Ugh, bodies. What a bunch of fuck-ups. Sometimes it seems like all they do is cost us money, make us hate ourselves, and squirt out stinky liquids (that WE have to clean up!). As soon as somebody gets Krang-technology sorted out, I'm all over it. As adults, though it's never easy, we're accustomed to dealing with constant pressure about our bodies—we're too fat, too thin, too hairy, too hairy, too squirty—but how the hell do kids handle it? What about the children, you guys?
According to MissRepresentation, 80% of 10-year-old girls say they have been on a diet, and "the number one magic wish for girls 11-17 is to be thinner." Now, personally, I'm pretty sure I didn't figure out that I was fat and unlovable until I was around 15. And then I didn't figure out that all of that was complete bullshit until I was 25. That was ten years of disappointment, dieting, crushing loneliness, and the gloomy certainty that I'd be alone forever (to be fair, it was also fun times, travel, hilarious friends, a great education, gin & tonics, and unfettered focus on making my life awesome). But today's girls get 15 years of that shit, to my ten—presuming they clamber out of the pit by 25, if they manage to do it at all. NO THANKS. This is clearly an emergency.
I know one of these girls. She lives in my house. My 10-year-old stepdaughter (her dad and I aren't married, but you know what I mean, Archbishop of Pedantrybury) recently announced that the entire family would be required to "work out" together every morning. She made little workout checklists for herself and her 8-year-old sister, with a specificity that would be hilarious if it wasn't so troubling ("do 36 push-ups," "jog for 17 minutes"). I notice her grasping for little excuses not to eat. She casually mentions that certain relatives and classmates have called her fat. She claims she just "likes" turkey bacon better than regular bacon (BLATANT LIE). Even kids (especially kids, maybe) know that the best way to insult a woman is to call her fat. They know that thin > fat, even if they don't really understand what that means. So her stupid 14-year-old cousin knows that the best way to needle my 10-year-old beanpole stepkid is to call her fat. And he does. Stupid cousin.
Now, this could all be coming from a totally healthy impulse—she's also terrifically athletic and currently obsessed with martial arts and acquiring a machete (her "Weapons to Get" list is twice as long as the workout list)—but it sure doesn't feel like that.
A significant portion of my professional life is spent trying to help adult women, myself included, dismantle the internalized body insecurities that warp our self-regard and fuck up our relationships and keep us from going swimming no matter how hot it is (and swimming is the best!). And now those same insecurities are growing, from scratch, right under my own roof? The call is coming from inside the house? Clearly I am the worst feminist ever.
But what do you do?
First of all, you don't want to send the message that eating nutritious food and being active are bad things. They're objectively not. If she idolizes an Olympic athlete, for instance (or, more accurately, a machete-wielding karate knight with a carnivorous goat sidekick), it's a healthy impulse to want to emulate that athleticism. (If she idolizes a supermodel, on the other hand, the impulse seems less healthy—because it becomes sexualized, I guess?) I don't want her to not care about eating and moving, but I absolutely don't want them to be prioritized over self-esteem, being a kid, and SWIMMING.
You also don't want to say, "No, you're not fat—you're beautiful!" Because that reinforces the dichotomy that fat is the opposite of attractive. Nope, not doing that. And you don't want to say, "It doesn't matter," because, in the scheme of our fucked-up society, it clearly does matter. And she knows enough to know that, if we say that, we're either lying or we're completely oblivious.
I just don't know what to do with the fact that, to be honest, her life will be easier if she stays skinny. Easier—though not necessarily better or more rewarding. I grew up fat, and it suuuuuuuuucked. But if I had realized my "flaws" earlier and tried to correct them, would that have made my life easier? Would I have been happier if I had been doing 17 push-ups and feigning a love for turkey bacon since before puberty? Would worrying about being fat, as a kid, have actually changed my body? And if it had, would my life have turned out better?
There's no way to know. But my life turned out pretty fucking great. I think it's fair to say that if any boy on earth had wanted to go on a date me when I was a teenager, I probably wouldn't have sat alone and read as much. I would have worn fewer hideous Eddie Bauer barn coats. I would have done more making out and less learning. I would almost certainly have been less of a sarcastic dickhead.
So what? What is it? What do I do with this kid? For now, we're going with this: Mandatory morning work-outs? No. Unlimited bo-staff practice? Absolutely! Skipping meals? Definitely not. Regular food? Eat a normal amount! That cousin? Stupid. You? Beautiful. Turkey bacon? FUCKING NEVER COMING IN MY HOUSE.
Image via MaryMo/Shutterstock.