Training the world – on little girls and body image.

I maintain something of a bi-cameral approach with regard to writing about my children: I write about them, but I don’t use their names (their last name is different to mine, which helps); I write about them, but I write only happy things, or uplifting things, or things that are far in the past. Nothing that would embarrass them, nothing that is truly personal and private. I owe them that, I think. They didn’t ask to be born to me.

Today I’m going to break down that wall, though, because I believe my own daughter’s well-being actually, in a very broad way, depends on it. If you know my girl, or if you ever meet her, I’m asking you here and now: Please don’t discuss the following with her. It would, genuinely, make her sad.

The girl.

The girl.

But how am I to remain silent, when she sits in the back of my car, tears streaming down her face and wondering, in a tiny and strangled voice, if anyone will ever love her?

The girl is tall, and broad, and strong, and round. She is 10, and as she has throughout her young life, she has a belly. It’s not small – it’s a real belly. The kind of belly that many young girls have until they reach puberty, and which is usually eclipsed by the appearance of breasts. As girls grow into women, our shapes change — but they don’t usually change entirely. Mine didn’t. If you were born big and soft (9 lbs 3 oz, and she was four weeks early), you’re never going to become anything much different, unless you literally do physical damage to yourself in the effort.

“Do you think I’ll ever be skinny?” she asked in that same car ride.

No, honey, no. I do not think you will ever be skinny. “Skinny” (like “fat”) has no real value, it tells us nothing about the worth or even the health of the person, it’s a descriptor. It’s like “tall” or “blue” or “left handed” – it describes something, it doesn’t tell you that thing’s worth. Or, worse yet, we’ve made “skinny” (and “fat”) into a weapon, a weapon we use to wound people.

These are almost exactly the words I used with her in the car, words very similar to words she’s heard her whole life — or, at least, since the first time she was called “fat” and understood it to be intended as a cruelty, when she was 4. When she was 9, she could already use the phrase “objectification of women” correctly.

And the other day, in that car, tears streaming down her face, she finally said “I know, but you’re training me. You’re not training the whole world.”

My daughter is exactly as God and her genes intended her to be: She is funny and lights up a room and won’t take no for an answer. She is very smart and loves being very smart and can sit in a corner and read for two hours at a stretch. She will spontaneously dance to just about anything, and will run around the playground with her friends all afternoon if time and homework allow. She is a person of healthy appetites, in all senses: She would like a bigger bite of the world, please, and also some more ice cream, while you’re up. She thoroughly enjoys her food, except when she doesn’t, at which point she can’t be bothered to have another bite. She knows that too much ice cream isn’t always good for her body, and she is learning that sometimes “no” is the best answer — but she’s always heard “no” from time to time, and always had that “no” acted upon. Her diet is healthy, and she knows that, too, and likes it. She is also, if I may, beautiful. Gorgeous, in fact, with milky-peachy skin and deep brown eyes and hair that falls in waves all around her beautiful smile.

But the girl lives in the world that her father and I cannot reach, she doesn’t live within our arms. She lives in a world where 10 year old girls are already so bone-deep aware of how we treat women who do not fit a certain, very narrow, paradigm that they worry they will never be loved. She worries — a lot — what strangers think of her when they see her from a distance; she worries that the people who know her are kind only because they know her.

She is 10. She is healthy. She is strong. She is wicked smart. And she sat in my car, weeping about her body.

There is only so much her father and I can do, only so much real science we can bring to bear on the lies and misapprehensions peddled by the diet industry and swallowed whole by those around us. There is only so much we can do about the fact that every adult woman she comes in contact with is steeped in the same lies and misapprehensions, the vast majority of them openly bemoaning their sacred bodies and bonding over self-loathing. “I’m getting fat!” one of the girl’s friends said at school the other day, a friend who is so slight she might blow away on the next strong wing.

There’s only so much I can do. It’s already in her. And even though I never say it out loud, it’s in me too. I hate it, but there it is, telling me how little I’m worth because I refuse to punish my only body for being something other than that which I am told it should be. I cannot tell you how much it hurts me, how furious it makes me, to know that this is what she feels and what she faces. I’m weeping as I type. And there’s almost nothing I can do. I cannot train the world.

But maybe, maybe – if we all work together, maybe if we’re kinder to ourselves and each other, more loving toward these fabulous machines that move us through our lives, less willing to accept shaming that cloaks itself as wisdom – maybe together, we adults can make the world in which our little girls are growing into wonderful women a better place. Maybe.

Please help me. We’re the adults. My daughter, and probably yours, needs our help.  They need our love.

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UPDATE: My Twitter friend Kris Lindbeck sent me the lovliest essay I may have ever read about human bodies — all of them. Please click through to read. “I’ll tell you what people look like, really: they look like flames. Or like the stars, on a clear night in the wilderness.”

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UPDATE 10/6/13: All of a sudden this post is getting a ton of love from Facebook, and I’m very grateful — and Facebook is not the easiest thing to search, so I honestly don’t have any idea why today, or what the source(s) is (are). If it’s you – thank you!

Oldie-but-goodie: On ruining my children’s summer.

I’m doing some serious thinking about my place in the blogosphere, but in the meantime I’ll be running the occasional oldie-but-goodie —
because some posts deserve another moment in the sun!

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My kids go to this insanely awesome camp*. They come home dirty and tired, telling god-awful jokes and roping me into games I’ve never heard of, telling tales of kindness (“I got Camper of the Day! Because I helped the little kids!”) and singing really annoying songs, like for instance, “This Is A Song That Gets On Everybody’s Nerves.” Summer camp, just as God intended!

But, as is often the case in human endeavor (I don’t know if you’ve noticed), the occasional imperfection slips through. One song that came home really bugged me — that is, not in the way it was meant to.

To the tune of Ironman: “I’m the ice cream man/ running over fat kids in my van/ when I ring my bell/ all the little kiddies run like hell/-icopters/ but they won’t get far/ cause I have a sniper in my car/ when I shoot them down/ a hundred days later/ their blood turns brown/ then I start again/ because/ I’m the ice cream man…”. Etc.

Can you pick out the one word that resulted in a lecture about social justice?

Nope. No, not that one either. “Sniper”? Well, good guess, given that we’re a gun-free house, but: Nope.

“Fat.” The word “fat.”

I don’t know what the word “fat” means anymore, because for the most part, we tend to apply it to anyone over a randomly arrived at size that a rough majority of society has determined is “best.” Women use it as a weapon against ourselves, whether we’re a size 2 or 3X, and entire wings of the advertising industry are predicated on our fear of it. I know that some people, in consultation with health care professionals (emphasis on the word “professionals,” as opposed to random passers-by with a set of eyes), can determine that they are objectively obese, and need help in order to achieve a healthy weight, but I’m not sure we’re talking about anything objective when we haul out the word “fat.”

We do, however, use the word “fat,” or the suggestion of it, as a tool of comedy. Because, see, “fat kids” are funny! And running after the ice-cream van, in that completely uncontrolled mania that fat people display toward food? Hee-sterical!!

It matters not that neither of these images has anything to do with reality. There’s nothing objectively funny about size, and saying that one size is funny and worthy of finger-pointing tends to, oh I don’t know, diminish the humanity of those who are of that size, suspect themselves to be of that size, are accused of being that size, or – you get my point.

Then there’s the fact that the so-called “fat” don’t necessarily eat any more or less — or have any greater or lesser tendency to run down the ice cream van — than anyone else. Some people of a socially-acceptable size are chow-hounds and wish they could gain weight, and some achieve that socially-acceptable size through a punishing program of self-denial. As my husband pointed out when he chimed in on the lecture, to a very large extent, size is a lot like height: It’s in your genes.

And finally, the underlying idea of fat humor (one of the very few remaining ways in which Americans allow ourselves to make fun of a group of people for being who they are) is the sense that the “fat” are somehow less worthy than the not-fat. That it’s ok to laugh at a fat kid, because all he really wants is ice-cream, and he doesn’t count for much, anyway. I have a theory that this may be because Western society is so thoroughly soaked in Christian notions of shame and guilt that even though many of us no longer subscribe to any religious creed, we still see self-indulgence as a sign of moral weakness — and surely people are “fat” because they are gluttons, and thus, morally inferior. It’s a theory, anyway.

So there I am, telling my poor kids, who were just singing a silly song (and hey, kudos on teaching them the tune to Ironman!) that “fat” is not funny; that if you feel yourself to be fat, are frequently told that you’re fat, or are in fact bigger than the average bear, and you hear that song, it will certainly cut you to the quick; that the notion of unrestrained fat people is wrong; and that FURTHERMORE, human value should not be assigned according to size (and then dad added genetics. Oh, it’s a barrel of fun by us!)

Look, honestly, I get this kind of song. Kids need to mess around with notions of death and horror, kids are amused by stuff that adults have gotten over, kids need to walk on the very edge of respectability in order to find just where the line is. I get it!

But you know, and I know, that there are a million-zillion kids everywhere, learning to hate themselves a little more every day, because they don’t conform to some amorphous and ill-conceived notion of a “right” size, and shit like this DOESN’T HELP.

So while I surely did not take it upon myself to talk to the wonderful folks at the near-perfect camp about one word in one song (I promise), I did talk to my kids, to help them hear their words’  impact, and try to see the world around them a little more clearly.

Honestly, couldn’t the ice-cream man have run over “little babies,” or “old people”? Dark humor, people, it’s what all the cool kids do!

*6/8/11 update: The boy has since graduated from this particular camp and won’t be going this year, but the girl starts on Monday! It’s all kinds of awesome.