extremely low for his weight. He was so skinny that he usually had to size down just to keep his pants on. And we got into the habit of trying to get our picky eater to just eat anything. If you’re a parent, you’ve been there.
When he went to kindergarten, he started to really “normalize.” I packed his lunch every day (PB&J was pretty much all he’d eat) and when he came home, he’d play outside with his friends. We thought we were doing everything right. We used stone ground whole wheat bread, all natural peanut butter (the kind you have to stir), and jelly sweetened only with fruit juice. We packed him water and baked potato chips. And still the pounds started to pack on.
By the time he reached 3rd grade, he was quite heavy. His feet would hurt when we walked too much or too far. He noticed he couldn’t run fast. He started to become self-conscious especially when he played with the other boys. He ended up having a falling out his neighborhood friends and retreated into his video games. Admittedly, he became less active and probably ate too much.
He felt embarrassed by his weight and he felt helpless. He hated how he looked. The kids in the neighborhood called him fat. And he even had his friend’s mother make a casual comment making fun of his weight. He was hurt.
So we tried to eat healthier and get active but we never really had a plan. Honestly, I started packing on a few pounds myself. We were a sedentary family that liked to eat. I could get away with it but my son’s body couldn’t.
Every year at his check-up, I’d ask his doctors about his weight and if we should be concerned. Every year, they told me the same thing. As long as he followed the same growth pattern, they weren’t concerned. They’d make casual suggestions about making healthy choices. One doctor even suggested we switch to diet soda. (For the record, we’re not soda drinkers and never have it in the house in the first place – diet or otherwise).
It wasn’t until the fall of his 4th grade year that we became especially concerned. Evan was experiencing frequent headaches and stomachaches to the point that he started missing a lot of school. One of his doctors suggested that he have an ultrasound of his abdomen and we found out that both his liver and spleen were enlarged. We were referred to a pediatric gastroenterologist at Johns Hopkins and walked away with… absolutely no answers whatsoever. The doctor was only concerned about the pain and if the pain wasn’t immediate, he had no suggestions for us.
So we took matters into our own hands. Evan and I were both desperate for a change and we embarked on the Whole 30 plan. While it may sound like torture for most kids, Evan was thrilled to have a plan that would hopefully make him look and feel better. So we spent the entire month of January 2017 learning how to eat healthy in a whole new way. I lost 6 pounds and Evan lost a whopping 10 pounds. He was thrilled and confident in himself even though there was more work to be done. And even better, all of his stomach pains went away.
We maintained our healthy eating through most of 2017 until the holidays rolled around and we start rolling around with them. We both packed on a little more weight and when Evan went back for his annual checkup, the doctor seemed more concerned. She wanted to have a follow up ultrasound done to compare with the previous year’s results. And she wanted to have his blood work done and have us visit a nutritionist. We were hoping that maybe we’d either see some improvement or get some answers to help us figure out what was going on with him and his weight.
In the meantime, we took our own course of action. We started off 2018 much the way we started off 2017 – with a commitment to better living. We hoped to improve our diet, get more active, and lose weight. That’s when we started on a modified ketogenic diet. He loved it and I loved it and we both lost weight pretty quickly. We felt better, ate less, and finally felt like we were eating in a sustainable way.
We scheduled our appointment with a nutritionist and thought we’d get a nice pat on the back for our new lifestyle and weight loss. What we discovered is that a nutritionist is really a food counselor. While she made some healthy suggestions, she was more interested in Evan’s relationship with food. We were so proud of the sugar and carbs that we cut out of our diet but in the process, Evan had discovered a fear of eating carbs. He started to obsess over the right foods to eat and worried constantly about carbs and calories.
In an attempt to relax that obsession, the nutritionist suggested that Evan have dessert at least once a week or even every night. We both felt a little defeated. That was not a suggestion he was looking for as those were the unhealthy habits he was trying to avoid in the first place.
In the end, we got him to agree that I could help him make the right decisions – about what to eat, when to eat it, and when to allow himself a treat. And we didn’t go back.
Then the results came back that his liver was still slightly enlarged. So off we went to another GI specialist. This time, we had an excellent doctor who seemed to be supportive of our eating habits and really seemed to look at the big picture. Although his liver was enlarged, it was functioning perfectly and she assured us that her son went through a similar phase – very tiny, followed by large weight gain, followed by puberty and weight loss. But just to be sure, she sent us to a pediatric endocrinologist to make sure his metabolism was functioning properly.
At this point, we were feeling pretty good about our weight loss and our healthy eating and decided that visiting the endocrinologist would be a way to check a box in his health journey. And we were simply hoping that everything would magically work itself out in puberty.
This doctor asked a battery of questions from Evan’s birth, his early development, when his weight gain started, what our eating habits were like, and so on. She reviewed his growth charts and told us that he had appeared on the obesity scale as early as 6 years old. This was pretty shocking to both of us as weight was never an issue until he was at least 8 years old. She explained that his metabolism was fine because he was growing fine. Our eating habits seemed to be helping his weight but that perhaps we could replace his cheese and nut snack in his lunch with some carrot sticks.
That was a month ago and it’s taken that long for me to collect all of these thoughts.
No wonder people are frustrated with the medical profession. In three years, we’ve seen three pediatricians, had two ultrasounds and several blood tests, and visited three specialists and a nutritionist.
We’ve been told, in no particular order, his liver is enlarged but fine. He should drink diet soda. He should have dessert. He should watch his carbs but eat more carrot sticks. Oh, and he’s obese.
But the most important findings are my own. My son is a big kid. He’s almost as tall as his mother but still has another foot before he catches his father. He clearly inherited the large Irish genes from my husband’s side of the family. He runs as fast as the other boys on the playground at recess and he has more willpower than I ever will. But he trusts me to guide him on the right path for his health and his appearance.
We struggle many days with him wishing the scale showed a lower number. I have to constantly remind him that as the scale changes, so does his body. He may not lose weight but he’ll continue to gain inches. And there’s puberty on the way. We don’t know how that will affect his body but I know he’s hoping that it will bring some welcome change. He just has to be patient and let nature run its course while he comes to terms with how he looks.
In the meantime, he’ll be wearing a swimshirt again this summer. But I know one day, he’ll feel confident enough to run around shirtless at the pool. Until then, I do my best to keep his relationship with food a healthy one, remind him that we have to work with what we’re given, and tell him to surround himself with people that like him for who he is and not what his body size is.
Also, that BMI chart can kiss my ass.