I knew it would happen, one day. Perhaps naively, I wasn’t expecting it for another few years. I remember it sweeping through my peer group at secondary school, when we were 14 or so, and I remember how ill one of my fellow pupils became as a result, unable to pull away as the rest of us did. I know that as a girl, my daughter runs a higher risk than her brothers of this becoming an issue. But I also knew – or thought I did – that as she has only just turned seven, I had a little while before I needed to worry.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
‘Mum, if I do lots of ex-tra-cise, will my tummy get smaller?’
‘What? Your tummy is fine as it is! Why on earth would you want it to be smaller?’
‘Well, it’s just that it looks a bit too round. You know. I’d like it not to stick out so much. So, should I do lots of ex-tra-cise? Or maybe just eat less?’
What the WHAT? Did I hear that right? It seems that I did. In fact she has actually broached this subject before, but in such a roundabout and convoluted way that I had managed to convince myself that I had misunderstood her meaning, and the conversation had turned to other things.
I’m gobsmacked. Though I am certainly guilty of passing on some of my own issues to my kids, weight loss and body shape has never featured highly on my worry list. I never, ever turn down food, or buy diet options. I am a member of a gym, and I run semi-regularly, but exercise for me is about keeping my mental health on track more than anything else. We don’t have a pair of scales in the house, not even because I think we shouldn’t, but because it wouldn’t occur to me to buy them!
I’m not unaware of the external influences surrounding her. The Weight Watchers ad that she saw in the cinema – before a screening of Moshi Monsters FFS. The fact that every time we go into a newsagent she can’t help but see magazine covers screaming out that some celeb or other has *shock* cellulite, or the latest way to a happy, healthy, THIN, you, is just inside these pages. The women she sees on TV – even on the kids’ channels – are all on the skinny side of healthy. She hears adults in her wider family talking about weight loss, she probably hears kids in the playground use the word ‘fat’ as an insult.
But I’d made the mistake of assuming that without any validation of all this tripe from us, she would disregard it. Big mistake. BIG mistake. I had completely underestimated just how pervasive the messages are. I mean, on an intellectual level, I know it. I’m aware of the cynicism which drives the ‘health’ food industry. I’m aware that women and their bodies are seen as public property, to be picked over and criticised in the drive to sell ever more magazines. I’m aware of the media mis-representation of women and their shape. I know that the chance of me switching on the TV and seeing a woman larger than size 10 is pretty small. Even smaller if I’m hoping to see a woman larger than size 10 in a positive, aspirational role, as opposed to a downtrodden character in some soap or other.
I know all this, and yet I have ignored it. And worse, I have assumed that my daughter will be able to ignore it too, even though her childhood is surrounded by exponentially more of this shit than mine was, back in the in the days of only 3 TV channels, black and white newspapers and no internet.
It makes me absolutely furious that, short of locking her in a room for ever, I cannot protect her from any of this. I can hope that she follows my example of ignoring it all, I can say all the right things, I can give off the right messages, but it’s a tiny drop of sanity in seven seas of madness. And more to the point, I’m furious that I should have to protect her in the first place! Maternal instinct is supposed to kick in to save our young from real threats – presumably back in the day it came in useful when faced with a marauding woolly mammoth – imagine the reaction explaining this to our ancestral mothers now…
‘Right. So let me get this straight. WE gave birth in caves, foraged for food, killed animals with our bare hands, fought off predators, to rear our kids. YOU get to rear yours in a nice warm house, with no man-eating wild animals hanging around, and you don’t even need to catch your own food. WE worried about starvation. YOU are worrying about your daughter worrying about whether she is thin enough. PROGRESS, huh?’
How they would laugh. Because put like that, it sounds laughable. And you know what, it SHOULD be laughable. But the truth is, it’s not. It’s really not funny at all. It’s not funny when a seven year old pokes herself in the tummy because she thinks it is too round.
Not. Funny. At. All.