Can a mom with a "complicated" relationship to food raise a healthy daughter? That's the question Peggy Orenstein asks in this week's Times Magazine, and the answer is a little disheartening.
Orenstein writes that she wanted her child (that's not them above) to avoid not only obesity and eating disorders, but also the (presumably) subclinical "pathology" that plagued her and so many women she knew. Her approach:
By the time my own daughter was born, I realized that avoiding conversations about food, health and body image would be impossible: what I didn't say would speak as loudly as anything I did. So rather than opt out, I decided to actively model something different, something saner. I've tried to forget all I once knew about calories, carbs, fat and protein; I haven't stepped on a scale in seven years. At dinner I pointedly enjoy what I eat, whether it's steamed broccoli or pecan pie. I don't fetishize food or indulge in foodieism. I exercise because it feels good, and I never, ever talk about weight. Honestly? It feels entirely unnatural, this studied unconcern, and it forces me to be more vigilant than ever about what goes in and what comes out of my mouth. Maybe my daughter senses that, but this conscious antidiet is the best I can do.
This strategy — enjoy food, be active, don't talk about weight — sounds sane and healthy for both mother and child, except that it still leaves Orenstein feeling slightly insane. And it may not even work — Orenstein's daughter still says to her, "Mama, don't get f-a-t, O.K.?" And all Orenstein can do is comfort herself with the knowledge that "she didn't hear it from me."
Even moms without their own "pathology" clearly find these types of conversations hard going. In Slate, KJ Dell'Antonia writes, "I happen not to have a complicated relationship with food, but I share Orenstein's complicated relationship with my daughters' relationship with food-I obsess, not about what I eat, but with raising them not to obsess about what they eat." She describes a tense moment:
[Orenstein's] daughter told her not to get fat; one of mine, at 5, informed me recently that if she ate too many Oreos, she'd get fat herself. I told her she had nothing to worry about it-but clearly, I still do.
Must a child's healthy body image come at the cost of constant anxiety on the part of her parents? And, by extension, do we need to raise kids to relax about food and eating only until they have kids of their own, at which point they must begin closely monitoring "what goes in and what comes out" of their mouths? That's probably not what Orenstein or Dell'Antonia hope. Of course parents will always worry about something, but the goal of "studied unconcern" must be to raise children who are genuinely unconcerned, who have an easy, healthy relationship to food, exercise, and their bodies, and who can pass this relationship along unconsciously rather than through constant effort. Maybe this is a pie-in-the-sky idea — and indeed, putting it into practice on a large scale would require not only public policy changes (affordable vegetables, walkable neighborhoods), but also a concerted effort to eliminate from the culture the kind of messages that made Orenstein's daughter afraid of "f-a-t." This won't be easy, but clearly something has to change. Orenstein writes, "It's not that I'm extreme; it's just that like most - heck all - of the women I know, my relationship to food, to my weight, to my body is . . . complicated." That Orenstein knows no women with uncomplicated food and body feelings is depressing but not surprising — let's hope her daughter never has to say the same.