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April 28th, 2010

So, yesterday, my five-and-a-half-year old daughter informed that she was going to start eating more carrots. More vegetables in general. “More green things,” she told me.  This was very good news to me as her fresh produce intake consists of: baby carrots, broccoli, apples. I figured it was the influence of her friend Sophia’s mom. During my tour, she’s been eating dinner over there a lot, dining on things like vegetable soup and even trying a spear of—gasp!—asparagus.

“That’s great, sweetie,” I said. “Want to try some peas tonight?”

She nodded. And then dropped the bomb. She told me she wanted to eat more vegetables because one of her friends at school told her she was too fat and she needed to get skinnier if she wanted to join the Glamorous Club.

W.T.F.

I felt like I’d been socked in the stomach and I immediately remembered that moment when I was pregnant and getting a sonogram and the doctor had told me I was having a girl and I’d thought “Oh, shit.” It was because of insanity like this. Because of the crap that girls hurl at each other. I knew it was coming. I just didn’t know it was coming in Kindergarten.

But it does and it carries on right up until, oh, death. One need only glance at the YA cannon to see how prevalent body issue mishigas (Yiddish for craziness; when I get this worked, my Old Jew comes out) is. A sampling: Judy Blume‘s Blubber (I can still remember this rhyme/taunt “Oh what a riot/Blubber’s on a diet. I wonder what’s the matter/ I think she’s getting fatter and fatter and pop! 30 years after reading it).  Carolyn Mackler‘s Printz honor The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things.  Laurie Halse Anderson‘s  terrifying inside peek at the mind of anorexic, Wintergirls. And while it’s not exactly YA, Hungry: A Young Model’s Story of Appetite Ambition and the Ultimate Embrace of Curves by supermodel Crystal Renn and super BFF Marjorie Ingall is still excellent. But for every book like these lot, there’s another one (or hundred) about skinny girls obsessing about staying skinnier, stories in which thinness is a prize and fatness is a curse, or worse, a character flaw, and none of that ever goes challenged.

But  even if that were not the case, it wouldn’t matter. It’s not like my kid—or, the kids at school starting the Glamorous Club—are getting these messages from books. They’re getting them from images, which are so much stronger, alas, on young minds than the written word. And the images are skinny, skinny, skinny. And even though I can control what images my kids see at home (by accident. We don’t have cable; it is death for a freelance writer), she’s out in the larger world.

I was gobsmacked when Willa told me about the club and her need to slim down. Set aside the fact that she is so lean and muscled it would be hard-pressed to find any “fat” on her. It doesn’t matter. I don’t want my kid to be skinny. I want her to be healthy. And strong.  Both of my girls are kick-ass strong. I mean it. I cannot overpower them physically and for a second, I just felt this insane anger at anyone who was trying to do anything to take away my girls’ incredible strength. (Because, yes, I felt the attack on both of them.)

So I launched into this whole diatribe about what a strong beautiful body she has, about how eating all kinds of yummy food—including delicious cookies—makes us strong, how a glamorous club in which you can’t run around and hang on monkey bars sounds pretty dull to me (and besides, you can’t stay strong if you’re not running around the playground) and how any friend who wants you to change who you are didn’t sound like much of a friend to me.

After clarifying that the Glamorous Club allows for playground play and monkey bars, she turned to me and defiantly proclaimed: “She is my friend. I want to be in the club. I’m my own person!” I shut up. I want her to be strong. And she’s strong. She can out-argue me. Then again, she ate corn muffins for dinner and had a marshmallow for dessert, so this all may be theoretical.

Still, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth, so I emailed her teacher about it. She goes to a groovy progressive (public) school and they like to subtly address stuff like this when it arises. Arbo, the teacher, had an idea of where all this was coming from and said he’d initiate a conversation by reading one of his favorite books with the class: Why Does This Man Have Such A Big Nose?

The problems might not originate with books. But sometimes the solutions do.

  1. Hi Gayle! Robin (Bernstein) Reul here…former classmate from HS days….if you haven’t seen the following short film made by Dove (the soap company) it’s worth seeing…should really be mandatory viewing by all young adults, teens and their parents. Here’s a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYhCn0jf46U I have a nine year old daughter who is built “solid” and constantly compares herself to her stick-thin peers and the waifs she sees on TV. I think this is SUCH an important topic to tackle and show kids that they are NORMAL…I have dried many tears over this topic and I empathize. Loved “If I Stay”, by the way. You are an eloquent writer, to say the least. :)

  2. Wow!
    And go Dove for staking out this territory! Thanks, Robin, for showing me this!

  3. This really hits home. I posted it on my Facebook.
    I’d love to hear any follow-up on this post.
    Also, I am going to check out this book the teacher is going to read.

  4. >“She is my friend. I want to be in the club. I’m my own person!”

    this makes me want to cry. willa’s strong words in service of such distressing business!

    as you know, at seven josie told me, “i know some people are fat and some people are thin and people can be beautiful at every size, but when i’m in high school i hope i’m thin, because that’s what boys like.” oy.

    i think you’re so right about images. the fact that there are NO girls or women larger than a size 2 in any live-action disney channel or nick show i can think of? it’s a problem. we can do our best with books and with talk about our own values, but they know what they see. and they’re surrounded by forces that counter the messages we’re trying to convey.

  5. Wow. This post made me tear up. It’s so crazy how young kids are affected by this problem. Thanks for sharing Gayle!

  6. Gayle, thank you so much. I’ve just deleted a mini-essay, but it boils down to this: yes. What do we do with this? How do we combat it? What do I say to my very healthy five-year-old who is so worried about becoming fat that she cries?

    Personally I make sure to never, ever say anything negative about my own body in front of her. It won’t combat what she gets at school, but it’s something. And I always emphasize healthy choices and leave skinny and fat out of our vocabulary entirely.

    Ah, girls.

  7. That last sentence=completely right.
    Sometimes I see girls I go to school with, walking down the hallway like they own the hallways, texting manically into their cell phones whilst flipping their hair, and I just don’t get it.
    I’m a boy. I know I’m a little clueless and slightly unable to comprehend the mind of a teenage girl (or even a child,) but I’ve been trying my whole life to understand.
    Everyone just wants to fit in, even the most popular ones.
    And I’ve also been battling with that great thing called Weight my whole life.
    Your daughter will be fine, no doubt about it.

  8. I had to have a conversation with the Principal when the Gym teacher told ALL the kids they were fat (3rd graders) and recommended eating peanut butter (an allergen of my daughter’s.) The last thing I need on top of food allergies is an eating disorder! Argh…

    HUGS! Just keep talking to her about it, Gayle, you’re doing everything right.

    Heidi

  9. The only thing we can hope for and work toward is teaching our kids to eat right for good health not body image. My daughter tried out for cheerleader this year and when I was talking to the coach to make sure she had all of my duaghters paper work in she asked me “Which one is your daughter?”, I described her and the coach said “Oh yeah, I remember, she is the stocky one!” WHAT? My daughter is by far stocky, she is 11 and weighs 70 lbs. and is muscle and strength. She can literally wrestle me to the ground. My reply to the coach should have been, “You mean the little girl that is not anorexic”.

  10. What the HELL is wrong with coaches and PE teachers? These are the people who teach our kids about physical education and strength and from the two comments here, are the ones on crack where healthy body image is concerned.

  11. Willa you are beautiful just the way you are and you are just what you are supposed to be.

    I love you!

    POP

  12. your story shows that TV can be something dangerous for children.
    The most important things is not what people think about you or see you but how you feel and how you see yourself.
    I had to lost weight 3 years ago but it was only for my health and I love myself now.

    Willa has a great mum so she is perfect ;)

  13. Great blog, Gayle. Sure, kids are barraged by the media, but it’s still the messages you send at home. Too many parents, especially moms, talk about needing to be on a diet, or “I can’t eat that because I’m on a diet.” Or they deny their kids foods because “that’ll make you fat.” Like you, I’ve taught our kids that it’s everything in moderation—whether it’s salad or potato chips; the emphasis is on being healthy. And some moms are obsessed with the size of the clothes, instead of helping their daughters find the brands that fit their body shape best. My college freshman daughter is proud of the muscles in her thighs and calves because of her years in dance classes and on the track team. In high school she was confused when some of her friends’ moms would ask her how much she weighed. “Mom, you never ask me that,” she’d tell me later. And when she’d give them the number, the moms would say, “But you look so thin.” We’d laugh. The doctor says she is the perfect weight for her height. That’s great, but she’s not working at it, she’s just trying to live healthy.

  14. Wow, really loved this post! Everything is true, and considering I read Wintergirls, it must of have seriously scary to have your daughter say that to you. Damn images everywhere that promotes skinny! Lol, we need pictures of healthy people, not stick people.

  15. Oh Goddd. When my sister still danced, she used to make comments like this all the time…She was stick-skinny and worried to eat because she thought she would gain weight. Thankfully, she pulled herself out of this mindset and became a super-healthy, super-strong, super-badass volleyball player. But I never thought too much of her insecurities, because we all had them growing up.

    Teaching at a city high school has taught me a lot about body image and confidence. These are some of the coolest kids, and every day they come to school like they are ready to walk a runway, regardless of their size! They are proud of their shape and their curves, and it is so cool! A couple weeks ago, one of my students said, “You know what, Miss? You got a skinny little white girl body, you need to put on some weight.” I laughed, because in my high school and with my friends and my family, I’m thin, but strong. And no one is telling me to take second-helpings.

    You know what, Gayle? Just tell Willa to start her own club – in two weeks it’ll be way cooler than the Glamorous Club anyway!

  16. I did tell Willa to start her own club. She requested a birthday party club in which there were birthday parties–presumably hers–every day. My kid knows what she wants. And I have no doubt she’d eat cake at every one of those parties.

  17. Haha, that’s awesome, can I join the birthday party club? My bday was Monday!

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