By Amy Votava
Issue 123, March/April 2004
All I want to do is buy my prescription medication at the local drugstore. My five year old, Olivia, is holding my hand and walking next to me as we head toward the checkout counter. It should be an uneventful errand, but it isn’t.
First, we walk past the fashion magazines. Every cover features women that all look the same—white, in their 20s, very thin. I muse over headlines with such claims as, “LOSE WEIGHT WITH THE MIRACLE SANDWICH” or “GET THINNER WITH THE NEW CHOCOLATE DIET.” Next comes a point-of-purchase display of the pharmacy’s array of weight-related products. You name it, they sell it—cellulite cream, metabolism boosters, even a product that claims to have put “exercise in a bottle.” I grit my teeth and silently wish that I didn’t have to see all of these messages every time I fill my prescription. Then it hits me—I’m not the only one seeing them. I look down at Olivia, who is innocently singing a little song to herself and swinging my hand back and forth. My stomach lurches with double the force. The message being put forth to my daughter and me is this: a body with fat is a body with a problem.
In a well-known experiment, children were shown drawings of a variety of children. These drawings included a child of normal weight, a fat child, and children with various handicaps, including missing hands and disfigured faces. These children rated the fat child as the least likable. This bias also affected the larger children, who revealed the same prejudice. Children as young as six described a child with a fat silhouette as "lazy, dirty, stupid, ugly, cheats and lies."
Most of us strongly disapprove of our children making sweeping generalizations about particular racial, cultural, or religious groups, and make efforts to educate our children about such matters. But we parents need to ask ourselves: When it comes to body size, do we make the same effort?
Educate About the Biology of Size
In order for children to begin to celebrate diversity in body size, they need to be informed that body size and shape are largely genetic matters. There is no doubt about the fact that we can choose our behaviors. We can choose to satisfy our appetites with healthy food, eating when we are hungry and stopping when we are full. We can choose to make exercise a part of our lives. But the body that results from these efforts is something we cannot choose.
Dr. Craig Johnson, director of the Eating Disorders Program at Laureate Psychiatric Clinic and Hospital, was recently answering questions on an Internet forum hosted by PBS. In part of his response to a depressed person’s plea for a way to lose weight, he said: “The problem is that very few people have the genetic potential to be the size and shape idealized in our culture. That is the stone-cold harsh reality of genetically mediated weight and shape regulation. I make a point with my patients that I am 5’ 10” tall. If I developed a belief system that I would only have self-esteem if I could become 6’ 2” tall, I would be doomed to low self-esteem.”2 We wouldn’t tell a child that 2 + 2 = 15. Similarly, we shouldn’t be teaching children that diet plus exercise equals thin.
Here’s a point where you can give yourself a refresher course, as well. Don’t you try to notice if you happen to have a racist thought? Do you evaluate and examine these thoughts? Do the same with thoughts that are size-biased. Do you find yourself assuming that the large person you just saw eats too much, is lazy, or both? If you are large, do you say these things to yourself? If you find yourself assuming that a fat person you see eats too much, remind yourself that this may not be true. Some people who are large—as well as some people who are thin—are compulsive eaters. Some are not. You simply can’t know this about someone by looking at them.
If you homeschool your children, a curriculum for this is available: Healthy Body Image: Teaching Kids to Eat and Love Their Bodies Too!, by Kathy Kater.3 This is a series of lessons developed for third and fourth graders to empower prepubescent students to form a foundation for the acceptance of various body types, based on recognizing what they can and can’t control in regard to body size and shape. If you don’t homeschool your children, call the school they attend and suggest that the school include this program, or something like it, in its syllabus.
Images in the Home
Many of us take great pains to fill our homes with racially diverse images. We make sure that we have books, posters, and dolls that reflect a wide range of cultures. This, we feel, will combat the constant lack of such images in the “outside world.” The same can be done with body size. Decorate your walls with images that depict all kinds of shapes. What a beautiful thing it would be to have the pleasing image of Diego Rivera’s slender wife, Frida Kahlo, next to the equally pleasing brushstrokes that depict Renoir’s round, blonde bathers! A friend of mine commented that she always feels at ease in homes that have naked pictures of women of various sizes. She is not a large woman, but this kind of display of appreciation for the human form makes her feel comfortable. For our children, such ease could be a way of life.
Pay Attention to What You Say
When you look in the mirror, do you pat your stomach and grimace? Do you imply that you are happy because your pants feel loose? These kinds of things are subtle, but they send powerful messages to our children. If your children see that you are unable to celebrate your body, how will they be able to celebrate the diversity in others’ bodies? In their own bodies?
Encourage an open dialogue on the subject of body size. If your child happens to assume that a fat person you know is “lazy,” it might be tempting to jump in and correct them. However, this is also a great opportunity to ask questions such as, “Do you think that this person has fat parents, too?” or “Do you know anyone who is large but really loves to play sports?” These can be great instigators for learning.
Nancy Summer, a leader in the size-acceptance movement, actually invites children to insult her during the workshops she conducts with sixth graders. Nancy herself is very large, and the children hesitate to insult her. However, in one class a girl looked her in the eye and said, “Horse!” Nancy asked the class to keep the animals coming. “Whale! Elephant!” they yelled. “Cow! Pig!” She joyfully wrote all of these animals down, then discussed with the class how beautiful these animals really were in their own rights.3
Talk to Your Children about the Media
The average American woman today is 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 142 pounds.4 When was the last time you saw a woman who looked like that on television, in a magazine, or on a billboard? When I first heard this statistic, I was shocked. But then I began to look around—at real everyday people on the street, at the grocery store, at the public pool. Not only did this confirm for me that the average woman really is this size, it also opened my eyes to the actual diversity of the human body. I began to enjoy the many different shapes around me, like a beautiful canvas with unusual patterns—some angular, some soft and free-flowing and voluptuous, some perfectly round, like a circle. Encourage your children to do the same, then have them compare what they see in the real world to what they see in the media. Do reality and image match up?
I recently interviewed a group of 40 fourth-grade children in a private school three weeks after they’d completed the Healthy Body Image: Teaching Kids to Eat and Love Their Bodies Too! curriculum. I showed them an advertisement from a magazine featuring three women modeling various clothing. I said to them, “I think this advertisement is a little boring. Do you have any idea why?” One boy blurted out, “Well, I think it’s boring, too! All of those women look exactly the same. Their hair and their bodies are exactly the same!” A little girl interjected, “I think it might even be the same woman.” Finally, another child said, “What exactly are they trying to sell me, anyway? I can’t even tell.”
Indeed, what are such advertisements trying to sell us? It’s important for our children to know that what the advertisers are trying to sell is, primarily, the feeling that we are somehow lacking. Because, they assume, if we feel lacking in some way, we will need to buy something to fix the problem. And one way to make us feel that we are lacking is by showing us images of people that the majority of us do not match up to.
In that same interview, a little girl told me, “One day I saw an ad on television. It was really strange. There was a perfect family sitting around a perfect-looking kitchen. They were all gorgeous [i.e., thin] and laughing and having fun. Then, suddenly, cereal starting raining from the ceiling and falling into their empty bowls. I really never figured out what the commercial was for. But I think that they were trying to tell me that if I bought what they were selling, my life would be perfect.” This from a fourth grader. Children can grasp these things. We just need to get them started.
Although size acceptance is an issue of social justice, it hasn’t gotten as much attention as other issues. Teachers tell me that in schools it is no longer acceptable to tease children about the color of their skin or the religion they practice. Fat children, on the other hand, are still teased, often openly, sometimes without intervention by adults. Accepting the natural diversity in the sizes and shapes of each others’ bodies seems to be a last frontier of sorts. But, as is the case with many problematic aspects of our culture, if we educate our children, the problem can be reversed.
During the same interview with fourth graders, I told them about the experiment in which children shown pictures of many kinds of children picked the fat child as the least likable. “Now that you have had these lessons about body size,” I asked, “what would you do if you had to pick the least likable child?” A multitude of hands shot up in the air, waving and bouncing. I called on a red-headed girl in the front. She said, “I would say, ‘How can you expect me to do this when I have no idea who these people are on the inside?’ ” Thirty-nine other little heads nodded in unison.
1. Frances M. Berg, Afraid to Eat: Children and Teens in Weight Crisis (Healthy Weight Publishing Network, 1997): 89.
2. www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/thin/ask_j_001220.html (20 December 2000).
3. Kathy Kater, Healthy Body Image: Teaching Kids to Eat and Love Their Bodies, Too! (Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention, 1998). For a copy of the curriculum, call 206-382-3587.
4. See Note 1: 98.
5. Megan Othersen, “My Body, My Self”, Runner’s World 28, no. 6 (1993): 68.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Organizations and Websites
Center for Media Literacy; www.medialit.org.
Kathy Kater’s website; www.BodyImageHealth.org.
Largely Positive; www.largelypositive.com.
National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance; www.naafa.org.
National Eating Disorders Association; http://nationaleatingdisorders.org
Books for Adults
Berg, Frances M. Afraid to Eat: Children and Teens in Weight Crisis. Healthy Weight Publication Network, 1997.
Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls. Random House, 1997.
Hirschmann, Jane R., and Carol H. Munter. When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies. Fawcett Columbine, 1995.
Kater, Kathy. Real Kids Come in All Sizes: Ten Essential Lessons to Build Your Child’s Body Esteem. Broadway Books, 2004.
Pipher, Mary. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. Putnam, 1994.
Books for Children
This list is excerpted, with the author’s permission, from Kathy Kater’s Healthy Body Image: Teaching Kids to Eat and Love Their Bodies Too!
Carlson, Nancy. I Like Me! Viking Kestrel, 1988.
Greenberg, Jan. The Pig-Out Blues. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982.
Jasper, Karin. Are You Too Fat, Ginny? Is Five Press, 1988.
Kater, Kathy. How the Namuh Learned to be Content with Who They Were. Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention, Inc., 1998. Available via e-mail at KathyKater@isd.net or by mailing $5.00 to Kathy Kater,
2497 Seventh Avenue East, Suite 109, North St. Paul, MN 55109.
Lester, Helen. A Porcupine Named Fluffy. Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
Lipsyte, Robert. One Fat Summer. Harper & Row, 1977.
Loomans, Diane. The Lovables in the Kingdom of Self-esteem. HJ Kramer, 1991.
Newman, Leslea, and Alyson Wonderland. Belinda’s Bouquet. Alyson Publications, 1991.
Park, Barbara. Beanpole. Knopf, 1983.
Palmer, Pat. Liking Myself. Impact Publishers, 1997.
Berry, Joy Wilt. Good Answers to Tough Questions about Weight Problems and Eating Disorders. Children’s Press, 1990.
Cooke, Kaz. Real Gorgeous: The Truth about Body and Beauty. W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.
Ikeda, Joanne, and Priscilla Naworski. Am I Fat? Helping Young Children Accept Differences in Body Size. ETR Associates, 1993.
Kindersley, Barnabas and Anabel. Children Just Like Me: A Unique Celebration of Children around the World. Dorling Kindersley, 1995.
New Moon: The Magazine for Girls, available at newsstands or from New Moon Publishing, PO Box 3587, Duluth, MN 55803-3587.
Spier, Peter. People. Doubleday, 1980.
For more information about body image, see the following article in a past issue of Mothering: "Maiden, Mama, Moon," no. 59.
Amy Votava, 35, is a fiction writer and the mother of Olivia (5). She is currently working on her MFA in creative writing at Hamline University. She lives with her daughter and husband, David Hemphill, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Photos by Jennifer Esperanza.