I recently got involved tangentially in a facebook comment discussion thread started by a status update which implored women (and men!) to stop the negative self-talk related to food, looks, and weight–to stand against a culture which perpetuates self-hate instead of self-love. Once again, I was struck by the comments of a self proclaimed “skinny goddess” who went on and on about how people who are overweight and ugly really have only themselves to blame.
(Note: If you’re one of these moralizing people, stop reading now and go elsewhere. This post ain’t gonna be pretty for you. And you probably don’t want to hear it anyway.)
Besides sitting on my hands to fight the urge to slap some sense into this woman, there wasn’t much for me to do. I don’t know her and I don’t have the time to get into a battle of words with someone whose lack of compassion and empathy launched itself off of my computer screen and squarely into my lap. The best revenge in this digital age is a blog post, so here goes.
We have to stop the self-hate. It’s toxic. We have to stop blaming over-weight and/or unhealthy people as though they are making their choices in a vacuum. They aren’t. None of us are so independent that we are unaffected (or undirected) by the society in which we live. Believe what you want–but you are living a lie if you think you are completely autonomous in all your actions and choices.
When it comes to weight and health, I’ve long believed that genetics, hormones, and environment plays a bigger role than the “you are your choices” line of reasoning would have us believe. I’ve read desperate research over the years as well as several sociological/psychological texts which tackle the connection between weight/health and society (most notably Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach, The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health by Marion Nestle, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan). Nothing I read, however, synthesized a wider body of scientific research in regards to understanding what our bodies actually DO with food, how our bodies actually regulate our metabolisms.
Enter Fat Chance by Robert Lusting and eureka. Finally, a book which explains in very simple terms the many inputs which factor into how our bodies digest the food we eat. As I suspected, the actual answer to why it is so hard to maintain a healthy body in this society is much more complicated than how may calories we consume and how many we burn.
So what does this issue have to to with raising freethinking children? Everything.
Probably most important, for me, is that I am raising girls. I am raising girls who, genetically, likely did not hit this society’s jackpot of waif-like skinniness. Many people who struggle with weight related health ailments point to their genetics–and the vast majority are on to something. For me, this point was brought home when I met another woman at the gym who is my age and height. We went through a process of having our body fat, muscle-skeletal, and water mass measured. She is a much more petite woman than I, even though we are the same height; she is simply more narrow (for lack of a better word). We were both at 35% body fat when we did our initial analysis. The analysis suggested her body fat goal is 23-25%, as is mine, but our end weights are very different. Her goal weight is 140, which is 40 pounds less than mine, because I currently have 50 pounds MORE muscle-skeletal mass than she does. So while I weighed 40 pounds more than she did, that 40 pounds is entirely composed of muscle-skeletal mass. I am, quite simply, big boned and big muscled.
Now, if you want to live a long time, big bones and big muscles are a great thing. They are not, however, a great thing for girls and women in this society. So both of my girls are very likely to hear what I heard growing up. They will hear: you are fat, you are unhealthy, you are gross, you are unattractive, you are disgusting, you lack self-control, you are loathsome. I heard it–and it was wrong. Eventually, it became fairly accurate because I bought into the negativity and hate I was hearing and turned to food for comfort. Food is so comforting when you don’t have friends (and the friends you do have shovel toxic garbage your way). Essentially, what I heard became a self-fulfilling prophecy. My developing mind figured if that’s what people thought, I should make it happen. And so I got into some very bad habits related to food and exercise which I do not want to pass on to my girls. I got into those habits despite the body-positive messaged I got at home, despite my mother’s and father’s commitment to combating the toxicity being shoveled my way by a society which viewed my body-type with contempt. I am still struggling against these habit–habits so ingrained that changing them takes an immense about of presence and mindfulness. It is a constant vigil. It is exhausting.
I look back at photos of myself from this time and I see the truth–I was healthy. Tall and wide, yes, but not fat. Not even remotely overweight. If I had known then what I know now about the density of my muscle-skeletal mass, perhaps that would have helped. It’s hard to know. Knowing it now is very helpful. I find myself less worried about the number on the scale and more committed to increasing my strength and endurance. I take pride in being able to do 10 pullups and a two-minute plank, something I could not have done 10 years ago, because these are a truer reflection of my over-all ability to move and feel good. The number on the scale? Not so much.
I look at my children now and they are big and wide. Compared to their peers, they are tall. They have massive bone structure and well-developed muscles. My oldest can swim halfway across the pool now and my youngest can pull herself up the rock-wall climber at the park. Their same-aged peers cannot do these things (or can, but not as well) and I have an inkling it is because they do not have the muscle my girls have. Now, my girls take pride in their strength. A decade from now? Two? Probably not. And it makes me sad to think it.
So what can I do, as a parent? How can I help them weather the storms of toxicity, of media driven hate, of nay-sayers and dooms-dayers, better than I was able?
I’ve already made choices (some different with my second) which I am hoping help. The book Fat Chance cites some research which makes me think my choices might be of some assistance, though I’m loath to fully understand how much is out of my hands completely. (I mean, BPA as a hormone disruptor? That wasn’t known widely enough with my first so that I could remove it completely from her environment.) Lusting’s book makes it very clear that we have some choices, but those choices are very much dictated and constrained by an environment we can never hope to fully control. Sure, you can control your home environment, but you can’t stay locked in your house forever. At some point, you have to venture out.
Even so, we have made some choices that I hope will help because doing nothing seems foolish. What are those choices?
1.Breast Feeding. I made the commitment to breast feed both of my children for as long as they wanted to. Neither breast fed as long as I wanted, but I didn’t force them to wean. I let them choose. I realize that breast feeding can be politicized in some vehement and down right mean ways. I realize I’m beyond fortunate that I could make this happen for them. And this issue is one that comes down to environment–our society does not support a woman’s choice to breast feed. It is an uphill battle. But the benefits? It allows baby to be in tune with her own hunger and hunger cues, and that is certainly a huge benefit when it comes to the endless supply of food in our society.
2. Baby Led Weaning. We introduced real food from the beginning. We made sure meals were balanced and portioned correctly to our baby’s age. We offered more if the initial offering was eaten and baby wanted it, but we didn’t push the “clean plate” which was a hallmark of both of our childhoods. Baby ate, baby didn’t eat–but we let baby be the expert on her hunger. Again, baby learns to be in tune with her hunger and satiation. And baby gets a hankering for the taste of real, minimally processed food instead of bland rice cereals, added sugar, and sodium. This choice also comes down to environment. The choices available for babies in the baby-food aisle are not BLW friendly, much less baby friendly. Our pediatrician pushed back, too, until she saw that our oldest neither chocked nor lost massive amounts of weight. We even got some not-so-kind remarks in the early days if we were eating out of the house. A less-sure parent would have crumbled in the face of it.
3. Positive Body Talk. We focus on what our bodies are good at and what they can do. And, as I’ve been working to lose the pregnancy weight, I’ve framed my transformation as one of increasing my strength and endurance, and therefore my ability to keep up with my children, instead of a weight-loss odyssey. Any negative talk from outsiders is either re-framed on the spot or shut down. This has been hard for some of our friends, who are used to saying things like, “I’m such a fat cow I shouldn’t have the bun with my burger,” and I think we may have offended people from time to time. Too bad for them, but our girls will not be subjected to toxic comments. Eat the bun or not, but don’t put yourself down in the process (or hold yourself up as moral because you avoided the bun). The problem with maintaining positive body talk is that negative body talk is edemic in our environment. Turn on the radio (or the TV, which we don’t have in our home) and there’s a weight loss ad. Walk down the milk aisle at the store, conveniently located next to the ice cream, and over-hear two women discussing how fat they’re going to feel when they eat the ice cream they’re purchasing–even though they are so skinny you can count their ribs. Negativity is everywhere.
4. Positive Body Language. How many times have you looked at yourself in the mirror and frowned? Your child(ren) sees this nonverbal interaction and it informs the way she looks at herself. I have so many issues with my own body that I have to be very mindful of my nonverbal cues when I’m looking at myself in the mirror and my children are around. It’s been hard, but it’s actually helped me to be less critical and more loving towards myself–which in turn nourishes my ability to make better choices. Again, environment is a challenge. Just a cruise through the gym’s locker room with my oldest resulted in an extended conversation about the scowls she observed on the faces of women looking at their bodies in the mirror. My little girl thought they looked so strong, she was envious of all the things they must be able to do with their body. She didn’t understand why they looked so mad!
5. Re-framing Body/Looks Comments. People say crazy things to children, especially girls. Environmentally, it’s ubiquitous. Almost every time I’m out with my children, someone will say, “Oh, what pretty/beautiful/lovely girls you have,” or, (to them directly) “what pretty hair/clothes you have on,” or, “what a lovely princess you are, I’ll bet daddy takes care of you,” or, “be careful walking on that curb/riding your bike.” We try to re-frame these immediately, focusing on things they like to do or expanding a secondary non-looks related comment the person makes. This can be a challenge and we have certainly offended people with our re-framming–but we have also made people actually pause and re-frame their own comments, which brings them heightened awareness at how damaging their message of, “You are what you look like and don’t do anything un-girl-like,” really is to the young girls who hear it.
These ideas are just the start. My children are still very young and we have a long way to go. I have no idea if I can instill enough body-love in them now to combat what this society will shovel at them as they mature. Because that is the reality–we are not parents making choices in a vacuum, we are parents making choices within the specific context of this society. We’re screwed in two ways. First, our society hats “fat” people; it hates “big” people, even if they are healthy; it especially hates big women. Second, and most damning, is it promotes food policies which conversely impact our ability to make healthy choices. Yes, we can try. We can even succeed, to some extent; however, the framework of food policy in this society is one of industrialized consumption. They want us to eat and hate us when we do.
It often feels like a losing battle, one in which the odds are stacked squarely in society’s corner, but it is a battle for my daughters’ very beings. We cannot afford to back down.