Posted Monday, May 8th, 2006
"Hey, ladies! In case you missed the news, thin is in!" a male voice shrieked from the radio. "Join New Fitness Health Club today. Get thin. Fit in!"
Yeah, tell me something I don't already know. When hasn't thin been in?
My seven-year-old daughter, Annabelle and I were together when we heard the announcement five years ago. In my haste to turn off the radio, I almost ran into a tree. I didn’t have anything against being physically fit, or against health clubs, or even against thin people. At five foot four and 102 pounds, I looked like the poster child for aging anorexics.
What I objected to was the notion that being thin was the way to fit in.
I'm sure there was a time when people weren't concerned with being a size zero, a time when the gaunt, heroin chic look of Kate Moss and Lindsay Lohan wasn’t in. Certainly though, it must have been before I was born in the late 1950s. During my adolescence, I read my mom's Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, and Woman's Day magazines. I pictured the grown-up me as a svelte but busty woman. The ideal body dimension in those days was 36-24-36, but 36-20-36 was even better. The “beautiful people” of the sixties and seventies were skinny—in some cases, painfully so. Remember Twiggy and Mia Farrow of the no breasts, no butt fame? How about Ali McGraw, who was so skeletal in the movie Love Story that she really looked like a cancer victim?
At thirteen I wanted to be just like them! But I had a problem—my waist measured 26 inches!
I exercised within an inch of my life everyday and continued doing so well into my college years. I skipped meals whenever I could. When I absolutely had to eat, I dined on miniscule portions of carrot and celery sticks. During my twenties and early thirties my weight never rose much above 100, except when I was pregnant. God only knows what I might have done had that happened.
When I felt “fat,” I stopped eating until I dropped the offensive ounce or two. So what if I was light-headed and tired. After all, thin was in, and I intended to stay that way, even if it killed me.
I don't wish that lifestyle on anyone.
Over the five years since the commercial aired, I have wizened up a bit. Although I still subject myself to periods of starvation when I feel compelled to drop weight, those times are fewer and further between. I’ve settled in at a fairly comfortable 120 mis-proportioned pounds. I say mis-proportioned because I still wish my hips were smaller and my chest larger. Some people might argue that I have a screw or three loose. I place most of the blame for this on the media.
Thirty plus years after my first contact with grown-up magazines, mass media venues still thrust waif-thin beauties such as Paris Hilton, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Nicole Ritchie, and other uber-thin women before our eyes, with the tacit implication that they are icons of all that “normal” women should aspire to be.
Yes, that’s me you hear sighing.
I worry about my daughter. Annabelle is as righteously gullible and as much a believer of ALL she hears about celebrities as I was at twelve. As was true when I was growing up, today’s celebrities still sport perfectly molded, preternaturally thin bodies, and, almost without exception, never appear to have physical imperfections.
Annabelle recently went through a phase where she resisted wearing her glasses. She told me she wished she didn't have to wear them because “beautiful people like Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff don't wear them.” More than once I caught her squinting in the mirror, trying to “see” how she looked without the glasses.
Just yesterday she told me she’s fat.
She weighs 100 pounds and is nearly as tall as I am; in other words, she has the figure of a teen model.
It makes me crazy watching her do and say these things, knowing that, like I wanted so many years before, she just wants to fit in with and look like her peers. Unfortunately she thinks of people like Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Mary Kate Olsen, and Christina Aguilera as peers.
Am I the only one worried about media’s distorted reality of beauty? Perhaps it’s time society gets over the notion that over-exposed, over made-up, over-coiffed celebrities are normal.
Many normal people wear glasses, and nearly everyone has more than their fair share of body fat.
There's nothing wrong with exercising and dieting. There’s nothing wrong with substituting contacts for glasses. But these things should be done for the right reasons and not because people want to mold themselves into someone else’s idea of beautiful. Far too many people, young and old, have distorted body images, aspiring to look “beautiful” according to artificial and, oftentimes, illusory standards of attractiveness promulgated by the media.
Having been there and done that, I find this very sad.
So what can I do to keep my daughter from falling into the same traps? Aside from moving her to a deserted island, I'm not really sure. She watches TV, reads magazines, listens to music, and goes to movies. Realistically, I can’t hide her away or otherwise shield her from life. For the rest of her days, mass-media will bombard her with a never-ending stream of propaganda.
Perhaps the only way to counteract this is to bombard her with the truth.
Every day and in every way, I need to remind her that no one is perfect—she’s not, I’m not, no one ever will be. I need to remind her that normal people come in all shapes and sizes, colors and demeanors. I need to remind her to see beyond the external visage when judging whether someone is worthy of emulation. I need to remind her of the merits of the saying “everything in moderation.” I also need to remind her to be kind to her body, to feed it when it’s hungry and to rest it when it’s tired. I need to keep reminding her that I and, more importantly, others, think she’s attractive, smart, kind, creative, and at least a million other positive things.
For the last few years I’ve tried to show her by example that food is not something to be feared, and that weighing a healthy, normal amount is okay. I can’t undo my past, but I can attempt to keep it from becoming my daughter’s future. My child and every child who is taught to love themselves and others for their differences can become a role model for others. By the time Annabelle is grown, maybe her example and those of her true peers will influence a future generation to realize that normal is in, that glowing health, in its many permutations, is beautiful . . . and that it is enough.
Comments [post a comment]
Posted by Suzanne Goldblatt on Monday, May 8th, 2006 at 2:48 PM
Bravo, Lauran, You nailed it. Hopefully, this will be widely read, especially by pre-teen and teen girls and their mothers.
Posted by Colette Brown on Monday, May 8th, 2006 at 3:18 PM
This reminds me of a parent's coming to understand that they can't protect their child forever from violence or peer pressure or in this case the media, but they can teach them how to recognize it and make their own decisions based on what they've been taught at home.
Ad Busters provides access to a variety of media literacy programs, including for teachers/students: http://www.adbusters.org/home/
One of their efforts encourages viewers to make their own spoof ads as a creative way to learn media criticism and understanding:
Posted by Jean M Hendrickson [ firstname.lastname@example.org
] on Monday, May 8th, 2006 at 3:40 PM
Ms. Strait's essay about the importance of the media and peer pressure in the formation of self-image is timely, a commentary on yesterday, today and unfortunately, if we don't heed her counsel, the future.
Ms. Strait's examples transend age. They address not only young girls but also adult women who to traipse to plastic surgeons or attempt to lose weight through unrealistic diets that fill up the shelves in our book stores.
Ms. Strait posits the question: "...what can I do to keep my daughter from falling into the same traps?" Then, she offers concrete solutions: "...see beyond the external visage." "Everything in moderation." "Remind my daughter that I and more importantly, others think she's attractive, smart, kind...and at least a million other positive things."
Girls and young women are maleable. They learn their self-worth not only from the constant pound of the media but from the living examples set by their mothers and by other adult women in their lives.
Ms. Strait brings the essay full-circle, to the positive influence her daughter, Annabelle, will have on her peers, now, and on a future generation.
The piece is concise without being terse. It gives examples without being wordy. Ms. Strait writes from a position of strength and knowledge as well as from keen observation. Not one word in this essay superflouos; no word needs be added.
My wish would be that all mothers of young girls could read marvelously written piece and follow its suggestions.
Thank you for an excellent essay.
Posted by John G on Monday, May 8th, 2006 at 4:00 PM
Well said. This should be required reading in every Sixth Grade Health Class!
The moral here is to eat in moderation, exercise in moderation, veg in front of the TV in moderation, etc. A message quite counter to the world of mass marketing which encourages consumers to do everything 'to the extreme'...
Posted by Barbara Dunn Hartin on Monday, May 8th, 2006 at 4:15 PM
I am still teetering and tottering on the tight-rope of weight maintenence although my years far outstrip Ms. Strait's and, surely, her daughter. All the experience and research in the world seems not enough armament against the barrage of incoming advertising and images of sylphlike creatures attacking in print and appearing on screens-large and small. Perhaps more well-written pieces of this ilk will go toward balancing the scales of reality vs. perfection.
Posted by Donna Levy [ email@example.com
] on Monday, May 8th, 2006 at 5:32 PM
As someone who has fought the battle of the bulge most of my life, I appreciated Lauran Strait taking on this subject from the perspective of self-esteem. The message presently embedded in our culture is that only the thin are acceptable. The truth is most of us fall short of that status. Unless we choose to develop an eating disorder, the rest of us will never be considered "good enough." This is such a demeaning feeling to carry around, particularly for our youth. We really must demand that the media send out more wholesome messages to our young people. I dearly hope that our society will undergo an awakening in consciousness that will allow us to honor intelligence and kindness over an unnatural mannequin appearance. The light comes from within.
Posted by Ramon Collins [ firstname.lastname@example.org
] on Monday, May 8th, 2006 at 7:10 PM
Billiant essay, Lauran.
I've been taught in the essay craft, every sentence should move toward the conclusion. You do this smoothly and it's a dyn-O-mite conclusion : ". . . realize that normal is in . . ."
Posted by Helen Mills Mills on Monday, May 8th, 2006 at 11:15 PM
What a wonderful essay Ms. Strait has written, and what a terrific mother she must be, teaching her daughter self reliance and common sense on a subject that all but paralyzes so many of our teens today.
I commend Ms. Strait and feel that her essay "Fitting In," should be a featured article in all preteen and teen magazines.
Great going Ms. Strait!
Posted by Lucinda Dhavan on Monday, May 8th, 2006 at 11:54 PM
Such sterling common sense--and how sad that so few people seem to be able to hold onto their self esteem when bombarded with "ideal" images. I hope that a few hundred more Annabelles (and their mothers) will gain from this essay.
Posted by ann w on Tuesday, May 9th, 2006 at 8:01 AM
The article very elonquently states the frustration and concerns of so many parents. The media is forever forcing its version of "beautiful" on people. Unfortunately, young people are often too gulible to hear the version, interpret it and then reject it for the drivel it is. Great article...
Posted by Marty Basden [ email@example.com
] on Tuesday, May 9th, 2006 at 8:56 AM
Nice, tight commentary on society's obsession with more body than we would like to have. I am going to forward this article to my twelve year old granddaughter in San Diego. It will be just another way to tell her that I love her no matter how much her body changes. Nice work, Ms. Strait.
Posted by Liesl Jobson on Tuesday, May 9th, 2006 at 4:48 PM
Neatly put, Lauran! This advice is helpful to mothers of teen daughters.
Posted by Laurance Paul on Tuesday, May 9th, 2006 at 8:51 PM
Very well written article. While the idea that mass mediated images of beauty form the antecedents of anorexia is not new, you provide a personal context and offer a solution. Nicely done.
Posted by Sarah Spring on Tuesday, May 9th, 2006 at 8:59 PM
Very good article, well put and interesting.
Posted by Marianne Greathouse on Tuesday, May 9th, 2006 at 9:10 PM
This is a thought provoking, timely, well written essay about an important subject. I sent the link to my three granddaughters because I want them to be well informed in matters concerning their health. I believe that people of all ages should follow a healthy life style and that this article is an excellent reminder to each of us.
Posted by salman H on Wednesday, May 10th, 2006 at 1:48 AM
A well written attack on the unhealthy stereotypes of beauty propagated by the media. A voice of necessary change and reason that is needed today.
Posted by james carroll on Wednesday, May 10th, 2006 at 1:50 AM
yea, i think this column is right on...i've been trying to tell girls this but you put it better than i could.
Posted by roy LEVKOVITZ on Wednesday, May 10th, 2006 at 2:03 AM
very well said, everyone should feel confident in their own skin. our infatuation with stick figures is unhealthy both physically and mentally. more woman of all ages should read this
Posted by Chris Noibuger on Wednesday, May 10th, 2006 at 2:10 AM
Well said! It’s unrealistic (and likely detrimental) to think that we can shield kids from all the conflicting messages out there. All we can really do is to help them think critically about the values they encounter. Your daughter is truly fortunate to have the benefit of your wise perspective.
Posted by Michael Holman on Wednesday, May 10th, 2006 at 2:12 AM
I applaud your ability to recognize the way in which body image as proposed by the media shaped your early life. I further applaud, along with my girlfriend who read this article as well, your decision to promote a healthy body image for your daughter despite the opposing messages sent by the media. Not every mother is able to toe the line between wanting their child to be healthy,fit and happy without crossing into pushing their child to unsafe or extreme measures. Your position is moderate and positive and should be the model for parents of image-conscious girls AND boys. The need to be thin, fit and sexy is no longer just a trap that girls fall into; boys too see shirtless icons of muscular men and believe THAT is the "definition of manhood". Your message applies to both sides. Excellent work.
Posted by Shirley Harshenin on Wednesday, May 10th, 2006 at 8:18 PM
It is somewhat of an assault from the media isn't it? My girls and I found this website after seeing some of the new Dove commercials and LOVING (as much as one can "love" a commercial) them - the gals (models) are real and wonderful and beautiful!
Well-written piece, Lauran. Not an issue with an easy solution, but you addressed it well. We have to build a strong foundation for our daughters, setting the example as you said so well in your article.
Posted by Saleh Razzouk [ firstname.lastname@example.org
] on Thursday, May 11th, 2006 at 4:11 AM
I guess " moderation " is a synonym to nothingness in philosophical concept. I would advice this little lady to eat without limit. This is the vintage of " little acre of God ", maybe " The Good Earth ". I go further and suggest on her to crunch , even, the black rocks. Why not?. Be a balloon and then rise up to heaven.
I am a middle aged man ( a male !). and I like sometimes fat women. They are considered soft cushions to rest upon with our sadness in hearts. The important issue here is competence in ideals and moral models.
The language is elegant, and it jumps over lines like rabbits.
Saleh Razzouk ( journalist ).
Posted by Gil Erb [ email@example.com
] on Thursday, May 11th, 2006 at 6:18 PM
Lauran, You did a great job for the teen age ladies. But what about us boys. Youv'e got to convince them that "bald is beautiful."
Posted by Sharon Poch on Friday, May 12th, 2006 at 5:01 PM
Bravo, Ms. Strait. In our neurotic society where appearance is more valued than substance and the world seems to have careened out of control, we have to realize that it is our deeds define us, not our one dimensional outer layer. Your insightful essay applies, not just to teenage girls, but dough bellied middle-aged women (such as myself), bald men, pudgy boys, and anyone who differs from the media induced robotic "norm." Annabelle is lucky to have you in her corner.
Posted by Teraisa Rogers on Saturday, May 13th, 2006 at 4:10 AM
Great job, here. I don't have anything to help, but I'll write to let all know they are not alone. When I was "young and dumb"--a gymnast turned model--I had anorexia by choice. In fact, it's sad now, but when Karen Carpenter died, I remember thinking, "She's not that skinny." I also remember opening the fridge and asking if I was really hungry. I never ate a calorie unless I loved the food. French fries were fine, oddly enough, but never a donut, cookies, ice-cream, etc. I never admitted it and I never cared. I LIKED being that way. I was actually never too skinny (I know, I know, coming from me...). I was afraid, however, if I ever got pregnant I might kill the baby since I was loathe to gain weight. I didn't (kill the baby). Instead, I gained ALOT of weight. Two weeks later I was back down to my normal size, but my body was not. After the baby, I remained obsessed about my weight and body, but never enough to starve. Thank God. Then, at the age of 30 or so, we moved to a brand new home built from scratch. The defects in the home meant for three and a half years we lived in toxic mold. Think eating arsenic every day for that long. I suddenly lost a ton of weight and all my doctors were annoyed when they asked if I were anorexic; I said no. Finally, my sister told me that I may be anorexic because it was a symptom of whatever was wrong (we did not know for another two years about the mold). I told my doctors I would agree that I was anorexic if they'd put down it was a symptom. Who knows what they did. My family was really mad. But, we've been out six years, my weight--even without a thyrod now--is healthy and my muscles have a place to be. I am happy. I watch my daughters carefully, there are four now, and even my three sons. I am always making sure they are not obessed--you can say that is my new obession, ha, ha. One thing I will say, for those of you who may be dealing with anorexic or bullemic WOMEN, there is not much you can do except let them know you are there to listen and to do anything they need for help. If you talk too much, it actually seems to spur on the behavior--like reinforcing it. Though anorexics may feel like they are too fat, they still crave it when people make a deal over it, because it means they are in control. It's a mad situation. I am praying for all.