Denise was sitting at the dinner table with her family. Her 8yrs old daughter was describing the going’s on at school that day - Girls still teasing each other over what they are wearing and all the usual “girl stuff.” But then the conversation made Denise uncomfortable, and say to herself, “OMG, where did this come from?” Her daughter was depicting how the girls were tormenting another girl for being “fat.” Denise tried to offer a life-lesson to her daughter. She told her daughter that it’s not nice to tease another girl for her weight or how she looks – and it’s not very fair either. Her daughter looked at her mother puzzled – and then said, “But Mommy isn’t fat bad? Isn’t it the reason you say we eat like we do, and it isn’t it the reason you go to the gym every day?” Isn’t it bad to be fat, mommy?” All Denise could think to herself is “How did we get here? – and – What do I say to this?”
Seems Denise’s daughter had been a pretty keen and astute observer of her mother’s behavior and attitude – so how did we get here? And what are we going to do about it now?Well, allow me to extrapolate, and I hope you will share this editorial with others who have daughters, or who may in the future.
………We live in a society where weight is both a form of prejudice and a form of social-control. And these biases imprison women far more intensely than men. And it starts in childhood. Eventually girls learn to “fear” puberty for how their bodies may change and Lord-forbid, “get fatter.” Girls are taught from a young age, not to embrace their bodies but to enslave them to the pursuit of thinness/leanness at all costs. And of course, the “logical” way to do this is to promote “diet” and “dieting” as a means and vehicle to achieve female success, validation, and attention. It’s no surprise Denise’s daughter said what she said – It’s not that kids say the darndest things, but that they sometimes reflect their reality in very scary and illuminating ways. Let’s look at the research for a minute here.
Distorted body-images have been reported in girls as young as 7-9 years of age. Recently a mother lit up the blogosphere after she found a piece of paper with a starvation diet on it that her 7 YRS OLD daughter was trying to live by. Body-image issues that begin this young seem to only intensify with age. For instance a study by Mellin et al showed that 31% of middle school girls between the ages of 9-10 were afraid of being fat, and this percentage vaulted to a whopping 81% in 10 yrs. olds – just a one year difference to internalize the cultural beauty doctrine. Furthermore, 51% of 9 and 10 yrs. old girls reported feeling better about themselves if they were on a diet. And of that number almost 10% were already reporting purging behavior or attempted purging behavior. The main point here is that the Mellin study was done in 1986 – these young girls are therefore likely mothers themselves now. Did they solve these issues and free the next generation from such ridiculousness? - Obviously not. These numbers are even scarier today than ever. Another study by Johnson et al 1989, showed that of 1268 adolescent girls – 52% reported they began dieting before the age of 14. And just quick research into the sociological studies of girls and dieting illustrates this has not changed much since the 1980s. So it should be no surprise that an outraged mother finds a scrap of paper with a starvation diet on it – that her 7 yrs. old was handed at school. So, the question becomes, aren’t you tired of it? Do you want to keep handing down these cultural psychic straight-jackets from one generation to the next? Many of you ask, well what can we do?Well first stop shaping questions in the form of helplessness. Imagine the power of one outraged gender speaking with one united voice. Think in terms of healing rather than in terms of counter-resistance. To relieve young girls of these ridiculous burdens requires a loud voice of thousands, even millions of outraged mothers to challenge the prevailing assumptions and values of this culture – and promote a deeper understanding of the issues involved. It means exposing commercialization of female exploitation through diet and weight-control – and focus on raising female consciousness to encourage young girls to know and develop competence and confidence outside the realm of appearance first. And I’m sure there are even programs for this that are not being tapped into at all.
What is necessary to change the conversation – to challenge the social context – and to eventually change it is that “fat” needs to be identified and recognized as a form of cultural prejudice. Only once this is embraced by men and women, can young girls specifically, be released from all the components of cultural bigotry that lead directly to eating disorders, body-image issues and other female-centric problems that are developed by internalizing these prejudices from childhood into adulthood. Do you really want to keep handing down an intensified focus on body-image and fear of fat, from mother to daughter for generations to come? It’s time to unite and create a political agenda that stops exploiting young girls in order that they become good little buying soldiers when they reach adulthood. And you can only counter-act culture when you challenge it politically. And of course it can be done. Let’s look at history for a minute.African Americans learned over time to stop internalizing racism – and in the 60’s the “Black is Beautiful” movement began a campaign that has been empowering African Americans ever since. It doesn’t eradicate racism, but it provided an empowering alternative. Jewish people have similarly done the same – and stopped internalizing targeted anti-Semitism. And look at the gay movement for a more modern example. Gays and lesbians banded together to stop internalizing the cultural homophobia. Coming out the closet, led to “gay pride” and now “gay pride weeks” celebrated all over the world. All of these examples illustrate there are alternatives to just accepting and internalizing cultural biases, cultural prejudices, and cultural oppression. Isn’t it time to do so about weight-consciousness? Once this is embraced on a cultural level, the pressure on 7 yrs. olds to internalize beauty and weight stereotypes and body-image pressures – can finally be lifted. And young girls can be freer than ever to be kids again – and develop a free-spirit of consciousness from a place of empowerment – instead of a place of passive acceptance of cultural bigotry and oppression over weight, fat and female body-image.
The question is - are there are enough mothers out there, strong enough, and angry enough to take a stand – and be a voice of reform? – Not just reform but reclamation – Not just reclamation but revolution. I say there are! Just as targets of bigotry - of race, ethnicity, and sexual-orientation can be taught they don’t have to internalize prejudice – this frees them from binds of hostility and shame and a sense of isolation. And just like these prejudices, cultural bigotry about weight and body-image should also be challenged politically and on a cultural level – otherwise the cultural agenda of bias against “fat”, especially “female fat” continues. And it is unlikely to ever be countered on an individual level. Mothers, it’s just time to stand up and be counted.Kids are learning in school at young ages, all about anti-racism, anti-homophobia and other cultural prejudices – religious and otherwise. Is it really so hard to imagine that children can also be taught an anti-weightism message as well – taught to internalize that body-shape and image truly do NOT matter. Can you imagine the empowerment for future generations of women by starting now? Or we can just continue to intensify these disturbing research numbers that I mentioned above, by doing nothing. If boys and girls in first and second grade can be taught it is wrong and hurtful and unjust to exclude someone because of race, religious background or physical challenges – is it really such a stretch to teach kids that “weight” and “fat” prejudice can be equally as damaging? Imagine if “fat-bias” was linked to other forms of prejudice, bigotry, and chauvinism taught in schools. Do you not think this would then have a transfer effect to young girls being “allowed” to feel ok about their bodies at ages as young as 7-9 yrs. old?
All any of the modern reality of pre-adolescent age girls dieting reflects - is that female cultural oppression is alive and well and being internalized and accepted at an alarming rate. Do you not think teaching weight and bodily acceptance and not vilifying “overweight” can go a long way to countering this modern “superwoman” ideal – that thinness, youthfulness, and facial appeal – are all that matter – or should matter to female rites of passage? A 7 yrs. old with a starvation diet and worried about being fat – is just more illustration of how penetratingly exploitative is the diet-industry. Do you really want your kids to continue to be raised by corporations, when it comes to notions of worthy ideals to embrace and aspire to?Young kids are impressionable and passionate. Imagine enlisting them to resist the beauty doctrine instead of passively being allowed to have it infect them at such young ages. It can’t be that hard to institute an educational agenda that would challenge weight, fat, and body-image biases that are right now crippling the female gender. Imagine if grades 1 thru 12 – taught and reinforced the ramifications and consequences of weightism, fat-prejudice, and the beauty-doctrine. Imagine the dent this could put in future generations of maturing females to avoid eating disorders, weight-problems, and mental issues like depression and anxiety born of cultural pressures on girls to look a specific way – and ONLY that way. Imagine being the generation that sets them free of all of it!
Imagine teaching “acceptance” of a broader definition of the concept of “normal” body weight, body size – and normal eating associated with empowerment – rather than rigid ideals of perfection. Imagine teaching young girls the difference between physical and mental and emotional self-determination, self-definition and self-acceptance on the one hand – vs. self-rejection, self-hate, and body-obsession on the other hand. It’s just a matter of organization – maybe first at a community level. But it’s time to recognize and undertake an ethic of self-care of personal connection – and teach it in a way that overrides corporate cultural agenda that makes girls as young as 7 – feel fearful about their bodies. Imagine just a little maternal thinking, feeling, and behaving – but at the political and educational level.Imagine getting past just accepting that women’s real job is to look good – and to stop pretending that ISN”T the message they are getting bombarded with every day. Imagine tapping into female strengths – strengths that are currently undervalued, underused and underpaid. Imagine teaching empowerment skills of personal growth beyond the mandate of dieting, shopping, and cosmetic surgery as “answers” for dealing with the world. Imagine an educational agenda that challenges cultural pressures that diminish and degrade female self-esteem. Imagine if young girls were pressured less to losing weight – then imagine the empowered weight they could throw around and change things.
I use the word “imagine” a lot above – and it’s on purpose. But it’s also sad that these cultural changes are something we can only first “imagine” in order to affect change. It’s time to create a political agenda that counteracts the cultural pressures that lead to “fat” prejudice and all the ramifications and consequences it leads to – particularly among females. Imagine – As John F. Kennedy said, “Some people see things as they and ask, why? I dream of things that may never be, and ask, why not?” Well why not?” Why can’t we change this ridiculous cultural agenda that has 7 yrs. old girls “worried” about their bodies and “dieting” to do something about it? Imagine growing up free from internalizing those kinds of pressures and values.