As parents’ anxieties intensify, an industry has sprung up to address the problem—from personal trainers who specialize in workouts for 5-year-olds to child-friendly nutritionists who make house calls and teach kids how to navigate a bar mitzvah buffet, to ZoneChefs for kids, a delivery service that cooks up Sloppy Joes with a specific ratio of carbs to fat to protein.
Parental requests can get extreme. “Every other week, I get calls from parents asking if we have pre-Pilates for 2-year-olds,” says Dr. Howard Sichel of Power Pilates. His response: He laughs.
Then there are the social concerns. Kids are tuned in earlier and earlier to the notion that fat is undesirable—could it be all those pop tartlets on TV in teeny tube tops?—and parents fret accordingly about negative self-image and potential ridicule for a kid whose ribs don’t show. “Nobody wants to have loser kids. Your kid is going to be ostracized if they’re fat, and you don’t want your kid to go through that,” says a mother of a 3-year-old and a 3-month-old. “In New York, it’s even tougher because there is such a premium placed on being fit and glamorous and there’s nothing less in style than being fat.”
In a sense, a child’s waistline has become a public indicator of parental success or failure. Many embarrassed moms and dads ask themselves, and their shrinks, what does my kid’s weight say about me? “It’s a black mark against you as a parent,” the mother of two says. “You could have a kid who has horrible behavior problems, but at least that’s not apparent on the Christmas card.”
“No one wants to have loser kids,” says a mother of two. “Your kid is going to be ostracized if he’s fat.”
To any working parent wrestling with the fat issue, it can feel as if a New York life conspires against his or her best efforts. The Pearsons are certainly not the only ones who delegate their kids’ evening meals to a nanny. “Family dinners have become almost historical,” says Natalie Garfield, a psychotherapist with a speciality in early-childhood development. “Often, one or both parents work late and aren’t home to monitor their kid’s supper or emphasize eating well by preparing a healthy meal together.” Plus, if neither you nor the nanny can face cooking, there’s the tantalizingly easy prospect of takeout delivered faster than you can steam a head of broccoli or grill a salmon fillet on the George Foreman.
Then there’s the fact that kids, cooped up in co-ops without yards, have a shortage of play space, which accounts for parents forking out thousands to keep them moving at places like Jodi’s Gym or Asphalt Green, but this only goes so far. When kids are at home, the computer games and the TV, rife with snazzy ads for the latest sugar cereal and candy bars, are magnetic forces adults must struggle to overcome. (Having a television in the bedroom is a strong predictor of being overweight even for preschool-age children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.)
“Sometimes you feel like you are fighting the tide, and you can’t hold it back on your own,” says a weary Upper West Side mom with two boys under 5 who are both thin, though she still worries. “There is a huge system designed to make them eat junk food—just look at the movie-and-McDonald’s marketing tie-ins. I mean, thank God for pizza! At least it’s healthier than those awful McNuggets.”
In the basement of All Souls church on Lexington and 80th, two rows of 5-year-olds have just finished a set of sun salutations and are hovering in push-up position over their blue yoga mats. “Who’s going to show me a baby cobra?” asks their instructor, Tara Stein. To a chorus of “Me! Me! Me! Me!” they drop to the floor. “Strong bodies!” says Stein, who holds the pose with them. “Now, let’s see aaaaaa . . . mommy cobra!” They straighten their tiny arms and look up to the ceiling, backs arched.
When Stein began teaching classes last August, she figured parents would sign their kids up to relax them and keep them occupied after school. And some do. But the majority, including most from this particular Monday group, confess that their real motivation for shelling out the $325 for ten sessions is managing their kids’ weight. In this group of six girls— some wearing yoga pants, some wearing lipstick—and one very rambunctious boy, body types are already clearly defined. There is a rail-thin ectomorph, a thicker, apple-shaped mesomorph, and a few who are a step past doughy. “Parents call me up and say, ‘I’ve heard about your program,’ ” says Stein, who has a 19-month-old son herself. “ ‘I noticed my friend’s daughter is really looking great.’ ” Her classes are fully booked through summer.
An even bigger surprise for Stein than parents’ weight fixation was just how much the subject is on the minds of her young charges. The 5-year-olds regularly talk about the size of their arm muscles and “six-packs” of abs. With years to go before puberty, skinny girls strut around in sport bras. During class, if the ones with baby fat reach up to the ceiling in tree pose and slightly expose their tummies, they immediately pull their shirts down, embarrassed. A few weeks ago, when the kids were practicing a partner pose Stein calls “clown car”—one kid balances on another’s back—“the girl on the ground complained about the other, ‘I can’t hold her, she’s too heavy!,’ ” says Stein. “I said, ‘No, you can hold her“you can hold me if you do it right.’ When the girl who was doing the balancing fell off again, she got up and said, sadly, ‘I guess I am too heavy.’ ”
While yoga is now an option for 5-year-olds, calorie counting can start at any age. “You’ll have a kid at 4 months who plots at the 90th percentile for weight, and the parents will say, ‘Are they eating too much? Are they eating too much?,’ ” says Bruce Brovender, a pediatrician. “They’ll decrease the formula, try all different kinds of things to lower the amount of calories that are going into their child. They’ll push more water.”
Many thirtysomething parents are part of what Natalie Garfield, the nutritionist, calls “the anorexic generation.” “That was their epidemic for the most part,” she says. “For them, having a child who’s overweight is even more difficult.” Garfield has worked with parents who have tried to limit the intake of babies as young as 3 weeks. “I’ll see a mother breast-feeding who will say, ‘Oh, that was enough,’ and stop the feeding! Babies know when it’s enough; you don’t need to take a bottle or a breast out of a baby’s mouth. But women who are geared toward limiting their own consumption limit their babies’. If you call them on it, in a nice way, they can’t believe that they did that. They can’t believe themselves.”