Self-deprecating comments can promote unhealthy attitudes about food and body image, according to Oona Hanson, parent coach and eating disorder expert
Girl Scout Cookie season offers girls the opportunity to raise funds for their organization — and learn a bit about business along the way.
“Even the youngest kids selling Girl Scout cookies, those kids are already vulnerable to messages about food that can be really harmful,“ Oona Hanson, a parent coach and eating disorder expert, tells PEOPLE.
And the harmful messages aren’t just coming from strangers who criticize the Scouts for promoting diabetes — which has happened, Hanson says. She adds, “I think most people agree that's not appropriate to say to a table of young Girl Scouts.”
“What's trickier are the more insidious comments that seem like a joke or self-deprecating humor,” she tells PEOPLE. “Saying like, ’Oh, I just can't keep those in my house. Those are my weakness,’ or, ‘I want to be able to fit into my clothes tomorrow.’”
Or they’ll reference "compensatory behaviors,” Hanson says, with comments like, “‘I'll buy these but don't worry, I'm going to go to the gym tomorrow.’”
And while one quip might not seem like a big deal, as Hanson points out, those “gray-area, subtle jokes really add up over time."
The cookies are on sale from January to April. That’s a long time to have children — especially young women — hear about food in categories of “good” and “bad,” which can lead to dangerous perceptions around eating, explains Hanson, who specializes in supporting families who want their kids to have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies.
“Children are very concrete thinkers; They think in very black and white categories,” Hanson explains. So when an adult treats cookies as “bad” or “naughty” — even as a joke — she says, “That really gets cookies put into this ‘bad’ category for kids. And this can go a couple different ways. Some kids can become very fearful, wondering ‘Is the food I'm eating good? Is it safe?’”
Or, she explains, they can “eat it and enjoy it and then they’re like, ‘I'm supposed to feel guilty now.’ They've been taught, ‘If you eat this kind of food, you should feel shame or guilt or do something about it, such as try to burn calories."
And once food is put into a category of “bad,” Hanson explains that “this can lead kids to secret eating, binge-like behaviors.”
“Adults might not remember,” she cautions, “the concept [that] forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest.”
So kids could binge-eat a"whole sleeve of Thin Mints, because, [they] don't want anyone to know, possibly feeling shame and guilt, but there can be like this thrill, right? This sort of rebellion [with] these so-called forbidden foods can be all the more alluring and exciting — and can also disrupt a child's relationship with food.”
So what should you do if you pick up some Girl Scout cookies and find yourself commenting that Peanut Butter Patties are your “guilty pleasure" — or that you'll hit the gym to earn those Trefoils?
First off, Hanson says, give yourself some compassion. “These are default comments; We didn't invent these out of thin air,” she says. “We've been taught to talk this way about food.”
But if you want to backtrack, Hanson suggests, “It's a great opportunity to say, ‘Gosh, isn't it a shame that when I was growing up, I was told I should be feeling guilty about cookies? I think that's so silly. Cookies are delicious, right? Let me get another box.’”
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