Author to speak on body image

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If psychotherapist Kathy Kater ruled the world, everyone would learn from a very early age that bodies are born to be different sizes and shapes — none better than the other, none right or wrong, she said.

Children would be motivated to stay connected to and care for their bodies based on internal cues, not external standards, she said. Everyone would accept and trust their bodies, eat wholesome foods and engage in exercise not for the sake of controlling body size and shape but in support of health and well-being. And health initiatives would cease promoting fear and loathing of fatness, she said.

Ms. Kater knows that utopia may never exist, but that doesn’t keep her from working toward it.

In addition to working in private practice, she is an internationally known author, speaker and consultant who tours the country to talk about the need to teach children to maneuver through negative and unrealistic media messages about body image and size.

“Too many children today have learned to feel anxious about their weight, size and shape at a time when they should feel secure in their body’s growth. The cultural message is now greater than before: There is a ‘right’ size and shape to be — basically having a slim and slender physique — and if you don’t have it, you are the ‘wrong’ size and shape,” Ms. Kater said.

She will present “Care Instead of Compare: Fighting the Media’s ‘Perfect Body’ Messages,” on Monday at Temple Emanuel of South Hills, 1250 Bower Hill Road, Mt. Lebanon.

Two sessions will be held: from 4 to 5:30 p.m. for teachers, health care workers and other professionals; and from 7:30 to 9 p.m. for parents and teens. 

The presentation is sponsored by the temple’s Jacob’s Ladder Fund, which provides programming to help families prepare children to meet challenges of today's world. Tickets are $5 per person or $10 per family. For tickets: 412-279-7600.

Ms. Kater, who lives in St. Paul, Minn., has specialized in the treatment and prevention of concerns about body image, eating, fitness and weight for more than 30 years.

Her first book was "Healthy Body Image: Teaching Kids to Eat and Love Their Bodies Too!" It was published in 1998 by the National Eating Disorders Association and was a curriculum for professionals working with eating disorders and rising rates of obesity in developing children and teens.

The catalyst for the book was a conversation with her 9-year-old daughter, Anya, back in 1996, she said. One day Anya came home from a play date with her best friend, Kallie, and asked, “Mom, why would Kallie say she’s fat?” Anya was confused because she didn’t see Kallie as fat.

Ms. Kater said she doesn’t remember her response, just the feeling of her heart sinking because she didn’t expect her daughter’s peers to “do the fat talk thing”— comparing themselves against unrealistic standards — at such a young age.

It led to an epiphany, she said. She thought the lessons being taught in her psychotherapy practice to adult clients struggling with body image and eating problems were simple enough for fourth-graders to understand. So she approached her school district’s health curriculum director, suggesting lessons on those topics, including what is not possible to control because of genetics and other factors. After learning that no such lessons existed, Ms. Kater began her own research and developed the Healthy Bodies curriculum, she said.

The curriculum, geared to grades 4-6, is recommended by the U.S. Department of Health for educators, and its scripted lessons are taught in schools across the country. A newly titled third edition of the book, "Healthy Bodies: Teaching Kids What They Need to Know," was published in 2012.

Ms. Kater also is author of "Real Kids Come in All Sizes: Ten Essential Lessons to Build Your Child’s Body Esteem," a companion guide for parents, health care providers and others, published in 2004 by Broadway Books/Random House. More information about her work is available at bodyimagehealth.org/.

As a long-term strategy for weight loss, dieting is counterproductive, she said. Studies have shown that more than 90 percent of weight lost through dieting is regained, and one half to one third of dieters regain added pounds, she said.

“We’re all born with a perfectly calibrated internal hunger regulatory system. Anytime we go on a diet, we’re eating according to external rules instead of internal hunger cues that have been communicating with us since we were babies,” Ms. Kater said.

During the Temple Emanuel sessions, she will lead audience members in activities such as modification of the “air diet” from her Healthy Bodies curriculum. During this exercise, she’ll ask audience members to breathe with one nostril plugged and mouth closed. After a while, participants become increasingly obsessed and preoccupied with breathing; they become agitated, frustrated and anxious and want to breathe more, she said.

“We find out what happens when we’re getting some air, but not all of the air that we need — which is what dieting is: We get some food but not really all that we need. When I say, ‘OK, now you can go off your air diet,’ everyone takes a big gulp of air — and binges on air, like we do with food,” Ms. Kater said.

Ms. Kater said she’s involved in a weight stigma group that has been invited to provide written input to the national “Let’s Move” campaign, developed by first lady Michelle Obama, on how the campaign's messages might be adding to the problem of weight stigma, as the group recently asserted.

“Their campaign promotes healthy eating and increased fitness — which is a very good message. The problem is, their campaign promotes these things under the banner of ‘obesity prevention.’ And, really, the reason why we should all eat well and get some movement in our lives is because it improves our health. We don’t need to talk about fat or thin as a reason for doing that,” she said.


Kathy Samudovsky, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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