Thursday, May 17, 2012

How do you teach your child about 'fat'?

Yesterday my not-quite-5-year-old told me that I have a fat stomach.  I said 'thank you.' 

I said thank you because, judging the look on her face when she said it, I didn't want her to adopt the wide-spread notion that fat is bad.  I wanted, even for a moment, for her to consider that this might be a compliment.  But she gave me a look that implied she didn't.  So we began a conversation.  I asked her what she thought about 'fat.' She shrugged her shoulders.  I asked her who told her about 'fat,' she said she thought it up herself.  I'm thinking not.  So we talked about how people come in different sizes (as they do different colors, genders, ages, abilities...a conversation we have had many times).  I asked her if she thought I was healthy.  She does...because according to her 1.  I eat better than daddy and 2. I don't let her eat gummies all the time she wants to (oh the logic of a 4 year old).  I asked her which she thought was most important...healthy or fat?  She said healthy.  OK, so we're on the right track.

But our conversation was interrupted.  And now I am left with a question on how to really teach her about size diversity, fat politics, discrimination, healthy bodies (at any size).  How do you teach these things when size discrimination is nationally practiced and 'medically condoned'?  Under the umbrella of concern for health, our nation's 'top experts' have launched a campaign against fat.  But rather than healthy messages we are being bombarded with messages of shame and blame.  We are being bullied and harassed.  Have you seen the billboard campaign in Atlanta, Georgia??  Here is just one of the most offensive ads...

Granted this ad campaign came under almost immediate attack and I believe are now being pulled ...but the fact that a campaign like this was launched reinforces the notion that fat is bad, ugly, and an automatic equivalent to unhealthy.  Not to mention that this particular ad doesn't focus on health but rather on appearance...which is often the focus of our culture.  And sadly this isn't the only campaign...the "Healthy Girl Adventure Club" targets 9-13 year olds with plenty of body-shaming language, almost every health insurance plan promotes weight loss programs,  there are weight loss centers throughout the country and weight loss products on the shelves of every grocery store,  and most recently the CDC-backed Weight of the Nation (read fat-activist Marilyn Wann's assesment) which aired on HBO just this month. 

So what are we doing?  We have more weight loss programs, products, and campaigns than ever before.  Americans spend billions, I think somewhere around $40 billion annually, on weight loss and yet, we are not thinner...and more importantly we are not healthier.  The shaming around weight and body size is not only demoralizing but it is unhealthy.  Shaming doesn't motivate, it humiliates.  And when humiliated I would think folks are less likely to be active, social, or engaged in their communities -- all things that can and do lead to healthier lives...physically and mentally.

In addition to my almost 5 year old I also have a 5 month old, which means I am raising two daughters in this culture.  And while I absolutely acknowledge that boys are targeted about weight too, there are well documented studies to show that the impact on girls self-esteem and self-worth are immense.  We know that girls are more likely to have eating disorders and disordered eating, are more likely to engage in cutting and self mutilation, and are more likely to view their value in their physical appearance.   So this topic will be a BIG & ongoing conversation in our house.  I can share with my girls the struggles I had with eating disorders, I can be honest with them when I struggle today about my weight, and I can show them my commitment and effort to be kind to myself, to be healthy in my choices (not the least of which include my mindset about my body),  and I can model respect for the differences our culture has in body size as it is a diversity that enriches us.  I can question their labeling of 'fat' and encourage them to question it as well.  I can do all that, but honestly it feels a bit lonely.  I'm sure there will be plenty of folks who mis-interpret what I write as promoting unhealthy lifestyles.  Because fat is in many ways the acceptable prejudice in our society.  But as I write this, and as a committed activist, I must also put in a call to others...get educated about the 'obesity epidemic' before you buy into the rhetoric, explore the efforts of fat activists like Marilyn Wann, check out the work of Linda Bacon, PhD and the Health at Every Size Movement, have conversations in your family and among your friends about body image and self esteem, and consider what 'healthy' might look like if we got rid of the shaming and the blaming?

As for my daughter?  Our conversation will continue.  She has started to read, maybe I should give her my copy of Marilyn Wann's Fat!So?: Because you don't have to apologize for your size. Maybe we'll read it together.  In the meantime, I'm looking for children's books and resources.  Open to suggestions.  Please share your resources.  I'm not sure what is out there for kids about size diversity.  Is there anything even written? Are there children's books out there?  If not, maybe we should write one?  Maybe a summer project for Molly and I? 

Until then, be well, and love yourself.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Is anyone mom enough?

This Time Magazine is getting ready to hit the stands this week and it is already causing quite a stir. The debate is really about Attachment Parenting...this image is most likely designed to 'cause the stir.' You can watch a pre-issue interview with the author and you can read through Dr. Sear's website about attachment parenting to get an idea of what is going on...well, at least part of what is going on. What few seem to be discussing, amid the rampages of to nurse a toddler or not, is the perpetuation of what has been deemed "mommy wars." In other words, yet another way to pit women against women.

In becoming a mother I am convinced that no harsher judgement against women exists than in motherhood. Endless judgement, often disguised as 'well meaning advice' confront us every where we go, by just about everyone we come in contact with...what mother hasn't been told what her crying infant needs from a 'well-meaning' stranger while at the check-out in a market?  And this advice comes with a looming legitimacy because after all children are at stake! But like so many of these related issues and very loud public debates, moms often find themselves in a place that is silenced...we're not to talk honestly about our fears, our inadequacies, our ideas. We are supposed to have the answer, the right one. And we often present ourselves as if we do, because not to invites further judgement (how could you not know breastfeeding is better?  how could you not know to prop a pillow up if you leave your not-yet moving-on-her-own infant on the bed?)  But in a sea of mixed 'expert' messages this can often leave us in an endless cycle of second guessing. And we learn that we are not to trust ourselves and we are not to be too honest about motherhood because if we are we risk being met with silence from other mothers who are also too afraid of being judged.

In my experience, moms love and adore their children, they are also exhausted and annoyed by them.  We are trying to do our best, we are trying to sort through all this conflicting 'advice,' do right by our kids, not lose ourselves, integrate a working life (and maybe even a civic one) all the while fielding constant interruptions by little I write this my 4 year old is sitting next to me talking non-stop about her 'homework' which is being written all over my work notebook. Did I mention she is also supposed to be in bed? 

In fact, I had to interrupt my writing this blog to tend to my crying 5 month old (guess that makes me an attachment parent) who was asleep and to read a nighttime story to my 4 year old in hopes to move that little non-sleeper closer to sleep.  This is the reality of most moms I know.  Whether in the paid labor force or not, we are juggling many demands on our time and selves.  We confront the notions of 'perfect motherhood' in the same way we must battle the notions of 'ideal beauty' both of which are largely perpetuated by media, and internalized by ourselves and our sisters.  We are so caught in a cycle of obtaining this perfection that few stop to question a society that fails mothers...and almost every way. 

 As a society we have set a clear delineation of which women should stay home with children and which should not, thus protecting a long-established class bias in our society.  As well, we feed these so-called 'mommy wars' of pitting women who have a 'choice' to stay home or not against each other, regardless of socio-economic class.  Damned if we do, dammed if we don't.  As a culture we embrace the notion that we are on our own in raising children and admonish any who needs/wants/demands state assistance in raising children. We don't adequately fund child care, in fact child care workers make far less than those who care for our cars.  Child care in this country is often lacking quality (especially if you look to lower-income care) and as such most mothers report a great deal of apprehension and fear about non-family child care.  While some of our workplace culture has changed to accommodate the working mother, few have addressed the issues of the working father.  In fact, we continue to have little discussion about men as fathers, their roles in the home, or any true expectation of egalitarian parenting.  Where accommodations for women in the workforce do come, women are all too aware of the unofficial costs.   We are mommy tracked, overlooked for promotion, our loyalties are questioned because we are not available after hours, we are far more likely than our male counterparts to move to part-time positions, and we have more fragmented work histories which make us less financially stable.  Much of this is because of that aforementioned expectation that women should figure it out on their own.  And lest we forget, we did once have a society that fully funded child care to support women in the public labor force...only it did so when it could argue benefit to the state during wartime.  Now our country takes an out, convincing the populous that to fund child care or early education for kids, or free lunch programs, or library hours and programs, or after school unfair to hard working Americans.  We embrace the notion that 'not my child, not my problem' instead of recognizing the grand benefits to funding children and families across economic lines, as a society as a whole, not divided by socioeconomic class.  It is, as most all other industrialized societies have long figured out, a commitment that returns itself many times over in creating a more productive, beneficial, healthy and
happy society. 

Rather than continuing with these mommy wars, these judgements against how we mother, let us turn attention to a fight that really could make a difference.  One that focuses on what social support we could fund if we prioritized family, included fathers in our expectations, and respected motherhood.