“Mommy, what’s a calorie?”
I was in the middle of an intense workout, having (I thought) left both my sons upstairs under the supervision of their dad. But unbeknownst to me, my seven-year-old had followed me downstairs at some point. Absorbed in my weights and my own labored breathing, I didn’t realize he was there until he spoke up.
But calorie? Who said anything about calories? For a moment, lost in the haze of exercise-induced endorphins, I was at a loss, both to where the question had come from and how on earth I should answer it.
I’ve always tried to raise my children in a body-positive household. You’ll never catch me complaining about the size of my thighs, or jiggling my tummy, or worrying about how my arms look when we have impromptu dance parties. I don’t wear makeup. I don’t dye my grey hairs away. And I’m trying hard to stop taking my glasses off every time I snap a selfie.
So when I say I don’t exercise to lose weight, it’s the absolute truth. I exercise to keep my body strong. I exercise because it gives me more energy. I exercise because it helps my moods stay balanced. I exercise because it helps me sleep better.
I’d never really thought twice about doing one of my exercise videos with my children in attendance. To be honest, I’d always sort of mentally patted myself on the back for it. I took obvious joy when they practiced yoga alongside me, and didn’t even complain when I was edged off my own mat.
What a fantastic, healthy family I was raising. Right?
So where, then, was this question about calories coming from?
Right then, my attention was grabbed by the instructor on my DVD. This move really burns calories! And that’s when it hit me.
Is this where my son is getting it from? Is this why he asked me recently if I wanted to lose weight? Is this why I caught him examining his belly the other day? (A belly which I promptly covered with kisses, I might add.)
Is it these fitness videos I love so much?
The instructors who lead the various exercise videos I watch keep a running commentary going throughout. They talk about form, about how to do the exercises correctly. They offer encouragement, egging me on even when I’m positive I can’t do another rep. They remind me that exercise is a form of self-care.
And they talk about calories and exercising to lose weight and building that “perfect” physique.
When I really started paying attention, I realized that nearly every single DVD I use contains frequent admonishments about not “undoing this in the kitchen,” praise for moves that “torch calories,” and reminders that exercise is the key to having the body I’ve always (supposedly) dreamed of.
Although I’d been filtering those messages out, because they’re irrelevant to me, my kids were listening. And they were picking up every troubling implication the instructors send.
Girls love muscular arms, the teacher reminds us. We all want the booty, we’re told.
Are these girl weights? A female instructor teases a lean, muscular man.
And, of course, messages about food. Diet your way to health. Lean proteins, lots of veggies, and portion control. Good foods. Cheat days. And, lest we forget, burn those calories, baby.
These are not the messages I want to send to my children.
Since noticing these not-so-subtle messages, I've changed up my routines. Sometimes I still watch my videos in front of my children, but only when I can "pump up" the background music or mute the instructor's voice entirely. Sometimes I just mute the whole TV and put on my own playlist instead. Or I do routines from magazines or books, and my children like to join in the fun. We do yoga together, attempt push up contests, practice pilates moves. I have hand weights in sizes appropriate for everyone. We go walking nearly every day, and on days when I go running, my boys wave me off from the front window before going off to play with Daddy or Grandma. Exercise is still part of a healthy lifestyle, after all, and I want to normalize it.
For a long time, my workout videos were a beloved part of my self-care routine. Some of the ones in my collection go back years, and the instructors have become almost like friends. But no matter how good of a sweat I get, I can't ignore the toxic messages being sent to my children by those videos. Some friends you need to let go.