For Children, “Fat” is the new “Ugly”

CNN has an excellent series on perceptions of beauty in contemporary US culture. This week’s was on how the age for body anxiety to set in is getting younger and younger:

“Fat is the new ugly on the school playground. Children as young as 3 worry about being fat. Four- and 5-year-olds know “skinny” is good and “fat” is bad. Children in elementary school are calling each other fat as a put-down.”

The message that “thin” = good and “fat” = bad is everywhere, and kids are pretty good at picking up on it. Children hear their parents talking trash about their bodies, obsessing over exercise, moaning about the pants that no longer fit, and chatting about whether they’ve been “good” and had a salad or whether they’ve been “bad” and had some cake.

And they hear adults saying unkind things about other people’s bodies. They learn from TV, from movies, from toys, from T-shirts, and from God-only-knows what else, too. I don’t exactly know what the answer is. I just know it has to stop.

The stakes are high–very, very high:

“People who diet a lot — and therefore regularly spend a lot of attention and self-control on what they eat — often don’t have enough focus for math problems or other exercises, says Jennifer Thomas, a psychology professor at Harvard Medical School. 

Even worse, Dr. Thomas goes on to say, is that people who severely limit their food intake for prolonged periods actually SHRINK THEIR BRAINS.

But hey, in a culture that worships the external appearance, maybe that’s a small price to pay for being skinny?

Seriously, though–and I’ll keep beating on this drum as long as it needs to be beaten–we’ve got to fight back.

It’s an insult to the Creator God to speak of anybody’s body with anything less than respect.

It’s an insult to a human being to be judged as if he or she were only a body.

I have cried actual tears over the time I wasted worrying about my body. No one goes to their deathbed thinking that things would’ve been better if they’d just made time to work out more and lose those last 10 pounds.

We just don’t have time for this nonsense.

What can we do?

It’s Fat Talk Free Week!

So it’s Fat Talk Free Week.

What? You’ve never heard of “Fat Talk Free Week”?

Neither had I, until a little less than a year ago, when I was researching ways in which the discussions that we have around the table influence our thoughts and behaviors surrounding body size and health.

I suspected that talking about fat, calories, and weight would have a negative effect on people’s thoughts and behaviors, and I also suspected that such talk was pretty common. Certainly it was nothing unusual in my growing-up years!

Anthropologist Mimi Nichter writes in her book, Fat Talk, that ” ‘fat talk’ is a kind of social ritual among friends, a way of being, or creating solidarity.”

 “Fat talk is basically all of the seemingly innocuous things that women say on a regular basis that reinforce the thin ideal and contribute to women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies. Things such as ‘Do these jeans make me look fat?’ or ‘You look great! Did you lose weight?’ ” (Dr. Carolyn Becker)

Dr. Carolyn Becker

But “fat talk” is almost certainly a contributing factor to the enormously high rates of disordered eating and body image issues among women of all ages. (And, yes, among men, too.)

The Tri Delta Sorority, together with psychologist Dr. Carolyn Becker, developed a program to combat the the thin ideal standard of beauty that’s ubiquitous in the media (the number of folks who find this blog by googling “Tiffani Thiessen fat” is just SAD, people). And they’re combating it by focusing on the healthy ideal–which, of course, looks different for everyone.

In their words:

Reflections endeavors to help participants resist the unrealistic, ultrathin ideal standard of female beauty prevalent in today’s society.”

The program doesn’t focus on eating disorders. (Good thing, too, because learning about eating disorders can actually help people with disorders learn how to be “better” anorexics.) Instead, in interactive, peer-led small groups, participants learn to embrace a healthy ideal, become satisfied with their own bodies, decrease “fat talk” in their conversations and learn to focus less on their own and others’ appearance.

Best of all? The program is effective.

I’ve never had the chance to participate in a Reflections group, but I know from experience that banishing “fat talk” helps.

Will you join me? We can make it one week without any “fat talk,” right? (That includes self-fat talk, too! No beating yourself up in front of the mirror.)

If you’re a Christian, like me, then you believe that it is God who made you. And God’s work is very, very good–no matter what anyone else says. God made you as you are, and you are beautiful.

Please watch this video:

and join me in a week that’s fat-talk free!

My Audrey Hepburn Problem

From about age 15 or so, Audrey Hepburn was my idol. I worshiped the iconic film star, watching her movies again and again, poring over books about her life, and searching for images of her online.

I could have done worse. Hepburn was, by most accounts, an extraordinarily lovely person, both inside and out. In Roman Holiday–my favorite Audrey movie–she’s lovely without trying to be, and the beauty and dignity of her character is apparent even as she portrays a very convincing princess in disguise. In her later years, she was a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, having once herself been on the receiving end of emergency food aid as a child in post-WW2 Europe.

Sadly, although I admired Audrey’s humanitarian legacy and reputed grace and kindness, I was most inspired by her thinness. In the days of my Audrey obsession, her brilliant film performances were less important than the visibility of her long, lovely bones in her various stunning Givenchy and Edith Head designs. That her thinness was likely due to an eating disorder rooted in the wartime starvation she suffered as a child did not dissuade me; neither did her struggles with depression and self-loathing (which are demonstrated side effects of starvation.)

No. I saw a thin, beautiful, kind person who didn’t need to eat AND STILL had the energy to save the world. I wanted to be thin, most of all, and then be kind and save all the starving kids with the food I didn’t eat. After all, Audrey herself loved a poem that seemed to make this connection (“for a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.”) When I looked in the mirror, I saw broad shoulders and curves. I berated myself for being unable, like Audrey, to subsist on next to nothing.  ‘That’s the end of me doing anything worthwhile,’ I’d think–‘what good can I do if I don’t look like Audrey? Surely that figure was the fount of all her goodness?’

Of course, this sounds crazy now. It didn’t then, partly because I was not incredibly well nourished (needed some brain food!) and partly because the idea that “you are worth something only if you look great” is a message that’s broadcasted endlessly and ubiquitously–especially to girls. Do a little experiment–listen to what people say to girls, even little ones. How many comments do you hear that are related to appearance (whether of clothing, hair, or whatever)? Do the comments that affirm (or simply call attention to) character outnumber the ones doing the same for appearance?

There are all kinds of beauty, and all kinds of ways of doing good in the world. I still like Audrey Hepburn’s movies, and I can enjoy them now without obsessing about the difference between Audrey’s figure and my own, but I still regret Hollywood’s move (beginning, some say, with Audrey) toward ever-increasing unreality in the area of women’s bodies. And so, for years now, I’ve actively looked for female role models who embody beauty that I find compelling and unusual and unrelated to body size, like Wangari Muta Maathai–women I can imagine sitting down to a meal and eating with–with gratitude and goodwill, and no guilt.

Because I want people like this girl to know that she can save the world, be beautiful in every way, and eat a great meal–and maybe all at the same time.

my niece Elli, helping pick an early spring salad