My best friend Amy visited yesterday on her drive back to LA. While we played with the baby, she couldn’t help but smile and comment on Lila’s chubby cheeks (can’t blame her, they’re pretty terrific). We started talking about how there’s something so perfect about babies, possibly the fact that they are completely unconsumed with vanity–have you ever seen an adult vomit on herself or poop her pants with such abandon–and how sad it is that this immunity to self doubt won’t last forever.
The first time I can recall wanting to be thinner was in the first grade. I know. It wasn’t so much a desire to be svelte at age six, but rather a simple yearning to be like Carrie, a popular girl in my class. She was tiny with long, golden straight hair. Pretty much my opposite. I have this funny memory of sitting on the floor next to her for some class activity, and noticing that my legs were much bigger than hers. What a strange observation to make at that age, years before I was exposed to anything beyond G-rated movies and Raffi.
It’s not like I was an overweight kid. I really wasn’t. But I also wasn’t a string bean the way many little girls are.
Through adolescence, all I wanted was to lose weight; to fit into a smaller jean size and achieve some warped, pop-culture-infused sense of beauty. I just knew the mythical size 5 would bring me a boyfriend, perfect grades and blissful popularity…Until it didn’t.
Junior high, high school, college…there was always someone to compare myself to with disdain. Cheerleaders, sorority girls in tiny matching shirts, girls who actually bought pants at Charlotte Russe. Even today, I look at old pictures and curse myself for having a negative body image at the time the photo was taken.
The trouble with being a young woman in America is that our culture has given us falsified and unrealistic perceptions of beauty–to a damning extent. So that no matter how many times we’re told we’re beautiful by our parents, friends or significant others, and how many miles we run or calories we forgo, we’re always left feeling like less than enough.
Despite all this, I know I’m one of the lucky ones. Because while I waste/d plenty of days wishing I was somehow “better,” these thoughts didn’t turn into unhealthy behaviors (to this day I have never consumed water mixed with maple syrup, lemon juice and cayenne pepper). I kid. But lots of people aren’t so fortunate:
- 91% of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting; 22% dieted “often” or “always.”
- 86% report onset of eating disorder by age 20; 43% report onset between ages of 16 and 20.
- 95% of those who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25.
- 25% of college-aged women engage in bingeing and purging as a weight-management technique.
- The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females 15-24 years old.
- Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.
I am so, so sad when I read these statistics, and when I think about people I love who have lost parts of their lives to eating disorders. I feel sad for every girl who feels she isn’t worthy because of her weight or appearance. Some of it can’t be helped, but some of it can.
It all matters a LOT more now that I have a daughter. Right now, she’s happily oblivious. She eats whenever she wants (cued through ear-piercing screams), and as she grows, we delight in her rolls. She has a baby muffin top and it’s seriously the cutest thing you’ve ever seen. The doctor meticulously ensures she’s gaining weight at each visit as a sign that she’s thriving. I dread the day she realizes weight has a different meaning.
I’ll do my best to shield her from excesses of pop culture and negative influences, as much as is realistically possible. I’ll teach her what health and beauty mean, across the world. I will model positive behaviors around food and exercise. I’ll encourage her to respect her body, and to demand that respect from others. I’ll share that not everyone is given the blessing of good health, and the importance of taking care of ourselves. I’ll explain that what makes us strong and unique is what makes us beautiful, and that her opinions of herself are the most important. And she’ll likely sigh and roll her eyes, wondering how I could possibly understand.