Kelly told me to write a post about daughters and food and body stuff, because she wrote a really thoughtful one herself, and I responded with a tome in her comments. (You can't imagine the strength it took not to start that last sentence with "So." Here in 2015 something like 90% of sentences begin with "So," and I'm trying to buck this trend, not because it particularly bothers me, but because it's an unnecessary verbal tic and I'm all for clean, pared down grammar and writing. Just with lengthy asides and tons of parentheticals.) And I do love an assignment, so here we are.
About six months ago, Felicity reclined next to me on her bed, sighed, and asked, "Mama, why am I fatter than you?"
Uh. Pardon me?
I've learned by now, in these kinds of situations, to take a long pause in order to gather myself together and set aside the enormous pile of baggage that I bring to certain matters before responding, so as to avoid sounding shrill or flat-out panicked.
Felicity had never said a single thing about body shape or size before, and I'd scrupulously avoided commenting on my (or anyone else's) weight/body in front of her. In fact for several years of her life I am pretty sure she hadn't even heard the word "fat" because I would even skip over it when I was reading her a book (see also: "ugly"), so I had some inkling that this wasn't, like, the oppression of the patriarchy crashing down on us all at once.
I coolly asked (you can't show that you're ruffled or do anything to signal that this is an important/difficult topic or they will be onto you), "Hmm. What do you think 'fat' means?" And she said, "You know. Like...round. Like how you were when I was in your belly." (HEH.) I explained that "pregnant" is not the same thing as "fat" and she said, "Well, it means, like, a large body." I asked where she'd heard the word and she said, "Oh, a boy in my class was calling people fat when we were playing on the roof." Ah, yes. Classic playground fodder. This segued into a discussion about how (1) that wasn't a nice thing to do or a word that we use to describe people; and (2) people come in all shapes and sizes, and they are all perfectly made no matter what they look like.
That's where we come to the minefield, and to be honest, I probably fumbled on this part -- specifically, the tightrope that we walk between promoting body/size acceptance and, I don't even know what to call it, encouragement of physical fitness and health? The goal, of course, is for our children (and ideally ourselves) to feel good about themselves and to feel good physically and to be healthy, which is not exclusive to any size or weight. With those things in mind, should I have demurred on the issue of her relative "fatness"? Just ignored it and left it with the two points above? No idea. I'm flying blind, here.
I am pretty sure I said something like, "You're not fatter than I am or fat in the slightest. And anyway, you are perfect no matter what you look like." Ehhhhh?
So then a few weeks later, we were talking about some food item -- pumpkin bread or some such -- and she said, "Does this have a lot of fat in it?" And it was another needle-on-the-record moment because again, never once had I brought up fat content of food or anything remotely like that. We talk ad nauseum about eating a variety of foods, and consuming lots of fruits and vegetables, and not having too many treats (more on that in a minute), and listening to your body to discern when you're full, and noticing how your body feels after you eat a balanced meal versus a pound of candy. But I am a gal who does not look at calories or fat content (...anymore), so I knew she hadn't picked this up from me.
It turned out someone had been talking about using applesauce as an ingredient instead of oil, and since she hears EVERYTHING, she'd seized upon that -- but again, it wasn't like she was suddenly looking at the nutrition content of every packaged food and running in place to burn off her dinner. She's FIVE. She was just asking a question based on something she'd heard in passing and was curious about.
So again, I said something chirpy like, "No, it doesn't, but we really don't have to worry about that because you eat very healthy food with lots of variety, and some fat is good for you!"
But there again: minefield. I mean, yeah, she's five so we really don't have to be concerned, but on the other hand, we also don't let her eat, like, a tub of bacon grease every day because we don't want her arteries hardening before she hits puberty. And -- crucially -- she hasn't connected food intake (or fat content) to weight/body size, so she wasn't asking out of concern in that regard. She had just made a loose syllogism in her mind based on what she'd heard.
Basically, I don't want to err on the side of, "Hey, ANYTHING GOES, kid!" but I also don't want her to have a complex (she will eventually, if statistics are to be trusted, but maybe I can water it down to a passing phase if I really put my all into this). And all the same goes for exercise -- she sees that people exercise and we talk about how it keeps your body healthy and feeling good, but she hasn't connected it with weight or food. And of course we don't assign moral value to food or exercise, but eventually she'll have that avalanche upon her too. Thanks, MEDIA and SOCIETY.
And then there is the issue of treats.
A few years ago, I decided to try to take some of the mystique and allure of sweets away, and to give her a sense of control and agency, by allowing Felicity to choose one treat per day. Usually it's a small treat (a Hershey's miniature, a couple of jelly beans, a frozen fruit bar), and on the weekend (especially in summer) she often gets something bigger (an ice cream). We bend the rules now and then for a special occasion, of course, but on weekdays it's pretty firm: she chooses when she has the treat and what it is, and then that's it. Done for the day.
Often, she has it right after breakfast, but even then she will, for example, take a tiny scoop of "Nerves" (Nerds) and put it on a dainty little plate and keep it in her room while she gets dressed, and then when she's ready to go she will eat them one by one, and sometimes not even finish ("I'm going to save the rest of these for later!"). She can eat a whole meal with a piece of chocolate sitting next to her plate and she won't eat it until she's done. She can take one bite of a cookie and leave the rest for someone else. She would pass the marshmallow test with flying colors. (Meanwhile, when there are baked goods in the house, I will go into the kitchen 15 times in a day to stand over the counter and scarf down whatever I can get into my mouth before she starts wondering where I am.)
She even told me recently that they offered dessert with lunch at her school one day and she didn't have any because she'd already had her one treat that morning at home (it was like, one jellybean from a box of Hello Kitty ones that she's had since July). That one pretty much broke my heart. (I can tell she's going to be a kid I will have to encourage to break the rules now and then. Like, GO BE FUN, CHILD. It's OKAY.)
You get the idea.
Despite all of this innate self-control, her DRIVE to acquire sweets is omnipresent. There is CONSTANT wheedling and negotiating about treats. If it's above 60 degrees and we're outside, she wants to know if she can get ice cream, and she will NOT STOP asking about it. If she's already had her treat that day, it becomes a barrage of pleas for just this ONE time and she needs to cool off her body and her other treat was SMALL and arghhhhh. It's so annoying and makes me wish we had a no-treats-ever blanket policy with no exceptions. Also, I try to avoid using food as a reward, but dude, it's so easy to slip and be like, "Do X and you can get the sundae after dinner even though you had a treat this morning." Because you get RESULTS with this kid that way. But I really do try not to. And I am sometimes able to shut down the whining with a stern remonstration that if she whines about treats, she loses the next day's treat. But man, it's just annoying.
Anyway, that was kind of a pointless ramble.
I guess the upshot is that I am doing my damnedest to insulate my kid as long as possible from all the complete whackadoo nonsense about the female body and the ridiculous demands and standards we put on it. She already has a lot of perfectionist tendencies (where on EARTH did she pick THAT up??), and when she makes comments like the ones above, it's so easy to panic that she's already begun a seemingly inevitable slide into disordered eating and shitty body image. Because the outside world is going to do ITS hardest to make her feel badly about herself so that she'll buy a million products and diet books and supplements and bullshit.
Right now, she thinks that "chubby is another word for cute" and I'd like to keep it that way, except that she might go up to someone and compliment them on their chubby cheeks and they could take it the wrong way, so here we are again at square one.