REFLECT: The Fat Trap

This is quite long, yet I think this is worthy of reading. I think it’s helpful and important for all of us to look at the ‘bigger picture’ as often as possible.

April 12, 2010
The Fat Trap

Food is never just food. Food is love. Food is solace. It is politics. It is religion. And if that’s not enough to heap on your dinner plate each night, food is also, especially for mothers, the instant-read measure of our parenting. We are not only what we eat, we are what we feed our children. So here in Berkeley — where a preoccupation with locally grown, organic, sustainable agriculture is presumed — the mom who strolls the farmers’ markets can feel superior to the one who buys pesticide-free produce trucked in from Mexico, who can, in turn, lord it over the one who stoops to conventionally grown carrots (though the folks who grow their own trump us all). Let it slip that you took the kids to McDonald’s, and watch how fast those play dates dry up.

Doing right by our kids means doing right by their health — body and soul. Yet even as awareness about the family diet has spread across the country (especially among the middle class and the affluent), so, it seems, have youngsters’ waistlines. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a full third of America’s children are overweight, and 17 percent are clinically obese — a rate that has more than tripled since 1976. Those figures may be alarming, yet equally disturbing are the numbers of children, girls in particular, who risk their health in the other direction, in the vain pursuit of thinness. In a 2002 survey of 81,247 Minnesota high-school students published in The Journal of Adolescent Health, more than half of the girls reported engaging in some form of disordered behavior while trying to lose weight: fasting, popping diet pills, smoking, vomiting, abusing laxatives, binge eating.

Parents, then, are left in quandary, worrying about both the perils of obesity and those of anorexia. How can you simultaneously encourage your daughter to watch her size and accept her body? My own initial impulse, when I found out I was pregnant with a girl, was to suggest that my husband take responsibility for feeding her. After all, he doesn’t see a few extra pounds as a character flaw. Nor does he serve up a heaping helping of internal conflict with every meal. 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. I did not want to pass that pathology on to my daughter.

At best, weight is delicate territory between mothers and their girls. Michelle Obama found that out firsthand when kicking off her campaign to eliminate childhood obesity. In an attempt to destigmatize the condition, especially for African-Americans, she confessed that the family pediatrician warned her that “something was getting off-balance”; she needed to watch her daughters’ body-mass indices. So she cut back on portion sizes, switched to low-fat milk, left fruit out on the table, banned weekday TV viewing.

The news that the First Mom put her daughters on a “diet” set the blogosphere abuzz. She was accused, even by supporters, of subjecting her daughters’ bodies to public scrutiny, making their appearance fair game. Some grimly predicted that years of purging awaited the girls. The actual message Mrs. Obama was trying to get across — that minor changes can make a major difference in kids’ lives — was, at least temporarily, lost in the uproar.

The president also has overshared about his children’s weights, saying in a 2008 interview, “A couple of years ago — you’d never know it by looking at her now — Malia was getting a little chubby.” He, too, was criticized, though less harshly, maybe because while fathers’ comments sting, nothing cuts deeper than a mother’s appraising gaze. Daughters understand that early: according to a study of preschool girls published in the journal Pediatrics in 2001, those whose mothers expressed “higher concern” over their daughters’ weights not only reported more negative body images than their peers but also perceived themselves as less smart and less physically capable (paternal “concern” was associated only with the latter). The effect was independent of the child’s actual size.

A 2003 analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, meanwhile, showed that mothers were three times as likely to notice excess weight in daughters than in sons, even though the boys were more likely to be large. That gave me pause. It is so easy for the concern with “health,” however legitimate, to justify a focus on girls’ appearances. For organic-eating, right-living parents whose girls are merely on the fleshy side of average, “health” may also mask a discomfort with how a less-than-perfect daughter reflects on them. “ ‘Good’ parents today are expected to have normal-weight kids,” says Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of the book “The Body Project” and a professor of history and human development at Cornell University. “Having a fat girl is a failure.”

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.

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.?”

At least, I thought, she didn’t hear it from me.

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