These are the words to strike terror into a mother's heart, especially if you've ever dealt with anorexia or bulimia in your house. Every child or teen with an eating disorder says these words at one time or another. They reflect the delusion at the heart of an eating disorder, the distorted perceptions of her/his own body and the anguish caused by those distortions.
I heard them many times in the year my older daughter was sick with anorexia. But this time, this weekend, they were uttered by my younger daughter.
My younger daughter sat with us at the table during the year and a half of re-feeding. She lived through the horror and terror of it all with us. We tried to protect her from the worst of it, but she certainly experienced firsthand the nightmare of living with an eating disorder. This may contribute to the reality that as the sibling of a child with anorexia, she's 8 times more likely to have it than other kids her age.
And we've talked about it. Boy, have we talked. We've talked about unrealistic body images and the media. We've talked about food-as-fuel. We've talked about bodies-come-in-all-shapes-and-sizes. We've talked about health-at-every-size.
I thought we'd talked our way through the dangerous parts and onto the solid shores of reason and understanding.
But the trouble is, as my younger daughter informed me, I just don't understand. I don't understand what it's like to be in 7th grade and be a girl. I don't understand what it's like to be a year or two behind when it comes to puberty, to still have a child's body, a child's shape, in a world full of budding young women.
"They look like this, Mom," she cried one night this weekend, sucking in her stomach to show me. Whereas my younger daughter still has the round shape of a child. She's younger than everyone else in her class, shorter, and clearly going through puberty later.
I don't think other kids are making fun of her for her childish figure. I think this is a case of institutionalized self-loathing. But I don't know for sure. I do know that seventh grade girls diet. A lot. And that they talk about their diets. And they talk, as young women (and some young men) do, about how fat they are.
They talk about how fat their butts and thighs and stomachs are. I know these kids; I've chaperoned them on field trips and come into their classrooms for years. They are not fat. They are not the headless fat children whose photos you see accompanying every media scare on the subject of childhood obesity. They look no different from kids of my generation, except that maybe they're a little taller.
Even if they were fat, of course, it would make no difference.
These children are bombarded with media images of super-thin women and men, and so that body type and paradigm comes to look very normal to them. They watch a lot of TV and movies and they learn to see themselves as sexualized from an early age.
They're bombarded at school with hysterical warnings about body fat and obesity and unhealthy eating. They are forced to watch Supersize Me. They are weighed and their BMIs calculated, in front of other children. Their body fat is "measured" (however inaccurately) with calipers, all in front of other children. They are taught that there's good food and bad food, that some foods are unhealthy, that some bodies are unacceptable. They're taught that you can never strive hard enough to be thin, to exercise, to avoid certain foods.
Some of them develop eating disorders. Maybe they would anyway; there's no way to know. We do know that some kids come hard-wired to be susceptible to an e.d., and that those disorders can then be triggered by environment and other factors. So maybe if they grew up in a culture that wasn't obsessed by issues of weight and body size and shape, they would pass through the dangerous time of adolescence without ever developing an e.d. If they grew up in a culture where it was OK to be who you are--fat or thin, intellectual or street-savvy, funny or serious--they would come out of adolescence loving themselves, not hating who they are.
Maybe this is all wishful, deluded thinking on my part.
I do know that those words my younger daughter said struck pure terror into my heart. That we will be talking about this from every direction I can think of over the next few months and years. That I'll be watching her like a hawk for the first inklings of an eating disorder, watching with terror a lump in my throat, with the memories of my older daughter still fresh, and with the determination to do whatever it takes to save her if she is in fact in danger.
But my god, how I wish I didn't have to. It occurs to me for pretty much the first time how different this would feel is the culture supported me rather than fought me. But in this culture and time, to advocate for, as Ellyn Satter says, a "joyful, comptent relationship with food," is to swim against the current, to fight the mainstream, to be perceived in many ways and places as a nutcase, a fruitcake, a mom-with-an-agenda in the worst possible sense of the word.
I've developed a thick skin. I don't care what the powers that be think. I care only about my children, and other people's children. But it's so easy to buy in to the culture's sick obsession. So easy, in a certain way, to turn to my younger daughter and say, "You do have a little tummy, dear--why don't we go on a diet? Together?" To unwittingly set her up for either a lifetime of physical self-loathing or disordered eating, or the hell of a full-blown eating disorder.
Not today. Not my daughter.