One evening when my kid was about ten, she climbed up to sit on the table where I was working, grading my midterms. “All the girls in Upper El are on diets.”
“What?” I frowned at her over the grammar exam I was in the middle of. “All of them?”
“Even Emma, and she’s only eight. Lily says her mother won’t let her eat grapes, because they have too many calories, and Hannah only brings tuna and celery for lunch, because she’s fat, she says, and Emma –”
“Their mothers know they’re on diets?”
“Lily’s mother wants her to diet,” my kid said, and then added, “I think. Anyway, she says her mother says she’s too fat.”
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Eighty percent of ten year old girls have been on a diet. More than half of all thirteen year olds are unhappy with their bodies. When asked what they would wish for – their number one magic wish in all the universe – adolescent girls wish not for brilliance; or for power; or for skill at music or art or Aikido; they don’t even wish for true love. They wish to be thinner.
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I didn’t start at eight; but like many American girls (and some American boys), I too spent much of my teen years on a diet. Or, well, actually, dozens of different diets. The eat-nothing-but-carrots-and-run-five-miles-a-day diet. The live-on-water-and-grapefruit diet. The tuna-and-yoga diet. The fasting-and-laxative diet. (See, you just don’t eat at all, nothing but water and Ex-Lax, until you reach the perfect weight –)
It wasn’t an eating disorder, exactly, and I was able to come to my senses; but it ate up (pun intended) much of my attention and intelligence during the years from age thirteen to nineteen. (You don’t make much progress in algebra when you’re starving.) Dr. Skull, an overweight child, had similar eating issues. So we were in agreement on this point. We wouldn’t pass those issues on to our kid.
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Because while the culture bears some responsibility here, with all its images of perfect and impossibly skinny women shimmering mirage-like before our children, still – this is the truth: oppression begins at home.
It starts with a mother who is always on a diet; who look in a mirror and calls herself a fat slob, a pig, a cow; who hates her body; who weighs herself daily and frets; who talks incessantly about food and eating less and calories and how bad they are and what should not be eaten.
(I can to this day tell you the exactly number of calories in every item of food you might reasonably encounter in your typical day. Pat of butter: 100. Apple: 100. Carrot, large: 20. Single Oreo: 150. Hot dog: without bun, 150. With bun: 300. Mustard is free!)
It starts with a father who comments on his wife’s weight, or (worse) his child’s weight, or polices the food they eat. (For their own good, of course!)
It starts with siblings who are encouraged to helpfully tease their sisters (or brothers) about their weight and the food they eat.
It starts with mothers and fathers who praise children for being on diets, for the pounds they lose, for the food they don’t eat: for their success in starving themselves.
Am I saying let your kid be fat?
I’m saying so what if she is?
Specifically, I’m saying that is far from the worst fate on this planet. (For instance: eating disorders. For instance: a child who hates her body. For instance: a child who believes that, without a perfect body, she does not deserve happiness, or love, or success.)
Specifically, I’m saying raise your kid with a healthy attitude toward food and toward her own body. Raise her to have a healthy and sane attitude toward food.
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So how do we do this?
First, don’t keep a scale. Don’t even have one in the house.
Yeah, I know. That sounds crazy, right? But just do it. Chuck that bastard out. Your weight doesn’t matter, and your kid’s weight doesn’t matter.
Healthy eating and a healthy life: those matter.
Second, if you (the parent) have issues about your body, work on those. If you’re fretting and obsessing about your weight, if you’re always on a diet, if you hate your body and show your child that, then none of the rest matters.
Love your body. Take care of your body. Show your child that.
Third, eat good food. Provide good food for your kids. Don’t talk about this. Just do it. If you’re not keeping crap around the house, if you keep fruits and vegetables and real food around, and (importantly) if you eat that too, and if you cook and let your kids help you cook, they’ll come to like real food and good food. Crap food will taste like the crap it is to them.
Fourth, keep an active life. Do physical things for fun – hiking, biking, whatever – but also walk to the store and library and work if you can. Having a fit body is much more important than having a skinny body.
Finally, despite all this, your kid is going to come to you some day and say, I hate my nose.
Or: My butt is too big.
Or: I think maybe my knees are fat.
Even if you hear the voice of your oppressors whispering in your ear – diet diet diet, tell her she should diet – you are the parent here. Stand up for your child! Do not, do not pass on the oppression!
Smile. Take her in your arms. Say: “You have a perfect nose.”
Say: “Your nose reminds me so much of your grandmother. She was a tough chick just like you.”
Say: “Every time I see that nose, I just burn with happiness inside. I love that nose to pieces.”
Mind you, she will shrug you off and say, “Jeez, Ma!”
But one day she’ll be wandering through the living room, where you will be grading yet another set of grammar exams, and she will say thoughtfully, “You know what. I really like my body. Every time I look in the mirror, I’m just…yeah. That’s a great body.”
And you can crack open a nice Beaujolais. Your work here is done.
(Original art by Cooper Jennings Burgh; photo by Mark Burgh)