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.
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.