Starting Early

Sandy Szwarc’s got another must-read up at Junkfood Science about what children are being taught about nutrition and weight in schools.

For parents who have been trying to help their children and teens develop healthy, balanced relationships with food and normal eating habits, and to help them feel comfortable with their natural, individual bodies; for parents trying to help their children and teen avoid our society’s obsessive focus on weight and fears about bad food; and for parents concerned about the growing prevalence of dysfunctional eating and food fears, they will be dismayed to discover the messages on Channel One and the Alliance websites, being pumped into school classrooms, and distributed in classroom handouts through the Alliance and Channel One.

These materials are rife with misinformation and unsound information about food and health. They exemplify the ill-informed health messages that Dr. Jennifer O’Dea, M.P.H, Ph.D., an international child nutrition and eating expert at the University of Sydney in Australia, has repeatedly warned (discussed here, here and here) are harmful to children.

She also touches on another point I’ve been trying my damnedest to ignore: Bill Clinton has finally gone and pissed me right off. Until recently, I was one of those people who willfully ignored anything that would tarnish my image of him, but his campaign against obesity has officially wiped the vaseline off the lens through which I’ve always viewed him. FUCK YOU, Bill Clinton.

(Wait, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it! I love you! But… could you please just find a different non-partisan demon to attack in a cynical effort to improve Hillary’s image? What the hell happened to violent video games? How about misogyny in hip-hop? Everybody hates that this week! Please, just leave the poor fat kids alone!)

Anyway. The thing that scares the shit out of me is, if you get kids even more terrified of fat than they always were, at even younger ages than they always were, what happens when they start gaining weight in adolescence? (And need I say I’m especially worried about girls here?)

I’ve written before about how I went from being scrawny to curvaceous practically overnight, when I was about 11. Despite having seen dozens of pamphlets and filmstrips about how my body would be “going through some changes,” I saw one thing and one thing only when I looked at my new breasts and hips: fat. It was the beginning of the end. Most of the other girls didn’t develop those perfectly natural fat deposits until a couple years later, and even then, most didn’t develop them as spectacularly as I did.

What did that mean? Well, for those of you who haven’t read all my old entries or heard me tell these stories ad nauseam, it meant this:

  • I was made fun of every single day at the lunch table in the first quarter of 7th grade (we had assigned seats and couldn’t change until the next quarter), by the girls who had been my best friends in elementary school (hence signing up to sit with them), because I was SOOOOOO FAT! Every bite of food I put in my mouth was grounds for them to start up again, especially if—god forbid—I got a hot dog instead of a salad. No matter if they were eating exactly the same thing—it was making me FAT, so I wasn’t allowed to eat. Anything. I was 5’1″ and weighed 105 lbs.
  • I was convinced I was The Fat Girl at summer camp, age 12, because I was gigantic compared to my peers. One day, after a bunch of us had gone swimming in our clothes and hung them out to dry on the side of the cabin, my friends pointed at the fugly, beige C-cup grandma bra hanging there and went, “Oh my god, is that your counselor’s? I’ve never even seen a bra like that!” It was, needless to say, mine. I still remember the exact number on the scale at weigh-in that summer: 109.
  • Throughout high school, there was no question in my mind that I was hugely, disgustingly fat. I didn’t have a friend anywhere near as big as I was. No one was shaped remotely like I was. No one else wore a DD cup. No one else had thighs that stuck out wider than their actual hips. No one else wanted to die when they measured our body fat with calipers in health class. (Plenty of other girls did, of course, but they weren’t in my circle of friends and were therefore invisible, because I was a teenager, and everything was even more All About Me than it is now.) I was picked last in gym every fucking time, snickered at in the school pool, and horribly, crippingly ashamed of my body every minute of every day. I was 5’2″ and for most of that time weighed 130-135. Even on a fucking BMI chart, that’s a “healthy weight.” Healthy has nothing to do with it.

Kids are supposed to put on weight in adolescence, and girls are supposed to put on fat in particular. But what do you suppose happens when you spend the first 10 years of their lives telling them fat is disgusting and unhealthy? The distinction between normal, natural, desirable weight gain and GETTING! FAT! becomes utterly meaningless. What’s a girl with breasts and hips supposed to think when her peers don’t have them yet, or barely have them yet—or barely have them even after fully developing? Those girls are thin and I am not, and everyone knows that if you’re not thin, it’s your own fault, so you should not eat.

I loved food too much to starve myself, fortunately, but I still believed that every minute of every day: I shouldn’t be eating anything. I am fat. I am disgusting. Every bite of food is only making me fatter. And later, after I’d gotten Actually Fat and subsequently dieted myself down to a size 4, I learned about the rush that comes from not eating, the sense of control and righteousness that comes from denying yourself anything pleasurable—and the daily thrill of being told how awesome you look, how healthy you must be, how much you’ve accomplished. Three people—my mom, one of my sisters, and my friend Jan—told me they were worried about me. One sister pointed out that my thighs were still fat. Most people just told me I looked fantastic. I was 5’2″ and 113 lbs. I was eating about 800 calories a day.

Did I have a bona fide eating disorder? I don’t think so. I was, after all, still a “healthy” weight. And more importantly, the old love of food took over and brought me back to eating enough without any major emotional resistance on my part. I started gaining weight again, and I hated it, and I eventually went on another big semi-starvation diet, but it was all fairly normal self-hatred for getting fat, as perverse as I believe that is now; I certainly never experienced the sheer panic an anorexic feels when forced to eat or upon learning that she’s gained a pound.

But still, I spent almost two full years eating less than an adult requires and glorying in my self-control and my (still lumpy, still big-thighed, still not good enough) thin body. That may not be disordered, but it’s seriously fucked up.

And it all started with breasts and hips. It all started with perfectly natural, healthy hormonal changes I could not control. It all started with cracking 100 lbs.—the border of underweight for my height at the time, according to, once again, fucking BMI charts. That was the number that made me start hating myself, and I didn’t stop for nearly 20 years.

Szwarc writes:

The health “news” being broadcast through Channel One is predominated by foreboding fears over obesity. Even its segment on body image begins by telling children that obesity is the country’s biggest health problem and then tells them how to get in shape in order to develop a “healthy body image,” offering diet and exercise resources! [The very last things already self-conscious, and eating disorder-vulnerable young people need to hear.] Only the merest mention is made of eating disorders.

This is dangerous. This needs to stop.

Posted in Fat

4 thoughts on “Starting Early

  1. Boy, does this hit home for me.

    I was one of those rail thin children, so getting hips and thighs seemingly overnight completely whacked me out. I had the opposite build problem; not a big bust, otherwise just BIG all over; at 13 I was already 5’7″, and my shoe size was 8 1/2 US.

    Even now, at a healthy weight that lets me get into size 10 pants, I find myself flashing into momentary despair over what a Horse I Am. Then I must remind myself that standing next to another woman of the same height, my shoulders are six inches wider than hers; it stands to reason my butt would be too.

    People come in many shapes and sizes. That goes for children too.

  2. OMG. What the hell are they thinking??

    Why oh why is it so damn hard for people to comprehend that what children need is not sermons and fearmongering about fat, but healthy, whole food to eat and wide open, safe spaces to run around in and the encouragement to do both?

    I remember when I was a kid, just about the time I hit puberty (or more accurately, just about the time puberty hit me), so 11 or so. I went blueberry picking with my aunt and cousin, who was about a year older than me.

    It was the mid-’80s and I had thoroughly absorbed the “Hardbodies” notion of what “fitness” meant, and further realized that I did. Not. Fit. That. Notion.

    I remember sitting in the back of the station wagon with my cousin, who I’d always thought of as taller and prettier and MUCH thinner than me, and I noticed that the flesh of her thigh flattened out a bit, resting on the vinyl of the bench seat. And I remember being appalled. I remember being shocked. I remember thinking, “Oh my god, Laurie’s a lardass like me!”

    Why? Because apparently I had absorbed the “Hardbodies” message so well that I thought “fitness” meant having flesh so hardened it defied the laws of physics. That prompted years of careful analysis of other people’s bodies looking for jiggles and any sign of fleshy movement.

    It wasn’t until at least a decade later, when I was helping to prepare a big roast beef or some dang thing, and I was patting some spices onto it and it wobbled a little. I patted it several times in fascination and astonishment. That was when I learned that muscles are just flesh too.

  3. Thanks for this. I’ve been pitching stories about the childhood obesity non-epidemic to all kinds of progressive publications, only to be met by utter disinterest. People are just not interested in having their preconceived notions challenged. As a result, I think kids in this generation are probably going to die younger than their parents, but not because they’re fat. It’s because the kind of crap that happens every single day to fat kids is abuse, pure and simple.

Comments are closed.