by ELEANOR LIMPRECHT
As I read Mr Chicken Goes to Paris to my five-year-old daughter at bedtime the other night, we came across the section where Mr Chicken looks at his arse in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and decides that he must go on a diet.
“What’s a diet?” my daughter asks, screwing up her nose like she does whenever she encounters a new word.
“Umm.” I take a deep breath. As much as the question throws me, I’m also glad she’s never heard the word before. “It’s, kind of, when you don’t eat certain foods.”
“Like nuts? Because you’re allergic? Like the girl at my preschool?”
“That’s one kind of diet, yeah, but there are other kinds too. Let’s see what Mr Chicken does next.”
I turn the page, having fudged my way through a very inadequate explanation. But as I kiss her soft cheek and turn out the light, the question is still with me. And the dilemma: is there any way to keep my daughter from internalising society’s skewed messages about beauty? I haven’t outright banned them but I have managed to prevent too much Barbie or Disney princess paraphernalia from infiltrating our home. How do I keep my five-year-old from wanting to diet, or obsessing about being skinny, or not liking her beautiful, sturdy little body? Thanks a lot, Mr Chicken!
According to a University of Central Florida study, half of all girls between the ages of three and six worry about losing weight. One third would change a physical attribute, such as their weight or hair colour. And this shouldn’t come as a surprise: young girls who worry about their body image are more likely to suffer from eating disorders when they are older.
And while it is always nice to have a scapegoat like “the media” or “society” to blame for this obsession with appearance and being thin, it is actually mothers who have the most influence on their daughters’ body image. Think about it – when we talk about not being able to eat things because they make us fat, or needing to lose extra weight, who do we think will be the first to copy us? Our little girls.
When I discuss this with my girlfriends, I think I was fairly lucky. My mum is short and solidly built, but I can not remember a single instance in my childhood of her saying she was going on a diet. She didn’t complain about her body, except that her feet were too small and she was liable to tip over. I was always pushed to eat more because I was considered too skinny. So if anything, I thought skinniness was a liability when I started school.
School was my first introduction to the world of thin as pretty, and I remember the messages still. The girl in my class who was made fun of because she was “fat”. A teacher telling me that I should really try ballet, because I had the perfect build for it (I was the skinniest kid). And then in year one, I made a best friend, and she was thinner than me. I remember this clearly now – going to her house for a sleepover, trying on a pair of her Jordache jeans and they were too tight. I remember feeling jealous, and somehow too fat. Here was the world of weight as worth: the more you have the less you’re worth. It is not a pretty place to be.
It all got more intense as I got older, of course, with a cousin and a friend who battled anorexia and bulimia. Naturally I stuck my own fingers down my throat to see if I could vomit, but it seemed too hard. In high school friends’ mothers would entice them to go on mother-daughter diets with carrot sticks, low fat yogurt and weight charts. It’s insidious; it’s everywhere. I want to keep it at bay as long as I can.
The next day, I talk to my daughter again.
“Sometimes a diet just means that people are eating healthier foods, like not too many cakes and lollies. But it is better to just eat that way most of the time – not to go on a diet – and to save lollies and cake as occasional treats. Like at parties. The other way we make ourselves healthy is by exercising, by staying strong.”
“I like to exercise,” my daughter says, and then starts to show me a new dance she made up. It involves a somersault, a star jump and some hand waving.
She finishes, watching me expectantly, waiting for my praise.
I clap. Because forget Disney, Barbie, and Mr Chicken – it’s me that she’s watching the most.