Wednesday 14 October 2015

Teenage fuel

My 11-year old daughter was bemoaning the fact that she was too tall the other day. Having just started secondary school, she was embarrassed that she was towering above many of the older girls. In an attempt to comfort her, I started to tell her that our culture prized superlatively tall women in the form of supermodels... then I stopped. Where was I heading with this? Was I encouraging her to aspire to being bony and underfed? Heaven forbid!

Teenage girls with fruit for eyes
Having fun with food...
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As mothers, we are advised not to comment on our own weight or even focus too much on the way our daughters look. Our girls and boys are growing up in a society where the pressure to look attractive/desirable is almost overwhelming. According to a recent government survey, two-thirds of British teenage girls consider themselves too fat. No wonder then that admissions to UK hospitals for teenagers with eating disorders have almost doubled in the past three years. To add to the complexity of the problem, obesity in children is also on the rise.

The factors exerting pressure on young, impressionable minds are manifold: doctored images of 'perfect' young women online, intrusive social media, a fashion industry that still celebrates the waif and even blogs advising teenage girls on how to under-eat.

One way of tackling problems with body image centres around attitudes to diet and exercise. In the context of teenage girls, however, food in itself has become a contentious subject. "There is a fear around it because we have all lived through it," says Laura Vann, a Pilates instructor who is setting up health and wellbeing workshops with her sister, Emma Wildgoose, a nutritional advisor"No one has a problem with their child learning maths, but when it comes to learning about food, it can be very emotive."

'Fundamental life skill'

Emma Wildgoose, nutritional advisor, and Laura Vann, Pilates instructor
Emma (L) and Laura (R) want
to help girls feel more confident 

Laura and Emma have set up their workshops because they believe that too many schools are failing to educate children about nutrition and the art of cooking. "It's a fundamental life skill and I don't believe we are focusing enough on it," says Emma. Both of them find the idea of calorie-counting not only abhorrent but also an outdated mindset. Their workshops are geared around eating healthy, unprocessed food and teaching girls about posture, building core muscles and relaxation techniques.

"It all goes back to when I was that age myself and not feeling good enough, in terms of my body image," says Laura. "We are trying to help young girls feel more confident in their bodies. Instead of the focus being on small, it is on being strong."

Though the child psychologist Professor Tanya Byron advises parents to shift children's belief system while they are still young so that they celebrate what the body can do rather than the way it looks, not all parents are keen to intervene. The fear is that any pre-emptive action will turn body image into an issue before it actually is. Laura believes, however, that sowing a seed at an early age can have benefits. "If someone got to me aged 12 and told me that I could eat good food, I would have spent the next 25 years enjoying my food and what it feels like to be strong and physically able. We were led to believe it doesn't matter if you feel weak and unhappy as long as you are thin."

Ella Woodward, food blogger
Ella: glad that 'eating well' is cool
Photo courtesy of Henley Literary Festival
At the recent Henley Literary Festival, I asked food blogger Deliciously Ella, who has a large teenage following, when she thought it was appropriate to talk to girls about food. "In an ideal world, body image wouldn't be such a huge problem at 14," she said. "But if you are going to be conscious of food, I am very happy that yoga and eating well have become cool rather than the Kate Moss style of living... I would rather it was channelled in a positive way into eating quinoa and dates rather than not eating."

The wrong message

Emma, who owns the business Eat Real Food, often gets frustrated with fitness trainers in the public eye who enforce the wrong messages about food by advising clients to restrict their calories. "All I want to talk about is if your food contains the right nutrients and how best to fill the body with nutrients. It is nothing to do with your weight... This message bypassed me [as a teenager]. I was taught it, but it didn't go in because we grew up in a low-fat culture." 

Parents too can inadvertently trip up! My son will often ask me what's for pudding and when I say "fruit", he will answer, "But what's for unhealthy pudding?" When I discussed this with Emma, I realised that I used to often reward him with a sweet after his supper if he ate his vegetables, an incentive system that only reinforced confectionary as the top food.

There is, however, an argument to say that we all worry too much about food. One mother told me, "We have got 'eat your veg' drummed into us and the same message lies in the five-a-day rule. But that's enough for kids in my mind. Eating together as a family, with happiness and laughter is the best recipe of all!" 

She's absolutely right and I don't think Emma would disagree with her sentiments. The purpose of Emma's work is to build on that foundation and empower girls to make the right food choices as they get older, while also emphasising that they don't have to be healthy 100% of the time. The workshops that the sisters run place a premium on having fun whilst also learning how to take care of the body, whether that be making nutrient-rich chocolate brownies or turning Pilates positions into animal shapes.

So next time my daughter worries about her height, I'll be telling her to celebrate her strength and posture. As Laura points out, if your body is strong, you can carry your own suitcase! A far better aspiration than strutting down a catwalk in high heels.

Emma and Laura run their "Just Be" workshops in Henley-on-Thames. Parents are asked to fill out questionnaires beforehand and any girls with serious issues around food or potential eating disorders are advised to seek medical help rather then enrol on a workshop.


Deliciously Ella by Ella Woodward
A cookbook that uses natural foods in simple, easy-to-make recipes, written by the eponymous blogger who has assumed a cult-like status amongst her followers.

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