This morning when I was making my daily blog rounds I happened across a post over at Losing Sanity that struck a real chord with me, body image in society. Now specifically Johanna was talking about her young daughter, which is something that is not familiar territory to me unless you count the fact that I was once upon a long ago an impressionable young girl. Still reading her post brought up all of my very strong feelings about being fat in our society.
Now I have talked in the past about, as Johanna called it, the dreaded three letter word. Fat. Fat is an ugly hateful damaging word, unless you are using it in that weird hip hop 90's form in which it means cool. I was never one of those people, so we will go with the former definition of the word.
I try very hard to not let that word have power over me. Yes I am fat. I am not as fat as I once was and will not be this fat in the future, but I am still fat for now. I can allow this to be damaging to me or I can not. I can allow it to be my defining feature or not. I prefer the not option.
I have other incredibly wonderful adjectives in my life. I am smart, I am beautiful, I am talented, I am creative, I am inspirational, I am loved, and a hundred more positive words, all of which define me much more clearly than the word fat ever will.
This is all easy enough for me to say. Well no it is not easy, it took me until I was nearly 30 to say it and mean it, but where I am now it is easy to say. I am a mature mostly rational adult. I can see past all the media bullshit and celebrity air brushing lies to that fact that my physical size doesn't mean squat about who I am as a person.
I can say that now. I damn sure couldn't have said that ten years ago. I especially couldn't have said it twenty years ago. Back then I can't even blame it on media influence causing my insecurities. I didn't watch popular television (other than cartoons) or listen to pop music. I never read magazines like Seventeen or Teen Vogue because I wasn't allowed to. I didn't even go to girlfriends houses and look at these types of materials until I was in my early teens, and I knew I was fat when I was at least 10.
I came upon the fact that fat was frowned upon before I had blatant media influence. I mean I am sure it was subliminally in what media I did see, but it wasn't so brow beating at the time. Sure I also had family influences. My mother was a serial dieter and my grandmother was constantly complaining about my weight. That had something to do with how my body image was developed. Ok it had a lot to do with it, but I have this nagging feeling that the fat talk didn't start until I was in middle school.
Even outside of my family, you get these sorts of messages from the time you are little, and slowly they build up. What is the first thing you say to a little girl when you see her? Normally it is "My don't you look pretty today." or some variation on that. You talk to little girls about being pretty and dressing up and things of that nature. Most people don't go up and talk to little girls about what they like to read, or about sports, or about anything that doesn't have to do with what they look like. This stresses at a young age that body image is important, even if the little girl doesn't realize it.
I am fairly certain though that my biggest influence was my peers. I am certain that they were not nearly as sheltered from the media as I was, and well they were always tinier than me. I towered over them in height until I was almost in high school, so my weight was always higher than theirs.
Let me tell you something, if you have never dealt with teenage and tween girls, you are lucky. Those girls are evil. I am convinced that when girls start to hit puberty they actually produce a hormone that makes them pure evil. They can smell fear and the one thing they hate more than anything is someone who doesn't conform to what they think is the norm.
I think what it comes down to is gross insecurities. If you were never a teenage girl, you might not be able to understand it, but I have some pretty good insight into that state of mind. Different is bad at that point in your life because all girls at that point feel awkward and ugly. The logic becomes that if everyone looks exactly the same then no one can point out that you are freakishly thin, tall, fat, have glasses, braces, acne, fuzzy hair, out of fashion clothes, big ears, brown eyes, red hair, chewed nails, big boobs, no boobs, no butt, really short, one nostril larger than the other, or any other one of a million flaws that you perceive to be a huge problem.
So it becomes easier to form a group that is identical and ostracize those who don't fit in, to cover your own insecurities about your perceived flaws. It is also easier to cling to an image that is well known through the media to immolate. If that woman is famous then she is 'normal' and therefore I should look like her.
Even if I don't know who these famous people are I should look like, I know almost instinctively that I should look like the people in my social group. If they look like a skinny super model, I should look like that to. Because I want to fit in. I have to fit in.
At least that is how most of society thinks, not just teenage girls. The influence never really goes away.
I suppose we can protect our daughters all we want. We can tell them that they are beautiful and smart and loved. We can tell them that they don't need to conform and that words like fat don't matter. We can love and support them, and we should do all of these things. Still there will be people who don't support their daughters like this, and girls that come under poor influence and will in turn influence our daughters.
It might not always be about being skinny or fat. Someday it might be about something equally as unimportant, but it will always be something. It always has been something. I am not certain there is anyway to not have it be something.
All we can do is keep supporting our daughters, our sons, our sisters and brothers, our friends, and even strangers. All we can do is try and change the influence they receive for a better one.
So remember the next time you say something, especially to a child, that you are an influence. Be a good one.