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Our Bodies, Our Daughters

By Sierra Black |

2594767344_f5eb9119f8What do moms teach our daughters about weight, bodies and being female? Just about everything. In a moving essay in the weekend’s New York Times, Peggy Orenstein writes about her struggles with weight, body image and womanhood. Struggles she’s determined not to pass on to her own daughters.

Our renewed cultural focus on health, nutrition and exercise for kids might mean better health and slimmer waistlines for a lot of children. But for our daughters, there’s a dark side to all this attention on their weight. They’re being taught younger than ever, and from more directions than usual, that being thin is a reflection of your worth as a person.

There’s also a cross to bear for moms. Having a fat kid, especially a fat girl, is increasingly a sign of cultural failure. You need to educate yourself, the message goes. You need to water down their juice. You need to model healthy choices. Bottom line: if your daughter is fat, it’s somehow your fault.

I have two daughters, one thin as a beanpole and the other round as a melon. The round one is only two, and I have no doubt that when she grows up she’ll be as slender as her sister. They come from a family of skinny genes. I don’t worry about their weight any more than I worry about my own, which is basically not at all.

I do worry about passing on healthy life habits, though. I try to model eating healthy foods, and have pretty strict rules about what comes into our house. I’m totally one of Those Mothers. The ones who serve organic sugar-free carrot cake at a birthday party.

I make a point of exercising with my kids and in front of them. Unlike Ms. Orenstein, I don’t exercise because it feels good. I exercise because it helps me keep my moods stable and I want my body to be strong and energized. I kind of hate the actual exercising part. Often what motivates me to get out and do it is the thought of my girls’ watching. I want them to see exercise as a normal part of every day, like brushing your teeth. Maybe you don’t love it, but you do it.

How do you communicate with your girls about bodies, weight and being a girl? What do you teach them about food and exercise?

Photo: Ed Yourdon

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About Sierra Black

sierra

Sierra Black

Sierra Black lives, writes and raises her kids in the Boston area. She loves irreverence, hates housework and wants to be a writer and mom when she grows up. Read bio and latest posts → Read Sierra's latest posts →

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49 thoughts on “Our Bodies, Our Daughters

  1. JEssica says:

    Being fat is not the end of the world…but this author thinks it is.

  2. Sierra Black says:

    Mea Culpa! I don’t think being fat is a problem AT ALL. I think being unhealthy or unhappy about your body is a problem most women grapple with throughout their lives in one way or another, and like Peggy Orenstein, I’m conscious of how I model (or fail to model) being comfortable and healthy in my body for my kids.

  3. PlumbLucky says:

    I would like to model healthy habits for our children – we certainly try. Dont have any daughters (yet? Time will tell…) BUT I do have my own past history, along with that of my sisters, and our Mom, who showed us healthier habits by example.

  4. JEssica says:

    Sierra Black and PlumbLucky also think being fat is the end of the world. What chance does a girl have to base her self worth on her accomplishments instead of her waist line?

  5. baconsmom says:

    “Our renewed cultural focus on health, nutrition and exercise for kids might mean better health and slimmer waistlines for a lot of children. But for our daughters, there’s a dark side to all this attention on their weight. They’re being taught younger than ever, and from more directions than usual, that being thin is a reflection of your worth as a person.”

    Because people like you equate health with being skinny. Plenty of fat people eat well and exercise regularly, are very healthy, and ARE STILL FAT. Fat is a valid body type – and over 77% genetically heritable, just like you and your skinny daughters.

  6. BlackOrchid says:

    I agree that this is just another area for neuroticism of parents (usually mom) to come out and really hurt our daughters (and sons too, probably). Can’t we just chill out?!?!?! Healthiness has little to do with numbers on a scale. and a healthy MIND is important too – when will moms stop buying into this belief that we can control everything?!?!? that our sins are visited upon our daughters ten- or a hundred-fold? It just makes me sad anymore.

  7. GtothemfckinP says:

    I don’t think being fat is “the end of the world” but, it is a real problem. Obesity is a serious problem. It is totally avoidable (except in very rare cases) and it costs money. Now that we have “healthcare for all” coming, it’s even more important, right? I hardly think the big problem is eating disorders or anorexia. Look at the percentages WAY more overweight people than anorexic people. I think the pendulum has swung a little too far in the other direction. I actually say to my preschooler when she asks for too much junk “Do you want to be fat? It’s not fun to be fat. You can’t run and play and it’s ugly.” Because you know what? That’s the damn truth. Health does not equal being “skinny” but it does equal being an appropriate weight. I don’t buy some of those other arguments. We enjoy treats, probably almost daily, but its like one cookie, amidst a bunch of healthy foods and we exercise each and every day because its both fun and its the right thing to do.

  8. PlumbLucky says:

    Can someone PLEASE explain to me where I said that being fat was the end of the world, as JEssica seems to imply I did, and I’m rereading my comment wondering what I said. Never said it. “Being fat” is not the end of the world. Being unhealthy, on the other hand, is. And no, I don’t necessarily equate one with the other, thank you. I’m pretty sure you can be unhealthy as just about any given weight.

    Please do not attempt put words into my mouth. Thank you.

  9. Heather says:

    With both my kids(one boy, one girl) I have been working very hard to model healthy habits for them. We have even gone so far as to start our own garden so that they can learn to eat healthy by growing their own healthy food. I am sure that my daughter will never be “skinny” it just isn’t in the genes, but what I don’t want is for her to be unhealthy. I do believe that you can be heavy and still healthy. And you can be very skinny and very unhealthy, but the fact remains that you have a greater chance of being unhealthy if you are overweight. I think the focus has to be on healthy habits and not size.

  10. Mistress_Scorpio says:

    PlumbLucky, if I squint real hard, I can make the words on the screen blur and then I can imagine what you wrote and take issue with it! ;) I’m also glad I don’t have daughters because the cultural pressure on girls and the assumptions that are made about them as they grow, make decisions, make mistakes, etc… it’s all so harsh and unforgiving. I don’t know that *I’m* strong enough to raise a girl in such a world without getting stabby.

  11. Mistress_Scorpio says:

    “I’m also” should have been “In addition,” as I am not assuming that anyone feels the same as me on the subject of raising girls.

  12. patricia says:

    GP says, “[Obesity] is totally avoidable (except in very rare cases)….” I’m beginning to doubt this is as true as many believe. I’ve been attending a boot camp for 4 1/2 months, exercising 5-6 days a week, starting from basically nothing. I’ve lost weight and lost lots of inches, becoming more toned and in far better cardiovascular shape. That’s great, and it’s what I expected. However, I’ve been working out with a woman at my boot camp who started the same day I did, and she hasn’t lost one pound. Moreover, she’s found that if she has a couple of indulgent meals, she gains weight, and more or less has to starve herself to take them back off. It shouldn’t be physiologically possible for her to put pounds (plural) on as a result of three or four high-calorie meals- you have to eat A LOT of calories above what you are already burning to add a pound. I have also seen a friend do the same boot camp for three months and lose 5 pounds and no inches. And I’ve seen my husband, who is very overweight, work out daily for months and not lose any weight. I know what his diet is- it’s mainly the same as mine, which is a healthy diet with some less healthy things in moderation (and this is the diet on which I’m losing weight- it genuinely IS moderation). That’s three people I know who are doing what one is supposed to do and aren’t losing weight regardless. I think I am the outlier- the one who loses it easily. I have so much sympathy for my husband- the only way he’s ever managed to lose a lot of weight is extreme calorie restriction. 900 calories a day for a 300 pound man. That’s a diet of shakes and soups, and maybe if he’s lucky a hideous microwave meal or processed meal replacement bar. That’s no way to live. And his labs from his last physical show that he’s in perfectly fine health. I do wonder if for a larger segment of the population than we’ve been led to believe, obesity really can’t be helped.

  13. Laure68 says:

    Like Mistress_Scorpio, I am so glad I don’t have daughters. It has always been so hard to be a girl. And it is not only about being obese. I was always in the “normal” weight range, but always felt like I was fat when I was a teenager. There was so much pressure to be ultra-skinny. I ask my husband about this, and he says boys don’t have anywhere near the same amount of pressure.

  14. GtothemfckinP says:

    Just teach them the value of fitness, emphasize athletics, being active and being a foodie, liking GOOD, QUALITY food, and respecting the food (i.e. not shoveling massive quantities down your face) and it will be fine! That’s my theory and I’m sticking with it.

  15. jenny tries too hard says:

    Can someone please check and see if my sarcasm/hyperbole detector is broken? I thought I just saw someone admit to using “You don’t wanna be fat, do you? It’s ugly!” as a boogeyman to keep a preschooler in line.

  16. jenny tries too hard says:

    Seriously, though, I do have my own struggles with this issue. My family celebrates with food, mourns with food, the whole nine. And I did have an eating disorder in high school that flared up again at other times and has made reading calorie counts a bit of a trigger for me. I remember distinctly talking about fat as a perfectly normal-sized first grader and how wretched it felt, and I would never come close to doing that to my daughters. If there is one thing about the “obesity epidemic” that we can all agree on, it’s that we definitely do NOT have a problem with people not being scared enough of being fat.

    I tell my kids that we eat sweets on S days (Saturdays, Sundays, and special days like birthdays) and we talk about eating when we’re hungry, not just because food tastes good. And I do use a bit of a boogeyman, myself, I will admit. But it’s not one about being ugly or a lie about how “fat people can’t run and play”. I use the “Do you know how much a cavity hurts?” boogeyman when it’s called for, and the “You’re not having more of that, because we’d rather spend the money on _________” reasoning now that my kids are older.

  17. GtothemfckinP says:

    Being fat *is* ugly and being fat *does* keep you from being able to run and play well. It’s not healthy. Simple as that. You can rationalize and coddle all you want. I would never say hurtful things to a chubby girl, but the point is, you have to keep them from getting chubby to begin with. You’re not doing anyone any favors by letting them get fat. And it’s simply just not that hard to avoid it. I mean, being over 35, having had kids, and all that, I can see how it’s hard for older women to lose weight. But if you are fat from young days on, what hope do you have? I have been overweight at times in my life and I know exactly how I got that way and how not to be that way. And it’s not said to keep someone in line, it’s said as an explanation as to why they can’t have *another* cookie. It’s the truth. I believe in telling kids the truth. I don’t harp on it, but if she persists with requests for crap food, I let her know why I am saying NO.

  18. phoenix says:

    Sadly, it’s not just our daughters who will suffer in the nonsense which directly equates fat with unhealthy and thin with self-worth. Some family members have openly worried about my lusciously round toddler from the time he was 3 or 4 months old. It can be frightening and infuriating.

    Here’s an article I read recently which I felt captured some of the nuance missing from most of the “obesity epidemic” debate rather nicely. Some of your commenters and readers may be interested as well.

    http://www.alternet.org/health/146416/is_our_obsession_with_weight_misguided_here%27s_what_really_matters_when_it_comes_to_good_health/

  19. Manjari says:

    GP, you might never say hurtful things to a chubby girl, but how do you know your daughter won’t someday at school? If she does tell a chubby girl. “You’re ugly and you can’t run and play well,” at least you’ll know where she learned that.

  20. Manjari says:

    I do think that being significantly overweight negatively impacts health and should be avoided. I think it’s important to model healthy eating and to be active together as a family. My kids also know that I go to exercise when they are in the Y playroom, and they see exercise as something fun and something I like to do (although at their young age, they spend almost the entire day exercising through play anyway, regardless of my influence.

  21. ann05 says:

    Being fat is ugly? Tell that to Botticelli or Rubens. It used to be that being “fat” was a sign of wealth and health… you could afford to eat. Now being thin is a sign of wealth, the thinner you are the more expensive food you can afford, the personal trainers, the more time you can spend working on being thin.

    Being healthy is good. What you look like usually has nothing to do with that. It’s too bad we’re so bad at science we can’t tell the difference. It’s easier to demonize people for what they look like.

  22. jenny tries too hard says:

    I dunno. Obviously, you have a better idea of what will work for your kid than I do, but it shocked me to see that you admit to using that particular phrase. I, first of all, don’t think any neurotypical American is likely to make it to kindergarten without realizing that most people find obesity unattractive. Society has told my kids plenty about “ugly”. I think my job as a parent involves teaching that we don’t say out loud that people are ugly, because society has a terrible time with that part. Maybe my three-year-old isn’t all that bright, but somehow I’m unsure that she’d pick up the idea that calling a kid “ugly, cause you’re fat” is bad, but Mommy saying “fat = ugly” at home is okay. Maybe you live in an area where that’s not the case, I don’t know. Second, I would hate to think, even now as an adult, that my physical beauty (not appearance, as in appropriate clothes and grooming) is particularly important to my mother. Can’t imagine how it would feel for my mother to worry that I would get “ugly”, as opposed to unhealthy, and I still managed to develop an eating disorder. Third, (and I am aware this is part of my personality and not everyone’s) the subjectivity of “fat” drove me crazy at age 6, age 9, even now. I remember trying to figure out if I was fat at 6 because my butt was bigger than other girls’…but my ribs stuck out and theirs didn’t. Is a size six fat if your friends wear size two? Did developing breasts earlier make me fat? Can’t imagine imposing all those questions on my daughter any earlier than could be avoided. At least with the cavity and health boogeyman, it’s objective. You either have cavities, high blood pressure, etc. or you don’t, and those things are clearly bad, unlike fat which gets a very different response depending on where it sits on the body….just ask Kim Kardashian.

    Again, not bashing you…but still not getting the fat boogeyman, either. I tell my kids “Because I said so,” or “Because that’s all the _______ a three-year-old needs to be healthy” and finally “If you pester about it again, I’ll put it all down the garbage disposal” when my kids bug about seconds on sometimes foods.

  23. baconsmom says:

    My husband would definitely argue with “fat *is* ugly”, as would many people in the world. Your beauty standards are not universal, and shouldn’t be. And besides, since when are we supposed to be treating ugly people like sh*t or looking down on them? I’m glad my daughter won’t be anywhere near your shallow little spawn.

  24. GtothemfckinP says:

    “Some family members have openly worried about my lusciously round toddler from the time he was 3 or 4 months old” well, they are just stupid…I don’t think we really need to worry about fat BABIES…once the kids wean and or start walking, then it all evens out if they are really getting enough exercise and not being fed crap…so just blow their ignorance off.

    As far as my kid being mean to other kids, it’s not that complicated to teach that there are things you THINK and there are things you SAY. You don’t go around saying negative, mean things to people, but inside, you know the truth for yourself and you hold yourself to a high standard. My daughter’s physical beauty is not all-important to me, if she was handicapped or something and became overweight because of a legitimate disease or disability, of course I would still love her and be proud of who she was, but if she is fat because she is lazy and foolish, well, then, I have not taught her well and am not doing my job…and seriously, most people are fat because they are lazy or foolish or have parents who don’t teach them well. It’s just not that complicated. Don’t eat more calories than you burn off.
    And we all know we are not talking about Kim Kardashian’s ass when we say “fat” or even girls who are big like the redhead from Mad Men who is Esquire’s sexiest woman now. THOSE are big, healthy girls. Of course all women have FAT on the body. I’m not talking Nicole Richie thin here. Like I said, I think everyone is more worried about eating disorders when the real problem is obesity and lack of fitness. Just being into sports I think takes care of a multitude of potential issues. You have to eat well to perform and you get body confidence from what your body can do, not how it looks. Coincidentally, if you’re athletic and eat right, you won’t be fat.

  25. GtothemfckinP says:

    bacon…we don’t treat ugly people poorly or look down on them, but we don’t want to BE that way if we can avoid it, for heaven’s sake…and not eating a bunch of garbage will help one avoid it…I don’t see what is so complicated about it?

  26. jenny tries too hard says:

    WE know we’re not talking about Kim Kardasian’s ass (although it is fun to do so). We’re adults. But I sure didn’t know the difference at six, when I was perfectly healthy but had, as I do now, a big ol butt. In fact my dad’s entire side of my family had big butts. And I’ve always been, ah, curvier, even when I was cheerleading right along with size 0 girls. I sure thought I was fat, but I was athletic and eating right. Sure, obesity is almost always caused by laziness and foolishness, but do preschoolers understand the difference between a tummy pooch, a big butt a la Jenny, and full-on obesity? Not usually, just like they don’t understand that Mommy isn’t “old” the same way that Great Aunt Sue is old. We’re all old to them.

    And your preschooler knows already that we think some things and don’t verbalize them? Mine still announces potty results. Weird.

  27. JEssica says:

    “Can someone PLEASE explain to me where I said that being fat was the end of the world, as JEssica seems to imply I did, and I’m rereading my comment wondering what I said. Never said it. “Being fat” is not the end of the world. Being unhealthy, on the other hand, is. And no, I don’t necessarily equate one with the other, thank you. I’m pretty sure you can be unhealthy as just about any given weight.

    Please do not attempt put words into my mouth. Thank you.”
    If you read my first response, I think the author implied this by justifying her “healthy” modeling of “behavior”. And then you went ahead and parroted her ideas. Sorry, but by saying you are “modeling healthy behaviors” you are perpetuating the idea that looks matter more than substance. I hope if I ever have a daughter I will teach her her mind and accomplishments are more important than a number on a scale. I don’t want to treat my daughter as a sex object. She is a person and deserves respect whatever her weight.

  28. GtothemfckinP says:

    OK…I think I am being too harsh and too much of a hard ass with my position. It’s what I think, but I know I have to tone it down.

    But, JTTH, all this about accepting big butts and thinking you’re fat when you’re not goes into my point of needing to TALK to the kid about the issues…early…and being FRANK. The woman who wrote Babble’s Fat Camp story and Peggy Orenstein in the NYT, to me, were too sheepish and danced around things. You let ‘em know that eating too much junk food makes them fat and not exercising makes them fat. If we are out and I know my kid should not be tired (its early in the outing, she’s had enough sleep, she’s generally peppy, etc.) and she asks to be carried, I tell her “no, you need the exercise, you need to walk on your own”…we’ve pretty much stopped using strollers altogether for almost a year except for special instances when we were traveling or walking miles and miles. Our kid hikes and she’s not even three.

    If they are not healthy (FAT) or, if they just have different body shapes, and you make them feel good about the shape, if its just different and they are healthy or you fix it if you let them get fat. Nobody bothered to talk to me constructively when I was a young girl and I was fat and then took matters into my own hands. My mother was SOOOOOO hands off and I really resent it. I think its best to get it all out there. So yes, they can begin to understand the difference between a tummy pooch, a big butt, and full-on obesity.

    Being afraid to mention something or be upfront with your own kid is just lame.

  29. PlumbLucky says:

    @JEssica – You put words and thoughts in my mouth, and you are completely incorrect in your assumption that I equate fat with the end of the world.

  30. Heather says:

    @JEssica – how in the world is saying that you want to model healthy behaviors and habits perpetuating the idea that looks matter more than substance. The whole idea behind modeling healthy exercising and eating habits is that you learn to listen to your body and what your body needs, rather than looking at a number on a scale. You can model healthy habits without ever needing to own a scale or know what your weight is. You know when you are healthy and in good shape and you know when your not simply by how you feel, not how much you weigh.

  31. JEssica says:

    @PlumbLucky – No you failed to read the comment ahead. You cannot say “my mom showed US healthier habits” without implying weight matters very personnally to you. You cannot even say girls should be girls without adding you wouldn’t let your girl be a girl unless she was following your “healthy” example. I think you may be more prejudice against fat people then you know. At least GP just comes out and says it, instead of cowering behind “healthy” as an excuse – she wants her daughter to be thin, period.

  32. GtothemfckinP says:

    FWIW, I see nothing reprehensible about PlumbLucky’s view. I don’t want my daughter to be “thin” but I don’t want her to be fat. At 5’9″/153 I am not “thin” but I am athletic and feel good about how I look. I’d rather her rock out on the trail than be “thin” but we’re not talking about being too thin, we’re talking about obesity and being overweight…and how it can pretty simply be avoided.

  33. GtothemfckinP says:

    One thing is clear from my comments and others…mothers (our mothers and us) MATTER in this!

  34. jenny tries too hard says:

    Oh my gosh…eating habits and exercise ARE about health, JEssica. Telling a kid that if she eats another cookie she’ll get fat and, therefore, ugly is very different than eating broccoli and expecting your kids to follow suit. PlumbLucky, you had a perfectly reasonable comment that didn’t in any way say that being fat is the end of the world or that you wouldn’t let your girl (that you don’t even have, yet!) be a girl if she didn’t eat healthily. I don’t know where JEssica is coming from at all.

  35. JEssica says:

    @Heather-Because whether a person is healthy or not is not important to who they are. Think of Stephen F. Hawkings, not exactly a healthy guy (no fault of his own); but he wrote physics down in a way where lay people could understand complex ideas- his ideas are important not his looks. Now you may think, but what are his chances of getting a lady friend. But when comes to girls, let’s face it, men aren’t all that picky. I just had a baby look like a freaking begula whale and men still hit on me despite the poundage (and being married). Women are way harsher on my weight than men are and I don’t think it is my health the women are worried about.

  36. patricia says:

    JEssica, whether my kids are healthy is important to me not because I prioritize their appearances over everything else, but because I want them to be, you know, HEALTHY. Meaning, live a long and happy life because they feel good. Meaning, not open themselves up to diabetes, heart disease (strongly in my family history), joint problems, other chronic issues. NONE of that has anything to do with their appearance! In the same way I vaccinate my kids, and teach them to wash their hands, I am also trying to instill healthy eating habits in them. Not because I care how they look. I don’t understand what’s so hard about that?

  37. jenny tries too hard says:

    JEssica, while a person’s health isn’t the ONLY aspect of who we are, it IS part of giving your child a good life. Will a love my kids any less if they don’t follow the healthy examples I try to set for them? Of course not. I wouldn’t love them any less if they stopped brushing their teeth, either, when they are old enough to control that part of their lives. But I do feel that setting healthy examples in diet, and tooth-brushing, and enforcing rules around those things while my kids are young is part of how I love them. I love my kids, so I don’t want them to know the pain of tooth decay or of diabetes. Ultimately, those are their choices when they grow up, but while they are young, showing them how to avoid those (without telling them that people with bad teeth or extra poundage are ugly) is part of my responsibility.

  38. GtothemfckinP says:

    I don’t want to look good to get men…I’m already married…and I don’t want my daughter to look good so she can snag a man…but, if you do look good, you often feel better about yourself. Why *not* look the best you can, for what you’ve got? Why set the bar at “Stephen Hawking” genius, yes, but we’re talking about encouraging girls (kids) to not get fat because–honestly–its more attractive to be in shape than to be fat, except to small segments of the population who fetishize fat women. You know, in some cultures they force-feed girls and keep them from exercising because it’s preferred that they are fat! I want my girl to be kick-ass strong, fast on her feet and not take any crap. The world is not fair. Why not help your kids by guiding them toward being their best?

  39. Heather says:

    Being as healthy as you can is an important part of who you are, sure it is not the only part, but it is a part. And I am sure that Stephen Hawking wants to be as healthy as he can as well. Sure I want my daughter to aspire to be something more than a women who simply looks good, but what good is it if you are a genius on the verge of dying if you can prevent it.

  40. LindaLou says:

    Our entire family exercises. Daily. With all that activity, I don’t worry about the whole topic too much. That being said, I am appalled that GtothemfckinP would say that to any child. It’s ugly to the core. I’d much rather have my daughter turn our fat, than have her grow up to be a human being who thinks it’s okay to talk like that to a child. Here’s a little hint, you complete and utter DA: You may be able to artificially control a young child’s weight, but some day she will grow up. She could be fat or go through a period in her life where she chooses to rebel against having such a complete ass of a mother, and she is going to hate you and hate herself. Ugh. I’m done, I think.

  41. LindaLou says:

    And to add to my already lengthy sopabox of a post. Why would anyone ever use physical attractiveness as a measure of a daughter’s worth. Any one of us can be in accident tomorrow and be disfigured in some way. Or burned. Or scarred.

  42. JEssica says:

    Yes I think mental health is more important than physical health. And that starts with improving the important aspects of life by teaching. You are always saying more by your actions than your words. By pointing out weight, shape or any other physical weight by word or deed then you are reinforcing females as merely sex objects. And by the by not all fat people have diabetes and not all people whom have diabetes are fat.

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  48. Erin says:

    It really pi$$es me off when people say “I’m glad I don’t have girls” when these articles/ blogs are written. SO not the point.

    And for the record, I am so glad I have a little girl. I have never once wished I was a boy, and certainly never wished she was.

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