And the cycle continues...
I grew up in the seventies. It was widely believed that excess body fat was caused only by poor diet and lack of exercise (the obvious implication being that fat people lack willpower and are lazy). In the 80s and 90s, Oprah's show led many to believe it was a psychological or spiritual problem. I must have some unresolved anger or spiritual imbalance!
Currently, body fat is understood to be affected by diet, physical activity, psychology, genetics, quality of sleep, hormones, consumption of antibiotics (the pink stuff) as a child, food additives and contaminants, some auto-immune disorders, race, hormones, baby formula (Instead of breast milk), and many necessary medications. To me, that all means that body fat percentage is highly complicated, and that scientists truly don't have a clue.
In spite of science's slightly better understanding of obesity, my daughter and her teen-aged peers receive overt and covert messages every day that tell them in no uncertain terms that thinner and smaller is better.
In the chapter, "Do Something About Your Weight" by Carol Schmidt writes:
"A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Women's dieting has become what Yale psychologist Judith Rodin calls a 'normative obsession,' a never-ending passion play given international coverage out of all proportion to the health risks associated with obesity, and using emotive language that does not figure even in discussions of alcohol or tobacco abuse. […] Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women's history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one."
I was finally able to get off this merry-go-round of misery by happening upon a psychologist who actually knew how to quickly and effectively treat eating disorders. Dr. Joanne Diacogiannis was the sixth (seventh?) eating disorder specialist I sought treatment with. There was no looking for clues of childhood trauma or analyzing my dreams. She just told me what to do and I did it. It worked. Competent eating disorder treatment didn't make me thin, it just made me sans disorder! She understood that the pressure to conform to the thin ideal gave birth to the disorder, and a whole host of resentments against society (but that's another story).
What might I have accomplished in these fifty-two years if I had not given my power to this ludicrous social dictate? I like to think of myself as a reasonably intelligent person, but my young self was no match for the thousands of messages I got from family, friends and non-friends, television, film, and fashion.
Now, with a young one of my own I see the pattern ready to start all over again (in spite of the the body positive movement). And I see my own self-consciousness and lack of self-esteem regarding my body affecting her. And worst of all, I see the depth of her vulnerability about her body size (and as I know you are probably curious, she is a normative weight -- but not "thin"). My first instinct is to help her conform: exercise class, up the vegetables, lower the sugar. Ridiculous. She was born happy, healthy, and with an appetite. Her appetite is not the result of a repressed anger or spiritual imbalance. It just is. And it's fine. What is the alternative to saying it's not fine? A life like mine? Could fighting her own nature possibly work any better for her than for me? I don't think so. I think that the answer is ultimately for my daughter to learn forty years earlier than I did to tell society (including those who would pressure her to lose weight for her health) to, "Hie thee hence, and enter upon thine aft-ward portal with that selfsame, diminutive nether member that doth define thee as pateful namesake!"
I can already hear some of my readers thinking, "But she should be exercising, eating more vegetables, and lowering sugar intake." Well of course. We all should do that, but as a response to dissatisfaction with the size of one's body, it becomes problematic. And for many, it leads us down a path that is far less healthy than if we had never bothered to begin with. I want my child to have a life free of "normative obsession," but I fear it may already be embedded into her young mind.