As far as I can remember, I have always had a complicated relationship with food. As a twenty-one-year old college student, I go through periods where I wonder if I’ll ever really love my body – feelings that are often followed by waves of feminist guilt. I know I’m not alone in these feelings, but already, I am afraid that I’ll pass them on to my (long-distant) daughter or my more present three-year-old half-sisters. How escapable is the near-pervasive body hatred that many American women experience? And can mothers help their daughters prevent it?
Peggy Orenstein, in this week’s New York Times Magazine, tackles the question of how mothers can help their daughters stay healthy and love their bodies. She puts two sets of statistics next to each other – childhood obesity and eating disorders – and asks how she, as a parent, can reconcile them. The answer is somewhat depressing. Despite Orenstein’s attempts to model a “sane” approach to food, by “pointedly” enjoying what she eats, refusing the urge to step on a scale, and rejecting calorie-counting, she concludes,
“Still, my daughter lives in the world. She watches Disney movies. She plays with Barbies. So although I was saddened, I was hardly surprised one day when, at 6 years old, she looked at me, frowned and said, ‘Mama, don’t get f-a-t, O.K.?’”
Orenstein’s only consolation? “At least she didn’t hear it from me.”
Growing up, my mother refused to let Barbies or junk food in the house. She discouraged Disney movies and, as far as I know, never made a negative comment about her own appearance in my presence. She did, when I was older, tell me about experiences with eating disorders in college, but by this time, I was already entrenched in a war with my body that lasted until my senior year of high school. Now, I wonder why I, too, wasn’t able to escape the “fat trap,” despite my mother’s best efforts.
But I have a few ideas. First of all, it’s a mistake to place all of the responsibility for modeling and promoting positive body image on the mother; in heterosexual parent couples, the father should be equally thoughtful and active. Growing up, my father was the person who allowed us treats, who bought junk food on the weekends when my mother was away, and this made healthy eating seem like her realm, something imposed on me rather than something that I might choose for myself. Early on, I learned to associate denial with the female body.
I also wonder what would have to happen before we didn’t have to think about how we would talk to young girls about their bodies, before mothers and sisters could stop worrying about how they can camouflage their tangled relationships with their self image. Even Orenstein admits that her “studied unconcern” is “unnatural,” and I bet her daughter can sense that there is something being hidden. Should we just accept this as a depressing truth? Absolutely not. But more needs to be done than simply encouraging mothers to disguise their discomfort with their bodies.
Photo from Rachel From Cupcakes Take the Cake's Flickr Photostream.