A reader alerted us to a Daily Beast opinion piece in which writer Lee Aitken argues that the best way to keep your kids healthy is to tell them they’re fat.
My friend was distraught when we met for lunch. The night before she had involuntarily, noticeably winced as her teenage daughter ordered a big slice of chocolate mousse cake. The girl was battling extra pounds—there for all to see—yet for her mother to publicly register disapproval, in front of friends, left her humiliated and furious. And now her mother was wracked with guilt because she’d broken a cardinal rule of last-century parenting.
This rule was summed up in the phrase “fat is a feminist issue.” That could actually mean any number of things, but it became codified as a prohibition against implying, in any way, that weight matters to a girl’s worth or self-esteem. To do so was to promote oppressive, media-driven ideas about body image that would warp your daughter’s sense of self, derail her career ambitions and likely drive her to eating disorders.
Seriously, god forbid we should tell girls that their weight doesn’t matter to their worth or self-esteem. Isn’t it terrible how feminism has bullied mothers into being too terrified to tell their fat or average-sized or insufficiently-willowy daughters how worthless they are? I know that practically no adult woman I’ve ever met has stories about being made to feel hatred and shame for their bodies as a young person! It’s a shanda, really.
Aitken does acknowledge that even when mothers were silent (oh, so silent!), “girls absorbed extreme weight-consciousness anyway, from peers and popular culture, and developed eating disorders after all.” I know, right? Fucking peers and popular culture, telling girls that their worth depends on their weight! That message should be coming from their mothers.
Ever sensitive to the latest data on kids’ relationship with food, Aitken also mentions the recent New York Times article showing a pronounced trend towards orthorexia nervosa among children whose parents are restrictive about what they can eat. Whether or not you think orthorexia is a valid diagnosis (it’s not yet in the DSM, but these things can lag), the article’s stories of children paralyzed by fear of food will affect you. Not so much Aitken, who shrugs, “The hysteria those parents telegraph to their children stems from the realization that they are badly outmatched.” It’s fine if your child is wracked with anxiety about what she eats, as long as there’s really genuinely a lot of junk food out there. (I wonder if Aitken noticed the part of the article where Dr. James Greenblatt is quoted as saying “A lot of the patients we have seen over the last six years limited refined sugar and high fat foods because of concerns about gaining weight.” You mean, even after we discovered that fat is a feminist issue?)
The real fuck of it is, Aitken has a point, in a certain sense. The central thesis of her article — and trust me, I am sensitive to the fact that she probably had to lead with exaggeratedly controversial statements in order to get the piece published — is simply that there’s a huge industry devoted to getting children to consume. It’s the job of the parent to be the thin red line between kids and indiscriminate wanting. Aitken writes, “Children’s brains are undeveloped in the area of ‘executive function’—where one weighs immediate impulses against future consequences.” If kids were left alone with a television and a credit card, it’s entirely possible that most of them would devour the world, toys and video games and candy and Lunchables and all. Hell, I was probably the most socially and culturally backward kid this side of neurotypical, and I still had occasional fits of absolutely needing to have the latest He-Man figure. I primarily played with crayons and buttons and I still tried to make my mom buy me some fucking doll that roller-skates. And she didn’t, and good on her. It’s fine for parents to give in to kids’ demands, to a reasonable degree, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with firm, calm, and rational refusal. I’m not a parent, but I do know it’s hard; still, in theory I agree with Aitken that kids aren’t good at evaluating outcomes or seeing beyond their present desires, and parents have a responsibility to help them, even require them, to make sound decisions.
But nobody seems to know how to be firm, calm, and rational about food, especially when their kids are fat. Here’s a bit of evidence: Aitken wrote a fucking opinion piece saying that being publicly disgusted when your fat child eats cake is actually the mark of a loving parent. When a mother can’t lecture her chubby kid in the grocery store about all the calories in a Lunchable, apparently the femiterrorists have won! The fact that Aitken could theoretically have a good point about parents, marketing, and peer pressure in there just makes me angrier. Why does that point need to be bracketed on one end by a mother humiliating her teenage daughter for eating, and at the other end with a call to “ask Starbucks to post the calorie count for every mocha cinnamon white chocolate caramel concoction it comes up with”?
Put it this way: Can you imagine someone writing this article about kids’ overwhelming desire — certainly equivalent in power to their desire for Lunchables — to get an Xbox, or a doll that roller skates, or a space hopper, or whatever the hell kids are playing with these days? “Roller skate dolls are so popular and widespread, kids have a meltdown if they can’t get them, so you should NOT balk at humiliating your daughter if she wants one!” No, in that case it’s just about marketing, not morality. Teaching kids to question advertising, to resist peer pressure, to avoid hanging their self-worth on what they get to own or use or consume — no time to wring your hands about that, there’s a fat girl ordering a piece of cake!
Let me say, because naturally it will need to be said again: I would love it if all kids could have nutritious, healthy food lovingly bestowed on them by Mom AND/OR DAD (love how the article’s directed at mothers, by the way — sure, they’ve long cornered the market on body shame, but they actually don’t have to be the ones doing the shopping or the negotiating with school lunch programs, you know). Really. LOVE. IT. I am no huge fan of the “junk food” industry — I don’t think all food needs to be unflaggingly nutritious, but I do think there’s a preponderance of cheap, convenient, non-nourishing, and potentially harmful food that is MARKETED TO HELL AND BACK. (I’m always reminded of MEALSTM in Good Omens — food that is carefully designed to be utterly unrecognizable by your body as nutrition, but with added sugar and fat.) I would like it if every kid had reliable access to other options. I support parents promoting other options. I’m even in favor of just keeping the “junk” out of the house — I won’t say I didn’t die a little inside when my mom wouldn’t buy me Cookie Crisp, but I was like seven. It didn’t traumatize me, and as an adult there is genuinely not a single part of my mind that cries out against the injustice of never having eaten a Twinkie (seriously), or for that matter a Lunchable. But being in favor of healthy food for all doesn’t mean that I support shaming children! For fuck’s sake! Believe it or not, there are ways to promote healthy attitudes towards food and activity that don’t involve humiliation, lecturing, school crusading, or instilling food anxiety. It’s just impossible for some parents to notice that over the deafening sound of their own neuroses.
To all the mythical mothers who are unwilling to upbraid their fat kids in the grocery store about how they Shouldn’t Be Eating That: good for you, wherever you are. Your kids need a gentle hand guiding them away from the manic acquisitiveness that marketers try to instill and exploit — but they also need to be guided away from the opposite gulf, the abyss of self-hatred and self-doubt that’s equally alluring to kids of a certain age.