“Please don’t give my daughter an eating disorder. But you will. You will…”

2011. Flora is six and lives in a bit of a bubble. There’s no TV—and thus commercials—in the house. No glossy magazines. The meme videos she watches on Youtube are big brother-tested and, while generally in poor taste, rarely an assault on the self-worth and identity of a young woman. She chooses her clothes among her favourite friends’ hand-me downs, and loves them because of who they came from. “Designer jeans,” to her, are an ethically troubling line of scientific research.*

She eats real food—and lots of delicious, sweet things. She never has to clear her plate. She can eat dessert first. Or never. For breakfast or in the middle of the day. She eats when she’s hungry, and does not eat when she’s not.

She loves herself.

And then, that stupid bastard, he tries to wreck it. When she’s six.

He’s not a bad man, you know. Just a guy. With a TV and without a daughter. I think he was just trying to be nice, make conversation.

This is what he said:

You’re eating a second ice cream? You are going to get so fat.

To my six-year-old daughter.

He moved on. Forgot. The effect on her? That evening, as she comes out of the bath, my six-year-old daughter looks at herself in the mirror—for the first time in her life, critically. She thrusts out her belly. And asks me:

Mom? Am I fat?

And I, who have spent much of my adult life struggling against the eating disorder and body image damage inflicted on my teenage self, I freak. But manage to hold it in, for her. And hear the story, what’s prompting this. And engage in a little bit of deprogramming. And tell her, that the next time I see him, I will explain to him why what he said was inappropriate and wrong and ensure he will never say that to another little girl again.

I figure by the time I see him, I will be… less angry. Because, you know, I know he’s not a bad man. Just a guy. With a TV. And no daughter.

But I’m still furious, seething. And so, what comes out of my mouth, instead of the rehearsed, rational statement I practiced, is this:

I understand you tried to give my daughter an eating disorder.

And he’s shocked—hurt. Doesn’t understand. Then, as I explain—a little appalled. Both at me, and I hope, at his lack of reflection? But perhaps not. I do think, however, he won’t call a little girl fat again. Or suggest she might be getting fat because she’s eating an ice cream cone.

But he hasn’t changed, he doesn’t understand. No, I don’t think I was that effective.

He’ll never do it again, because he’s afraid the little girl’s psychotic mother, who clearly has issues, is going to go medieval on his ass. As I did.

And you know what? That’s good enough. Not perfect. But good enough. That’s what I think in 2011…

Green tea (matcha) ice-cream with red bean.

2013, now. Flora’s eight and a half. A specimen of physical perfection: healthy, strong, athletic, beautiful. She kicks ass in Tang Soo Do. Does one-handed cartwheels for fun. Can outrun just about every boy on the Common, except for her big brother.

Eats when she’s hungry. Doesn’t eat when she’s not. Snacks on chickpeas. Loves ice cream. There’s no TV or glossy magazines in the house. She’s still lives in a bubble, at least some of the time.

But when she gets out of the bath tub, when she’s in the swimming pool change room—not always, but every once in a while, I see her looking at herself in the mirror—critically.

It rips at my insides.

I thought I could save her. But how can I? She has nine-year-old friends who talk about diets—who are on diets. Too many women in her life, around her torturing themselves, hating themselves. Unhappy with themselves. Passing the message on.

It’s everywhere. She’s learned “fat” is a horrible insult when thrust at a woman. She’s learned the look, shape of her body is what matters the most to too many people.

She’s not even nine yet. She still doesn’t know about designer jeans. But she knows this.

I thought I could save her.

But you won’t let me.

Inspired by Urban Moo Cow‘s guest post on Finding Ninee in the This is Our Land Series: The Greatest Gift

* My kids are brilliant. Deal with it.

73 thoughts on ““Please don’t give my daughter an eating disorder. But you will. You will…”

  1. I would have gone medieval on his ass too, if that helps. My nearly 8 year old has asked me if she’s ‘overgrown’ ie fat. She is absolutely not and I felt very sad when she said it.

  2. This struck home. What that man said was irreversible. Kids now a days get “skinny” and perfection rammed in there throat and all it takes is one vile comment.
    I know that you’re telling her she’s beautiful everyday and I hope that she will be able to overlook what that jerk said and to not fall into the “diet”…that makes my stomach turn. 9?!

  3. So true and it is just all around us. Everywhere you turn, TV, movies, newsprint, the internet is consumed with body image especially of women and I know I will have my hands full trying to keep my daughters safe from it, too. Just stinks and so wish things could be different, but this is so just the reality of it!

  4. Wow, I can’t believe someone would actually say that! Though, my aunt once did make a comment in general when our family was together about how too much cake could make her fat, and I immediately responded with, “Let’s please not created disordered attitudes about food.” My daughter is 6 and I do worry about all the thin-diet-pretty messages…. We may not be able to save them from all the messages in the culture, but it sounds like you are doing a great job of controlling the messages in your home. {No TV? I can’t imagine….}. Great post.

    • When I read what he said to your daughter, my eyes actually widened, like I was in a cartoon. Then I felt myself begin to shake, just a tiny bit, with outrage. This was beautifully done, and I feel your anger, and I share your worry. I have two daughters, and (speaking of using “bad” words- ha!) when my oldest first complained, “I am so fat!” (She is barely on her growth chart- I’m sure she had heard it somewhere and was “trying it out”.) I snapped at her about how we do NOT use that word in the house. It was the equivalent of someone else hearing their child use the word Fuck, most likely. This is so important. And I think you kick ass for how you responded to the man, and I am sorry, and not surprised, that he hasn’t changed.

      • And also, I have no idea why that comment post underneath here, instead of at the bottom. Awkward commenter, signing off now. :-l

    • Sarah, I am going to steal that remark about disordered attitudes about food should I ever be in a similar situation- brilliant!

  5. GRR. All I can say is GRRRRRRRR. . .People just have NO IDEA about the power of their words especially when it involves a girl and her appearance. She’s going to be just fine. I KNOW IT. But it still makes me angry. She’s too young to even have to THINK about her appearance.

  6. When I was six -rarely watched TV, vegetarian, Montessori-schooled- my ballet teacher told me I was getting chubby and that I needed to stop eating so many hamburgers (which I never had) and milkshakes (which my mom rarely gave me). I’m still pissed she did that and I’m pissed that man said that to your daughter.

      • We don’t give other people’s words so much power over us. If my daughter said someone referred to her as fat, I’d ask her if she thought she was and she would say No. I would say I think she looks healthy and beautiful and tell her that obviously that person has problems of their own and it really has nothing to do with her. I’d totally dismiss him because his words mean nothing to us. I want her to have a strong sense of self. People are going to say whatever and we can’t control that but we don’t have to give value to ignorant people’s words. Think for yourself. Don’t let others tell you your value especially people who don’t even know you.

  7. As one who struggled with an eating disorder throughout high school and college, I’d love to take that guy and beat him repeatedly with a really big stick.

    Beauty is only skin deep. Some days I wonder if today’s society even remembers that old saying?

  8. Over-protecting kids is never the answer, because you cannot be there for every moment all their lives. You need to focus on telling your children that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that she is perfect, just like God made her! I read all of the comments and all of this over-protecting is scaring me more than the evil comment made by that man.

  9. yes, the man was stupidly insensitive. but how to fix the problem that grows in your daughter’s head when that seed is planted, whenever, however it gets planted? since she was 5 or even younger, my now 7 1/2 yo daughter refused to wear any loose clothes, bell-shaped jackets, or jeans. finally, last summer, i realized it’s because she’s terrified she’ll look fat. she’s not even close, but i don’t think that’s the point. so, how to fix this in a life context where kids ARE exposed to these messages – school, other kids, some tv, various activities, family issues, etc?

  10. It’s absurdly hard. I grew up without a TV and in the sort of bubble you describe but bought myself a pink ‘Girls handbook’ with a book token when I was nine. Designed for pre teenagers it contained loads of exercises and a list of the calories in loads of food. Triggered a diet and eating disorder which, while much better now, still means I have food and my weight as my ‘default’ thinking. The authors of that book have a lot to answer for.

  11. This is a very interesting subject to mull over, as I have only lately exited an unschooled teenhood, myself–the teens years being notorious for self-hateyness.

    I’m not sure there’s any avoiding self-crit, no matter the cultural influences. I took issue with my own body on several points–I wished I could be a little less stocky, I wished my face less round, I wished it would less easily grow red, I wished I were taller… the list goes on, but not for very long.

    The most important things my mother did for me, I think, was to
    1, ingrain the idea that society has always been, is, and will always be rather stupid, and that weirdness is AWESOME. I even found a shirt with WEIRD emblazoned across the front, and it’s one of my faves. :3
    and 2, point out that a person’s beauty largely rests in how they glow. “You know,” I remember her saying once of someone we’d been hanging out with, “I was surprised to look closer and see she’s actually a bit homely. There’s so much love and joy, it’s hard to see past it.”
    One of the most beautiful people I know is, when I consider her objectively, kind of gawky and awkward about the face and body. But there’s beauty, and then there’s /beauty/, and when someone glows with true beauty, a person’s mind just kind of assumes that they look beautiful, too.
    I know I glow–Mom has told me, a number of people have told me–so I know that, even though would classify myself objectively to waver between “plain,” “cute,” and “lovely,” I know that I am beautiful, and that people will see that beauty in my face whether my face is beautiful or not.

    My list of physical dissatisfaction was based on my personal aesthetics, my personal preferences, sense of rightness, and sense of symmetry. I decided my own ideal body weight by how I feel when I’m at various weights. I didn’t feel quite right at 130. I felt perfect at 120. I felt weak at 115. 120 it is, then!

    Same with my clothing, which has rarely fit any social norm–I wear what I like, and people are free to like it or roll their eyes as they will. And there has been as much eye-rolling as liking. And I don’t care. Because, with body and clothes both, it’s been reinforced for me throughout my life that it doesn’t matter especially much.

    Some of those things have changed. My face slimmed up, my body re-angled itself to more lithe than stocky. This has pleased me, and still pleases me, because it makes me think of otters and cats and elf warriors, all of which I like. Some of these things haven’t changed. My face still grows much too red much too easily, but since I can’t change it, I shrug and say “There’s my Scottish ancestry showing. Go Scots!”

    I’m still no taller. I’d like to be, because Tolkien’s elves are tall, because Artemis Fowl’s Butler is tall, because my cop sister is tall, because the most badass chick in my fencing school was tall. But it’s not that big of a deal. And I know that. So I look in the mirror and sigh, now and again, wishing that I’d managed at least one more quarter of an inch.5’6″ even. That’d be nice. But you know what? Whatever.

  12. This is so well written and my internal frustration with society is screaming. We try, but sometimes it feels like swimming upstream…with a boulder tied to our legs…in a floor-length evening gown.

  13. After seeing the effects of just simple things you’ve talked about here, I can definitely think about my own life and the comments others have made. They have deeply affected my outlook and have caused lots of body issues in my own self. Thanks for sharing your perspective. I wish people would hold to the old adage of “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.” An even bigger problem is when people comment about things “in jest” and as “only joking” – we all know they aren’t just joking, and these comments add up.

  14. Wow…. This is really powerful. I am that mom. I try to teach my kids how to be healthy, how to be unobsessed, but sadly, I am falling. My kids ask questions about there bodies. I am the one who has a problem. Not them. If my husband tells them to clear their plate, I yell at him. I don’t want them having a problem relationship with food. It’s a horrible circle, sometimes we can’t seem to break free.

  15. I had a relative joke with my girls, “We don’t want any fat women!”–I was unamused. I have four daughters and will not allow a scale in the house. We don’t read fashion magazines or TV. The messages are too infectious.

  16. My daughter is six, and like you, we have no television. From the time she was a baby, literally, my in-laws said how “skinny” she was. This, quite frankly, made me angry. See,my sister has always been tall and thin, one of those girls people envy and make rude remarks to because they wished they looked like her. Those comments affected her. She always thought her bust wasn’t big enough or her hips were too wide for her tiny waist or her nose was too big for her narrow face. So skinny isn’t a safe label either. While perhaps not cruel like “fat,” it was often said in the same pejorative tone, and served the same purpose: making my sister feel inadequate and uncomfortable in her skin. Having lived through her experience with her, I logically felt angry that my in-laws would so quickly label my perfect, lithe, balletic little daughter as “skinny,” as if she were somehow at such an early age less than perfect. So, I have completely focused my energy on my daughter’s behavior. “That was so kind.” “You are always so helpful.” “You’ll make a great mommy some day if you want to be one…you’re so great with your baby brother. He likes you best of all.” “You have such a generous spirit.” Of course, sometimes, when she’s standing in front of the mirror while I put the finishing touches on her hair, she’ll ask me if she’s beautiful. And I tell her her hair is wild just like her auntie’s. And she smiles and says she likes to be wild. Then I tell her that she IS beautiful, but what is more important than LOOKING beautiful? To which she always replies, “Acting beautiful.” I do want her to have a healthy relationship with food. I want her to feel good in her body. But, even though society doesn’t put much of a value on character, it is far more important than how she looks. And no matter what I tell her about her looks, there is really nothing she can do about it…whether she is tall or petite, or wild-haired or smooth-haired, or lithe or voluptuous, whether her nose is long or wide, or her eyes are blue or brown. Not in her control. But her character IS something she can control and have power over. She can choose her actions.

    I don’t know if this is the healthiest way to go about it or not, but for now anyway, it’s the best I know. I will keep telling her she is beautiful, but I trust I’m rearing someone with a beautiful soul as well.

    • Yes, yes, yes. And also… see, I don’t want to deny beauty. Or aesthetics. Beauty, I do not disparage. Thin women are beautiful; voluptuous women are beautiful. It’s… it’s the way it’s thrust at little girls. At how early it starts. At how pervasive it is.

  17. This is so powerful and intriguing on so many levels. As a guy with a son, these precise issues are not front and center (though he will not be immune to them) but a whole other ones easily take their place in my world. Example: I try to shield my boy from violence / guns / the word “hate.” His little friend from the park brought along two squirt guns so they could play. Suddenly, there was my little boy with a gun in his hand making a peux-peux sound and firing away at random. I try and try to give him a placid, positive, free-from-violence childhood, but the world won’t quit interfering.

    But you can’t stop what’s coming, can you? Just have to equip them to handle it.

  18. I really have no idea how I will handle this. Judith (7) is skinny and toned, but has no idea so far that it matters. I know at some point it will come up though, especially since she’s in dance (and I know the positive comments can create just as much of an obsession as negative ones). Ruthie (3) has my build, a little thicker. It makes me sad to think that they may compare themselves to each other as they get older. Hopefully they just won’t care. I honestly never cared, sometimes I think I’m the only girl that never struggled with my body image (I had self-esteem issues for other reasons, and never felt overly “pretty”, but always felt comfortable in my skin, my body was always my ally). I watched a lot of tv, was exposed to tons of advertising, did not have healthy role models, was the ‘fat girl” and was bullied in school during grades 4-6, played with Barbies… everything. But I’ve never looked in the mirror/at the scale with hatred or disgust at my body (or infatuation for that matter), or restricted food in any way. I like to exercise because I like endorphins, and being healthy, but only started that after having kids. I hope my girls adopt a similar attitude, I’m pretty sure I would be crushed if someone made my girls feel ashamed of their bodies in any way.

  19. Something else to keep in mind–just because someone is fat, doesn’t mean something is horribly wrong with them, or that they’re less of a person. It might mean they’re unhealthy, but it might not–different people are healthy at different sizes. Fat shouldn’t be a curse word. The words “fat” and “skinny” aren’t the problems–it’s the stigma attached.

  20. Another completely epic post. I worry all the time about the things my (two year old) daughter is exposed to that are out of my control and to hear other little children say that they think they’re fat damn near breaks my heart for what’s ahead of her. My daughter eats just like yours – loads some days then not much the next. She is healthy and gorgeous and I just hope she can stay this way forever.

    Like a lot of women, I have more than a small amount of body hang ups but having my little girl has made me seriosuly get over myself as I never want her to hear things like “I hate my arms/butt/stomach” and think they’re normal and acceptable to say.,

  21. So many of us have struggled with society’s interpretation of how we should look and feel about our bodies. As one of the many, and as a mom who would kill anything that hurts my baby, this broke my heart. She will learn from you, and she has, and you have protected her from so much. But the world has a way of seeping in. You’re free to punch anyone who gives your daughter an eating disorder. Courtesy of every mom ever.

  22. I have a 9 year old girl– and 4 other kids. I also have an eating disorder- I have had it since I was 9. It has been my constant companion. it has inflicted organ damage. It has nearly killed me.

    I will do anything to save my kids from that.

    Recently- my 5 year old girl told me if she eats chips she’ll get fat. What the f*&*? A friend told her that. I picked up the phone and called the friends mom and requested (demanded) that talk like that stop. Now.

    Eating disorders are serious business. They have the highest fatality rate of any psychiatric illness. Fight the culture that tells girls they can’t be fat. Who judges them based on weight.

  23. My mouth dropped open reading this post. My Allie is 9 and is skinny as a rail. And I fear the day she wonders if she is “fat” or worse thinks that “fat” means ugly. I think every one should read this wonderfully written post.

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  25. Reading your excellent article and all of the comments has brought up several thoughts, three of which, i believe, hold the key to this issue. Lisa Kaed pointed out that (1) we cannot actually protect our children forever (and, frankly, we would be wrong to do so…….we want them to grow into self-sufficient adults, not remain susceptible children in old bodies) and that (2) teaching a child to “consider the source” is a priceless skill – critical thinking will protect that child in a way that living in a bubble never could. Tirzah, bless her, is a perfect example of that truth. Ann has taught her to appreciate the important things, to see the truth behind the merely apparent (Ann, your comment that your friend’s love and joy made it hard to realize that she is kinda homely was perfect!), and (3) to examine her own thoughts on a subject – rejecting feelings that are inconsistent with the truth she knows and believes. That is the definition of integrity: what she thinks and what she does are aligned. Tirzah is armed for life, she provides her own defense against stupidity. Isn’t that our ultimate goal?

    I’ve got what my husband calls a “voluptuous” frame. Until I met him, I just saw it as fat because that was what I was told by my mother, my mentor, and my first husband. This view of my body was ingrained so early and reinforced so repeatedly that I was in my forties before I applied critical thinking to my body-concept! . When I look at youthful pictures of myself now, I think, “Good God! What were they thinking??? And how could I have believed that?” But rationality goes out the window on this subject like almost no other.

    Ed (my LAST husband!) made me realize that “slender,” “fat,” “sexy,” and “attractive” are labels applied from the outside and reflect the wants/needs/training of the viewer, without actually saying much, if anything, about me, the “viewee.” The KEY is whether or not I allow that other person to define my worth, or if I consider the source, and accept or reject their assessment. Ed tends to look at me and say, “Yum!” – so, of course, I willingly accept his viewpoint! :). Anyone who declares me fat – I assume to be a frigid, dried up old prune!

    My only real disagreement with this essay is the title….it implies that your child is a victim – that she can have a disorder imposed upon her. In the same way that a healthy, well-fed body shrugs off sickness, a healthy, well-fed mind shrugs off idiocy. Teach a child to examine and question what they hear (even if they hear it from you!) and you’ll have placed an enormously powerful tool into their hands that will protect them their whole life long!

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  27. I haven’ tread (typo intentionally left) beyond the first couple of supporting comments and here I go, all set to be blasted into hell:
    They’re just words? OK bollox, words can hurt just like a sword. Worse, they last longer than the flesh wound. Yet in the mixed up world they are often shared without thought of consequence. I write this as I waffle myself into extradition. What doesn’t kill you makes you strong? Having no TV doesn’t mean that the poisonous bullshit of meddled with by media images of everything will escape us. Though guarding against it for as long as is possible allows a foundation built in a better world. One day though, it will all be presented and wondered about before accepting and then rejecting the glitz and the shits. At six? Maybe it would have been nice to protect that bubble a wee bit longer? Yet it’s not a disastrous introduction to choice in interpretation of the real meaning of presented words?

    • But see, cyber-friend, you are a man. And I think you don’t have a daughter. And you were never a teenage girl almost destroyed by an eating disorder. Words are powerful. “You’re stupid.” “You’re ugly.” “You’re fat.” “You have a small penis.” Just words. Words hurt, shape us.

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  31. I’ve never really talked about it on my blog, but I did my bit with an eating disorder in my 20s. I’m over it now, but, well, anyone who has been through that hell knows you are never really OVER it. And so, if anyone ever gives my daughter the idea that she is “fat”, I will lose my shit. Period.

    xo

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  33. Thank you. Thank you, thank you. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, with my now six year old. She also eats what she wants, when she wants. She’s made comments about “does this make me look fat” to which I struggle through a reply that in summary says “no you aren’t fat”.

    I loved InkCaster’s response and am going to start implementing comments about glowing too. That is just brilliant.

    I also think there is a bit of modeling behavior that we need to do as moms. My girl has been asking me since last summer to don a swimsuit and play in the kiddie pool with her. I’ve never been satisfied with my body, and post-baby my satisfaction decreased. It donned on me a couple months ago however that I need to get over it and put on a swimsuit and splash in our kiddie pool with her. So I did that this week. First time in a swimsuit in almost seven years. It was fun and I was a lot more comfortable than I thought I would be. 😉

  34. When I hear idiotic comments such as these with my kids I try to guide the discussion in the direction of ‘does it matter?’. If you were fat, would it matter? Would it matter more if you felt health and good than what your weight was? Do we know people who are fat? Are they awesome people? Do we love them and find them beautiful and worthy? I think we can actually give the word ‘fat’ more power by trying to hide our kids from it. Exposing them to it in a way where it is just an observation and not a value judgement takes away much of its power.

    Much of this came to me AFTER my son ran up to a heavier friend and grabbed her thigh and asked ‘why are your thighs so big?’. I was just silenced, my friend graciously waved it off but I felt horrible. In retrospect I wish I’d just said something like ‘because everyone comes in difference shapes and sizes of beautiful’, especially since she is truly one of the most beautiful people I know.

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