Monday, May 18, 2009

Cultural Fatphobia and Children

I often think that parenting is the most feminist thing I've ever done. Hours of protesting, letter-writing, fund-raising, blogging, teaching, marching, sitting-in, etc don't really compare to the daily work of being a feminist parent. Children effortlessly and constantly soak up all the cultural crap that many of us have learned to resist as adults. All the messages they hear via advertising and their peers seem not only plausible, but trustworthy to them. And a huge part of feminist parenting is to teach them to be critical of everything they hear and see, to question the messages they're surrounded by. This is particularly difficult when the messages are endlessly prevalent and often implicit.

Such is the case with the plethora of fat-shaming messages that are cleverly disguised as rhetoric about being healthy in our culture. So much of the talk about being healthy involves calorie restriction and a pursuit of fat-free foods, which is not really healthy at all. Eating a completely fat-free diet (if that were even possible) would be the opposite of healthy eating for anyone. And calorie restriction can be very dangerous for a growing body and developing brain. And beyond all that, there's absolutely no reason why calorie restriction should be equated with healthy eating, for anyone of any size at any stage of development. It simply isn't true that being the best you can be equates to counting every calorie, as the old Crystal Light commercial claimed. And yet, this is the very strong, very pervasive implicit message behind much of the rhetoric about being healthy in our culture. So much so that kids are absorbing the message from a very early age. According to this article, kids as young as 5 years old are showing up at hospitals with eating disorders. In increasing numbers. And they all report that they believe they're fat and need to be thinner.

This story hit home for me this weekend when my 5 y/o stepdaughter looked at the Kellogg's logo on a box of Nutri-Grain bars and told me "This means special K, which is what we eat when we want to be skinnier." Nobody in her life eats Special K or is on a diet, and we use DVDs and a DVR to try to limit the number of commercials our kids see. But somehow she's already internalized the idea that some people should be dieting, and to do that you need to buy certain foods. How naive would we have to be to believe that kids won't immediately pick up on the fact that when we say "healthy" we really mean "skinny"?

Another infuriating fact about our cultural equation of "healthy" with "thin" is that it glosses over vital facts about healthy eating and causes us to miss an opportunity to develop truly healthy habits and a healthy relationship with food that could last a lifetime. For instance, it is not the case that it's healthier to eat a 100-calorie pack of cookies containing hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup than 2 homemade cookies with neither of these ingredients that nevertheless contain 140 calories. But most of my coworkers believe that the 100-calorie pack is a better choice and look askance at my homemade goodies, because they've been trained by advertising and our cultural fear of calories. And the message that the numbers on the scale and the calories in your food are the only things you should be concerned (more like obsessed) about is so prevalent and loud and repeated and everywhere that it's hard to approach food in any other way. And forget about the healthy mindset of viewing food as fuel for your body and a source of nutrition and enjoyment.

We often talk about how our cultural attitudes toward fat and food impact adults, especially women. But to me the scarier fact is that there's a whole generation of kids who are internalizing this stuff at a very suggestible age. Once these attitudes toward body shape and food are internalized, it's incredibly difficult to change them. And the more a person is immersed in a particular attitude or worldview, the harder it is to be critical of it or challenge it in any way.


  1. Great post. I am adding it to my list of "best of". No one seems to get that being thin does not automatically equate with being healthy, just as being fat does not automatically equate with being unhealthy. They also don't get that health is not a moral imperative.

  2. Angela5/19/2009

    I just wanted to say that I looove this post. That is all.

  3. Lyndsay5/19/2009

    I have just been realizing all this even more than before. I'm visiting a 15-year old cousin this weekend. Some of the things she says about food are sad. I don't know if there's any relation between these ideas about food/eating disorders and class. Now that I'm paying for my own food with student loans and don't have job yet I want as much nutrition and calories as I can get for my money.

  4. And its not just young people...older women in my office go on these CRAZY fad diets...nothing but cereal, the "Oatmeal" diet, drinking nothing but Vitamin Water from 7-5pm, etc etc...the list goes on, and then they take days off at a time for being sick...meanwhile, me and my plump self motor on, eating real food, and yes, homemade cookies. :-)

    thanks for the post...I love this too: "I often think that parenting is the most feminist thing I've ever done. Hours of protesting, letter-writing, fund-raising, blogging, teaching, marching, sitting-in, etc don't really compare to the daily work of being a feminist parent."