Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Super Links, February 22, 2016

I am long overdue for a post...again. Here are some things I've been reading.

We're happy to name our baby girls Blake or Charlie or Dylan, but we would never name a boy Sara or Annabelle. "Might it be because, despite all our talk about gender equality, we still believe deep down that the worst thing a boy could be is like a girl?"

Why do we teach girls that it's cute to be scared? "According to a study in The Journal of Pediatric Psychology last year, parents are 'four times more likely to tell girls than boys to be more careful' after mishaps." And this translates into timidity and deference when girls grow up.

I started reading the novel Dietland by Sarai Walker this week. I'm not that far into yet, but I love it so far. Walker is a gifted writer, and an obese female protagonist is such a rare thing to find.

If you are a parent--or just a lover of children's literature--you should be reading The Ugly Volvo. The blog is clever and funny and doesn't take anything too seriously. The author's sort-of series in which she critiques the weird illustrations in some great kids' books is just genius. See "All of My Issues with the 'Goodnight Moon' Bedroom" and "The Seven Things I Can't Stop Noticing Whenever I Read 'Knuffle Bunny.'"

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Face of the Fat Girls

I posted something very personal about myself a few days ago. I have mixed feelings about it. I almost didn't post it at all, because I am, by nature, a private and introverted person. My stomach turned over when I clicked "Publish." I feel a little sick thinking about it now. Then, this weekend, I read a post on the New York Times' Motherlode blog about a Swedish hate group attacking the author of Rage Against the Minivan, a blog I've read off and on in the last few years (and a blog name I've envied). The author and her husband have two biological daughters who are white and two adopted sons who are black. She writes often about her mixed-race family, her Christian faith, parenting, and other personal topics.

I started thinking about why she chose to make her private life so public, why I chose to publish something so personal, why anyone does these things. There was a part of the Times story that really struck me:

"With the [personal] stories [bloggers tell], we’re talking about people. Without them, it’s all abstract. To have a real conversation about race, we need some people willing to stand up and take a bigger risk. To support that conversation, the rest of us need to stand with them."

I finally got the courage to write about my body image problem because I realized that I had spent my whole life suffering in silence, and this had only made things worse for me. I never wanted to identify as fat. I rarely talked to people about how I felt about my body, because the only thing worse than being fat was to draw attention to it. I quietly avoided swimming parties and learned how to take a bra off without removing my shirt so I could survive sleepovers. I strategically planned what and how much I would eat in front of certain people, making sure to "under-eat" in public because I feared what I knew everyone would think if I ate a healthy portion of anything: "Well, that's why she's fat. She eats like a pig."

Our torture of overweight, or even slightly unskinny, girls persists because no one wants to talk about being fat. No one wants to be the "face of the fat girls." But if we all suffer in silence, the next generation suffers too. When I realized I would soon be responsible for shaping a little girl's body image in a world that will do everything it can to make her feel inadequate, I knew I couldn't keep pretending my problem didn't exist. I had to face it, or I would just pass it on to her.

There are certain people who have a real disdain for the personal. Talking about private things--such as being fat--publicly just shouldn't be done. But when has my weight or my body ever been private? It's something everyone could talk about except me. But not anymore.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Will I Teach My Daughter to Hate Herself?

This is the look of a sunburned 6th grade girl who just got back from a water park field trip, at 
which she wore a T-shirt over her swimsuit the whole time.

When I was 12, I was convinced I was fat. I decided to order a weight loss plan from the back of a teen magazine. For just $10.95--which I paid by mailing an envelope full of dollar bills and change--I received in an unmarked package a little book filled with platitudes. I took it very seriously. In the book was a black-and-white photo of a hippopotamus, which I was instructed to hang somewhere I would see it every day. Apparently, a constant reminder that I was one Oreo away from hippo status was supposed to scare me--or shame me--into losing weight.

The book also suggested taking a "before" picture of myself, so I could record all the imperfections I would soon erase by following that $10.95 advice. I can still remember what I was wearing in the picture: a white wireless bra from Walmart and a pair of purple Hanes Her Way briefs. I assume this image has burned itself on my brain because I obsessed over it so completely. I wanted to change everything in that picture. My thighs were just a little too wide, my stomach wasn't perfectly flat. I can still see how I pressed my arms nervously against the sides of my gentle pear shape.

I hid the photo in my desk drawer and would look at it now and then--a human hippo to provide inspiration along with the animal one. One day, sometime after this craziness started, my mom found the photo. She freaked out. Who took this picture? she asked, pure fear in her eyes. It hadn't occurred to me that the photo looked like a molester's trophy. To me it seemed completely rational to ask my 7-year-old sister to take a polaroid of me so I could fixate on my hatred of my own body and torture myself into changing the way I looked.

It worked to some extent. I went through a phase in which I ate saltines almost exclusively. I wouldn't have said it then, but I was right on the edge of anorexia. I never became the obsessive exercising type, though, so I didn't get the full "benefits" of starving myself (please, make sure to note my sarcasm here). I never got to feel small, fragile, petite--the things I wanted but could never have, the things a woman--a desirable, sexy woman--was supposed to be. I wanted to be light enough for someone else to pick me up. Was that so much to ask?

This yearning to be small started early. Around third grade, I got tall, taller than most of the boys in my class. I also wasn't skinny. I wasn't grossly obese or anything, but I was chubby. These are both common things for girls that age, but between the tallness and the chubbiness, I felt like The Hulk. In fourth grade, I became a bit of a novelty because, as the monster that I was, I could grab those scrawny boys by the hands and spin them around like rag dolls.

9-year-old Adrienne, wearing a swimsuit and getting knocked down by a wave. Classic.

Just as I grew tall early, I also grew breasts early. I've never had to complain about having a flat chest, but the attention I got for my "development" only made me uncomfortable, and it usually came from the wrong types of guys. (That is a storyline that has continued throughout my life. Something about my body type or face really attracts the sorts of rednecks who shout at you from moving pickups.) I wanted an athletic body, even a waifish one. I wanted to be Audrey Hepburn, not Sophia Loren.

I have spent most of my life battling my weight, worrying about my weight, fussing over a body that could just never be what I wanted it to be. I am the kind of person who eats ice cream in secret, because I'm too ashamed to let anyone--even my husband--know that I'm adding more fat to my already fat body. I am the kind of person who turns to junk food for comfort, and then beats herself up for eating the junk food. When someone tells me I'm beautiful, I cringe. It feels like an awful lie, a cruel joke. Who is this person who can't see what I see? What's wrong with them?

When I got pregnant the first time, part of me really wanted a daughter. Another part of me was very relieved when we found out Jack was a boy. That same part of me is very nervous about having a girl the second time around. What will all my body issues do to her? What will she learn from me? Will she see me try on ten different outfits and mumble under my breath about how fat I look in each one? Will she see me eat a bag of chips in one sitting after a particularly hard day? Will food be connected to her emotions the way it is for me? Will eating to feel happy and hating herself for eating become a never-ending loop for her, too?

Maybe she'll get my husband's genes and metabolism, and she'll never have to worry about being fat. But if she gets my genes and my metabolism, the world will be a tougher place for her. Whether we like it or not, girls and women are constantly told how to look, and constantly reminded of how they fall short of the ideal. And an overweight woman is still a pretty unforgivable thing in our society.

I want my daughter to be strong and brave, to go against the grain, to be comfortable in her own body and not let other people's expectations change her or paralyze her. I have not succeeded in doing any of these things. I still fail at them every day. And whether I intend to or not, I am afraid that, no matter how much I want a better life for her, I will still teach her to be like me.