April 19, 2010
Food and Self-acceptance
Peggy Orenstein’s columns annoy me on a regular basis, and yet, to be honest with myself, I had to read this one twice just to be sure of why it annoyed me so, so much.
Orenstein is wondering how she can raise a daughter with a healthy relationship to food and her own body when she herself has so many weight and body issues, and whether it’s even possible to raise a daughter to love her body while still watching her weight. “How can you simultaneously encourage your daughter to watch her size and accept her body,” she asks?
Well, you can’t. At first I wanted to rail against the surface hypocrisy inherent in the question; no, you can’t always be bothering your daughter to stay thin, and still raise her to accept her body, thick or thin.
I appreciated that Orenstein wants to do whatever it takes to not pass on her own pathologies to her daughter, though I thought, it shouldn’t be that complicated: encourage eating for health, not for weight control. Don’t keep junk food in the house. Turn off the TV. Make sure she knows how to cook.
But the truth is that I too worry about being able to raise children to be healthier, physically and emotionally, than I am in so many ways. I wonder how not to obsess about not obsessing about something that you are in fact concerned about. Because I so rarely really identify with or understand the worries or preoccupations of other women, I find myself expecting not to be able to sympathize with pieces like this. I want to believe that things are simple, but I know the facts are that for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, they aren’t, especially when you become a parent. So to be intellectually honest with myself, no, I don’t think her concerns about how to impart both healthy body acceptance and good health are unfounded. Especially when what’s all around us in the media, in ways we don’t even fully grasp, is so profoundly damaging.
Upon second reading, what I realized caused my visceral reaction of irritation, was that she raises the issue of, but then doesn’t really challenge or criticize in any way, how parents use their children in competition against each other, and in defense of their own self-image and social status.
We are not only what we eat, we are what we feed our children. So here in Berkeley — where a preoccupation with locally grown, organic, sustainable agriculture is presumed — the mom who strolls the farmers’ markets can feel superior to the one who buys pesticide-free produce trucked in from Mexico, who can, in turn, lord it over the one who stoops to conventionally grown carrots (though the folks who grow their own trump us all).
If this is what it’s like to live in Berkeley (and I don’t necessarily take her word for it that it is), that’s a toxic environment for raising emotionally healthy children with a decent self-image, regardless of how organic and local the vegetables are, or how well she manages to suppress her own insecurities about food and weight.
She writes about a study which found that mothers are more likely to notice a daughter’s excess weight than a son’s, acknowledging the expectation of girls more than boys to project the right image:
For organic-eating, right-living parents whose girls are merely on the fleshy side of average, “health” may also mask a discomfort with how a less-than-perfect daughter reflects on them. “ ‘Good’ parents today are expected to have normal-weight kids,” says Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of the book “The Body Project” and a professor of history and human development at Cornell University. “Having a fat girl is a failure.”
But does she feel this way? She doesn’t seriously question the presumption that having a fat girl is a parental failure, and that the girl, by implication, is a failure. I don’t think she’s saying that that’s true, but she legitimizes the prejudice by taking it for granted. (And she’s engaging in some nasty assumptions herself about the motivations of the “organic-eating, right-living” parents in her community.) She’s pretty clear; while she doesn’t want her daughter inheriting her own disordered thinking about food, she does want her daughter to stay thin. Why? Just for health reasons?
She seems to recognize the wrongness of it, yet still tacitly engages in it, if the first paragraph of the article is any indication. Whether or not she actually sees having a fat daughter as a failure, she’s seeing life and child rearing in terms of competition over image and reputation, and I think that’s potentially just as damaging to a child’s self-acceptance as being saddled with a parent’s food issues is–the knowledge that you’re never valuable, sufficient, or truly loved, apart from the image of the family that you project. That more than being healthy, content, and comfortable with yourself, you need to worry about what other people might think of you, or might think of us because of you. And that’s what it means to a child to say, “be healthy, but watch your size.” Having healthy kids isn’t a competition. Living well isn’t a competition. Orenstein doesn’t quite seem to understand that, and I’m not sure that it’s Berkeley’s fault.