“‘Fat! Fat! Big fat butt!’ and so on”

[A]s I was about to serve the cake at her last birthday party, I overheard the children at the table, laughingly discussing the topic of fat. The conversation was apparently inspired by the serving of the cake. ‘I want to get fat!’ one of them said, laughingly. But it was clearly a goad, meant for shock and amusement value, just as my daughter will sometimes merrily tell me ‘I want to get smashed by  a big tank!’ and then wait for my nose to wrinkle in reaction. That’s what happenned at the party. ‘Uggh! Fat! Uggh!’ ‘You do not want to be fat!’ ‘Nyuh, huh, yes, I do!’ ‘You do not!’ And then there was general laughter and descent into gross-talk, ‘Fat! Fat! Big fat butt!’ and so on.

Artist’s rendition (my own work, no copyright)

No one was pointing fingers at anyone – not yet – and no one was turning down cake – not yet. But the ‘fat thing’ has become a part of their consciousness, even at eight, and I know it’s just a matter of time. I know the stats – that 57 percent of girls have fasted, used food substitutes or smoked cigarettes to lose weight, that one-third of all girls in grades nine to 12 think they are overweight, and that only 56 percent of seventh graders say they like the way they look. I also know, as someone who is active at my daughter’s school – a public school, with a diverse student population – that it actually begins much, much earlier.

Already, Cassie sometimes tells me that she’s fat, pointing to her stomach – a tummy we all would die to have. Recently, we were watching TV, and she sucked in her gut and said, ‘This is what I’d like my stomach to look like.’ At such moments, the madness of our culture hits me full force. I know that I am up against something that cannot be fought with reason or reassurance alone – or even, I’m afraid, with body-image workshops. As gargantuan as the task may seem, as helpless as we may all feel to do much to change things,  we cannot let our culture off the hook.

No one strategy will suffice, because the powers that I have created and continue to promote body image disorders … are spread out and sustained in myriad ways, mostly with the cooperation of all of us. There is no king to depose, no government to overthrow, no conspiracy to unmask. Moreover, the very same practices that can lead to disorder are also, when not carried to extremes, the wellsprings of health and great deal of pleasure – exercise for example. … [T]hese are issues that are far from limited to the problems of rich, spoiled white girls, but that reach across race, class, ethnicity,nationality, age, and (as I’ve shown elsewhere) gender. I don’t have a master plan for how to alter or resist what seems to be our inexorable drift into this culture in which it seems as if our choices to do what we want with our bodies are expanding all the time, but in which we increasingly exercise those ‘choices’ under tremendous normalizing pressure. But then, neither do I know what can be done to alter some of the larger social and political injustices, dangers, and absurdities of our lives today. Not knowing what to do about those, however, doesn’t prevent people from analyzing, complaining, organizing, protesting, working to create a better world. I’d like to see more of that sort of spirit operating in this arena too – if not for ourselves, then for our children.

Concluding paragraphs of Bordo, Susan. 2009. “Not just ‘a white girl’s thing’: The changing face of food and body image problems.” Pp.46-59 in Critical Feminist Approaches to Eating Dis/Orders, edited by H. Malson and M. Burns. London and New York: Routledge.

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