This is one legacy we must leave behind us
It didn't start with Boomers. In fact, I'm not sure that any of us could possibly sort out where "it" began, "it" being our obsession with thinness.
Every so often I see a online argument between people, usually someone who did their research and someone else who is only spouting their opinion sans research but of course, treating their opinion as fact. This particular kerfuffle had to do with whether or not a more corpulent body was at one time considered beautiful (for either sex, thanks). Doubt me? See this.
The answer to that is yes, it was. Depending on what part of the world you're in, still is. And before someone barks at me that "thin was always in" please see this:
While this isn't exactly scientific, it does march us through time to see how the standards, virtually always determined by male desires and preferences, have shifted. In some cultures, people who are large are considered rich because they can eat. You and I could argue all day about this kind of thing, but that doesn't change where we are now, with our infatuation with fat.
Or rather, the unbridled hate thereof, and the wholesale shaming of anyone larger than a size 2 if you are female. Or the shaming of men if they aren't born mesomorphs, able to be The Hulk in a matter of seconds.
With a more-than-polite acknowledgement to fellow fitness writer Daniel Hopper, here is where it gets ugly for the guys (all of us, really):
On one hand, it is human to identify with the body, the way the body confers agency, personal power, superiority (as fleeting as that may be) and attractiveness, as society may nor may not deem it. We hang onto that superiority via skin color, size, height, shape or whatever it is that we as a society, a tribe, a village, a culture might believe offers us some kind of leg up in the mating game. That is part and parcel of what it means to be human.
It is of course one of the greatest mistakes we make in our humanity. For as much as we worship the body, we also condemn ourselves to perpetual suffering by committing to that worship. Beauty and relative attractiveness carry with them a price tag as well as the inevitable use-by date, which arrives with terrifying swiftness.
These days, beauty kills, for we are willing to kill ourselves to achieve it, mutilate ourselves to sustain it, all in the name of some false ideal which ultimately lasts only a few years, if that.
Here's a study about how that affects people in the UK:
I want to address the legacy that we are handing to our kids, if you will, most especially our girls.
Do we really, truly want to condemn our kids to a lifetime of body image problems, self-hate, self-mutilation? Is this who we are as a species?
Apparently so. Because there is so very much money in eating our young.
And our middle-aged. And our elderly. We want them to eat, then we don't want them to eat, then we do. Eat a sandwich, we say to the skinny. Shut your pie hole, we say to the large.
We are, of course, only addressing ourselves in all this, but that doesn't excuse us for this kind of collective cannibalism.
The pandemic has underscored this, with eating disorders on the rise as people were placed under further stress. However, this is not a problem isolated among young girls. Disordered eating now affects men, women, children, it ravages young and old of all colors, all races and cultures. It's an equal-opportunity killer, life-destroyer and body mangler. I've been there, forty years of that shit, and it came down to me from my parents and was furthered along by asshole men, to say nothing of powerful societal messaging.
One Medium commenter, Whittingtonca, wrote me this revealing comment about her upbringing:
My mother had my pediatrician put me on diet pills at about age 8 or 9. Everything was about weight, every day. I don't blame her--she saw that was being teased for being plump and took action. She was also on herself about her own weight every day. At 23, I became vegetarian and learned to love cooking. Learning to love food and wine was a huge step. I also began to love running (individual sports, not team sports was key) and, after a hip replacement, began walking half marathons, in my 60s. I am now 69 and strengthening to counter spinal stenosis, but I have a track record for overcoming stuff, so I know I will.
She added in a separate mailing,
I think there are a number of women my age who were encouraged to be thin by their mothers. In many cases, they were continuing the pressure they put on themselves. Harry Truman had a desk sign that said, "The Buck Stops Here," but many of us keeping right on passing the buck along to our children, unless we make it stop.
She's not alone. She and I are the the same age. One of my beloved heroines, Karen Blixen, suffered anorexia nervosa and died weighing a shadow of what she should. Some attribute that, not without reason, to her desire to pass with great artistic drama. Dying of malnutrition is not a great drama. It's a great loss to the world.
My mother, long a flapper-skinny girl of the Roaring Twenties, deeply resented the weight that having two children laid on her body. She and my father harangued me unmercifully about having inherited genes from my father's side of the family, genes that guaranteed generous hips. That is an evil legacy, for it cost me much of my adult life. And, to be fair, whatever creative pursuits and joys I might have had of my own while in the grips of eating disorders.
It is a statement of simple truth that at every age, people obsess about their relative thin- or fatness. My mother nearly starved herself to death eating nothing but saltines in her mid eighties because she honestly believed that her boyfriend at the time would love her more if her bones stuck out. The staff found her stumbling around at night in the deep snow, completely disoriented. She needed nutrition, not drugs. They gave her both. This is how insane it is. Even elderly people starve themselves.
Our kids are lightning rods for our body dysmorphia. The moment we make note of some aspect of their bodies, be it baby fat or chubby thighs or skinny arms on boys they will hear that as an indictment. They will wear those comments like the Ten Commandments and that will haunt them for life. I speak from experience. Young kids want to please their parents. When their bodies are offensive in some way, the kids read that as their lack of value. They aren't worth loving because their bodies aren't perfect. They aren't wise enough- nor are most of us as adults- to be able to differentiate the body from the self.
To my parents, my body determined my value, and my body was a statement of their own personal worth to the world. What a breathtaking responsibility for a child to handle.
Please see this. I don't care if you've seen it before. You need to FEEL what is says and what it's doing to our kids. To all of us.
I'm 68 years old and I can still hear my father's dripping disapproval when he would grab an inch of my budding thighs and yell for the whole household to hear,
WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO DO ABOUT THIS????????????????????????
I might have been twelve at the time, working like a banshee on the farm, sweating for hours cutting weeds in the pasture. Yet there the offensive hips were.
We condemn our children to permanent self-hate prisons in this way.
Those hips are long gone, but the pall of my father's ghastly and very public disapproval of something over which I had no control whatsoever still remains with me. You can move on but you cannot move those comments out of your memories. This is why this body-hate business has to stop with us. All of us.
This of course is a useless hope, for there is too much money to be made in the billions and billions spent on weight loss, (fake) wellness, gyms, pills, lotions and potions and lies. All of it. Every single bit of it.
The lie is the promise of a Perfect Life if Only.
I write about this a lot, because I have lived it. This particular drum cannot be banged enough.
You and I have no business painting future generations of children with self-hate. Generations of babies are already dieting, kids younger than twelve presenting with disordered eating. The damage done to their bones, their GI systems, their developing organs is unbelievable. Not only do we short-circuit their joy, we short-circuit their bodies, sometimes for life. For nutritional deficiencies in youth can and do result in everything from cardiovascular problems to infertility to osteoporosis.
How does the buck stop with us? Part of it is dealing with our own obsessive, disordered eating. Kids watch us and emulate us for what we do, say and how we care for our bodies (or not) are normalized. They are family rituals.
Before you argue that you and your spouse are fitness nuts, if I may. That can potentially carry its own death sentence. Please see:
Schofield points out the other worrying trend among our adolescents, driven in part by the superhuman, steroid-driven movie heroes that emphasize (airbrushed) perfection. In our own drive to be fit, we may not realize we're communicating that we expect our kids to keep up, too. I'm just saying: any kind of compulsive behavior around the body is messaging to our kids. Kindly be mindful of what they might be hearing, seeing and feeling.
Because it begins with you and me. Our inability to accept and love the skin we're in clearly tells a child that they should feel the same way. I learned it at home, Whittingtonca learned it at home, we all learn it from parents, counselors, adults all around us. Kids need someone sane and sober to translate the insanity to which they're exposed all day long through ads, social media and bullying.
Changing our kids' futures begins with changing ours. You and I do not have to perpetuate the self-hate. Of course it's hard. But I have to ask,
are you and I not worth it?
Are our children and their children not worth it?
Is not our enormous potential to change the world not worth changing our disordered attitudes about our bodies?
Or is the almighty dollar, the money others make on our collective misery, worth it?
Up to us.
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