The late John F. Kennedy’s parents weren’t just determined that their children become successful — they were also hell bent on making sure that they stayed thin, alleges a forthcoming book, Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, excerpted in People on Monday ahead of its Oct. 6 release.
Joe and Rose Kennedy “were concerned about all the kids’ weights,“ according to the author, Kate Clifford Larson, in her biography of the couple’s third child, Rosemary Kennedy. "It was a constant theme throughout their whole lives. Every letter Rose wrote to the kids, from the time they were small to adulthood, she would comment on their weight. One was too fat, one was too thin, one should we be watching their weight.”
Even the eldest daughter Rosemary — who is described as mentally impaired — was among those pressured to stay slim, according to Larson. “Once, after she put on a few pounds during the winter months,” she reveals, “Rosemary… wrote to her father from boarding school, knowing he disapproved. ‘I am so fond of you,’ she wrote in her childish script. ‘Sorry…to think that [you will think] I am fat.” Joe then responded to the school: “She is getting all together too fat and I told her in no uncertain terms."
Rosemary was institutionalized from age 23 until her death in 2005 at age 86, after a lobotomy, arranged by her father to treat her violent mood swings, failed. Larson details how she often wrote about dieting in letters to her parents, pre-surgery. “She would say 'You’ll be so proud of me, I’ve lost some weight,’” the author notes.
The pressure to stay svelte was constant in the family, Larson notes. Visiting Rosemary as an adult in the Wisconsin facility where she spent more than six decades, her mother Rose would say, ‘”Rosemary you’ve had enough, you don’t get any dessert tonight because you need to lose weight,'” says one of Larson’s sources, who insisted, "Mrs. Kennedy did love her but she was more of a disciplinarian.”
But the only lesson that a child called “fat” by her parents actually learns is that they aren’t good enough, Dr. Robyn Silverman, body image expert and author of Good Girls Don’t Get Fat: How Weight Obsession Is Messing Up Our Girls And How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It, tells Yahoo Parenting. “If you ask people what they are really saying when they call somebody ‘fat,’ you find out what they mean is that they think the person is ugly or blame-worthy, unpopular or disgusting, and not in control,” she says. “There are many studies now that show how genes are related to weight, and it’s much more than what you’re eating or how much. But society still blames the person.”
When parents encourage their kids to lose weight, they are often trying to protect them so they don’t have to deal with discrimination, Silverman says. “They love their kids and fear that something bad will come of their weight, because people will judge them and their character,” she explains. “But what they don’t realize is that by calling children fat, they are doing the same thing that they’re trying to protect the kids from.”
And when body criticism comes from the very people who are supposed to support you unconditionally, it has an even more corrosive effect on kids. “A mother’s voice especially has such a profound impact on how we see ourselves,” she says. “The child takes that in and holds it as truth. They can become hyper-focused on weight as a result, and start doing unhealthy things to their bodies and saying unhealthy things to their brain to try and adhere to the standard of thinness held in their family. This attitude can be a trigger for people who are prone to eating disorders, and lead to other dangerous behaviors: cutting, yo-yo dieting, laxative abuse, and basically anything that can help them to try to adhere to a body type that may not be their own.”
Ironically, parents’ pressure on kids to maintain a certain size can actually result in the kids gaining weight. “Studies today are finding that if girls are labeled ‘fat’ and are being told they’re fat by a number of people, they’re more likely to become obese,” Silverman explains. “You become so focused on weight that you do things to mess up your system, trigger stress hormones. It just goes to show, you can’t shame people into losing weight.”
What parents can do instead is talk about how the most important goal is keeping your body healthy. Don’t make it a discussion of weight, advises Silverman. “Tell kids that we want to treat our bodies well to allow us to do favorite activities,” she says. “Say, ‘Lets keep it feeling good by treating it well with balanced diet and eating things that nourish us.’ Keep the focus on what our body can do and how we can energize it to do what we want it to do, not what a healthy body looks like.”
“Healthy,” after all, can look different on different people. “When you’re constantly harping on the weight, then you wind up celebrating the person who might be size 2 but secretly eats just Cheetos and Diet Coke for the whole day,” Silverman says. “We have to be very careful as parents to make sure that our message centers around health, and that weight is actually not the main focus. Because it’s really not the most important part.”