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news: feeding our girls a lifetime of angst

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(behaviors, wanting to act on feelings)

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Title/Topic: Feeding Our Girls a Lifetime of Angst
Posted On: 12/10/2007
London, England, Dec 9 2007 (Times Online) – It was reported last week, not for the first time, that girls as young as six have issues with their body image. They consider themselves to be “fat” and to have problem areas. This is, obviously, appalling, and I’m sure we are all suitably shocked. What is seldom mentioned in conjunction with this issue, though, is that those of us who are the most shocked – little girls’ loving, devoted, mothers – are also the ones directly responsible for this terrible state of affairs.

Six-year-old girls don’t – I hope – read Heat magazine or the more scurrilous internet gossip sites, of the kind that mock female celebrities’ bodies whether they are fat, thin or somewhere in between. Six-year-old girls still have their clothes bought for them by their mothers; they know nothing of fashion, other than pink and sparkly equals good, and pink and sparkly with My Little Pony equals ecstasy.

They don’t exist in the adult female world, where every woman is judged on her looks and on her body shape, most notably by other women – the great irony about all of this is that men don’t seem to care whether their love object is a size X or a size X*. Where, then, does little girls’ dissatisfaction with the way they look come from?

From Mummy, that’s where, and it starts very young, with the idea that some foods are so “sinful” or “naughty” that they are either banned outright or doled out as if they were incredibly precious.

If you ban the average toddler from eating chocolate, chocolate becomes the most desirable thing the toddler can think of. If you ban chocolate and tell your three-year-old that it will not only rot her teeth but also make her fat, you’re introducing the idea of weight at an age where it has no relevance whatsoever.

And if you dole out sweets once a week as though they were diamonds, you’re creating a correlation between sugar and pleasure that becomes incredibly powerful as the decades go on: most people, men and women, are fat because they eat too much sugar.

But it gets worse than that. We’ve all become extremely high maintenance and are sending out the message to our daughters that it is not only necessary but desirable to suffer in order to be beautiful.

We’ve all had children and their mothers over for a play date and mentioned, in passing and carelessly, and probably also jokily, that we are steering clear of the cake and biscuits. The small children playing princesses around us aren’t deaf: these things get picked up.

Moaning to your husband or girlfriends about your jeans being tight, moaning about the after-effects of Christmas excesses, moaning about how you can’t cut it in a bikini any more within earshot of the children, wondering out loud about liposuction, even as a joke: all of these contribute to making little girls far more aware of adult weight issues than they should be, to the point where – depending on the mother and her obsession with her own figure – you get children barely out of nappies fretting about their adorable little-girl shapes and mistaking baby podge for hideous, terrible, life-destroying fat.

That’s without taking into account the current adult mania for food-faffery – the bogus allergies I’ve written about before (when there’s no allergy whatsoever in the medical sense; just paranoia about poundage), the shrieking with horror at this or that completely ordinary ingredient, the ordering off menu, the boring droning-on about how such and such a food is “poison”.

Men don’t demonise food in this way, and women do. And the ones that suffer are their daughters. It used to be that all little girls thought their mothers were beautiful. In some circles, they’re now more likely to express disappointment with the maternal calorie intake and lack of attention to exercise.

The other very uncomfortable truth about all of this is that eating disorders have become fashionable. They used to be a straightforward illness, but things have got more nebulous and a kind of louche glamour has attached itself to anorexia and bulimia.

For every genuinely ill young girl, there’s another one who has somehow got it into her head that it is “cool” to mooch around looking gaunt and claiming you have an eating disorder, just as for every genuine self-harmer in need of care, there is someone who hacks ineffectually at his or her arms every now and then – and then wears a sleeveless T-shirt – because some youth tribes also consider this “cool”.

The days of smoking behind the bike shed to indicate your free and rebellious spirit are long gone – today’s young rebel is more likely to be swallowing cotton wool and tracing shapes on herself with a penknife, ably assisted by a culture that sometimes actively encourages such self-destruction.

You and I may find this absurd – and it is – and sad (that too), but when every other pop star or random celebutante eagerly volunteers long stories about fighting their eating disorder and/or history of self-harm, vulnerable young people listen to them rather than to their dreary old parents.

If they were a little bit older and a little bit brighter, it might occur to them to ask themselves why it is apparently impossible to be a happy, well-adjusted, healthy-looking female if you are in the public eye, and to conclude, perhaps, that the celebrity culture in which we live is pitiless when it comes to female shortcomings and is a thing to run away from screaming, rather than to sidle up to all expectantly. If you’re six years old, sadly, that realisation is another couple of decades down the line.

I don’t think it’s nice to be fat, otherwise I wouldn’t have lost a third of my body weight and written a book about it. But I can honestly say that when I was dieting, and even now, when I am half-dieting, not a word about it passed my lips in front of my children. I ate – or didn’t eat – what I ate with no explanation and no commentary. I never asked them whether I looked thinner, or expressed irritation when I didn’t lose weight from one week to the next.

Adult women are free to do what they like to their bodies, and I know better than most how acutely miserable it is to be fat. Equally, we are free to pass our demented complexes on to our children and kickstart decades of neurosis and anxiety – or to keep it zipped and quietly get on with it and let them enjoy the small amount of childhood left to them.

By India Knight


India Knight was born in 1965. She lives in London with her three children, writes a weekly column for The Sunday Times, and a weblog, Isn’t She Talking Yet?, on bringing up a child with special needs. She has also written two novels, My Life on a Plate and Don’t You Want Me?


* Numbers removed by Pale Reflections

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