Friday, April 20, 2012

Under the influence

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.


  1. Thank you so much for the mention and for blogging about this topic. I hate that our society places so much emphasis on those three little letters. And yes, tween/teenage girls actively produce evil hormones ;). Seriously, it could be used as a weapon in wars!

  2. Like I said, this is a topic very close to me. It makes me want to shake people the way they place emphasis on weight. talking about being healthy is one thing, but weight and health are not synonymous. It is a dirty dirty word and is used as one of the last forms of acceptable hate.

    And I think anyone smart would run in terror from an army of angry tween/teen girls. Just tell them that the enemy said Twilight is stupid, and the war would be over. 

  3. Thank you so much for writing on this topic. Gods, I wish someone would have sat down and had this talk with me when I was young (not that I would have listened, but I might have). Like you, I didn't come to these realizations until I was at least 30, and even today I still find myself having to "unlearn" old beliefs from a lifetime of "old tapes".

    Do you mind if I share your post?

  4.  I am not sure any of us would have listened once we were teenagers, but maybe, just maybe, if we had heard it from the time we were small it would have made a difference. Unlearning is such a hard process, not one we should leave for our children.

    And yes, please feel free to share the post, or any of my posts. That is why I write it.

  5. Love this! I too was affected by body image, I was bigger and heavier then my own mother by the age of twelve. She too was a serial dieter. I don't blame her though, she was a product of her own environment, and it IS hard to unlearn that behavior.  I remember at the age of 14 being thrilled when my cancer treatment made me lose 30+ lbs. I thought, " Finally! I can be as thin as everyone else!"  The fact you could see all the bones in my clavicle and face didn't affect me, My stomach and thighs were tiny! I've always had issues with weight, being embarrassed by how fat I was.   In my stubborness to hate myself for it, it took my daughter ( at the age of 12) to get mad and yell at me to stop being stupid! " Mom! I HATE it when you talk about yourself like that! I want to be like you when I am a Mom. YOU ARE HOW A MOM IS SUPPOSED TO LOOK! You give comfy hugs, and your lap is comfy for sitting before I got to tall/big. I don't want to hug a bag of bones! You told me to love myself for who I am, why cant YOU?!" Well I was both sad and proud in that moment. Sad I had made her so upset, and proud that I had done good by her. I never pressured her about her size or weight, she is perfect! No dieting in my house, no Ma'am! Well except for limiting Junk food as much as possible, but that is more about nutrition than anything else.  I also love that the media is showcasing " plus size" models now...even though in reality they are just average size, Plus size meaning larger than a size 10.   

  6. I too had a serial dieter for a mom. She hated her looks and her fat. She always smelled like whatever shake program she was drinking that week/month. I knew more about Jenny Craig at age 7 than any girl should ever know. She even took me to the meetings and tried to modify their regimen so I would, in her words, "never have to be fat like me." When she started losing weight because of her chemo she called it a "miracle from God" to "finally lose all this fat." I grew up hating fat people and being fat.

    To this day I struggle with my own self image and have to remind myself all the positive words that describe me even when I don't believe myself.I have gained weight with each kid and am currently heavier than I was when I delivered my first. I blame a lot of things: food, exercise, stress, but I know what I need to do it love me and the shelter this body has made for four healthy, amazing kids.
    Thanks for this, I needed a reminder after stepping on the scale and cussing at myself that it takes time to lose weight and to love me all along the way.