I have a few very vivid memories of three ages in my life.
1. My family is driving in New Buffalo Michigan during our annual summer vacation, and we’re playing one of my favorite songs, “I Think About You” by Collin Raye. I start bawling because I just turned nine, and so my favorite part of the song “I think about you, eight years old, big blue eyes and a heart of gold” no longer applied to me. It was devastating in the way you can only be devastated at nine years old.
2. I’m twelve years old and it’s 11:50 PM – I’m writing furiously in my journal about how terrified I am about turning thirteen, officially a “teenager.” I was terrified in the way only a twelve year old can be.
3. I’m fourteen years old. It’s around midnight and my best friend Kaitlin and I are in the middle of yet another summer sleepover. We always make funny videos when we’re together, and tonight is no exception. This particular night we stage a commercial where Kait is advertising Neutrogena face wash and I am pretending to jump out of a hot air balloon decoration that we take down from the ceiling and pretend is true-to-size. I think in this same night we are filming a dance to Britney Spears’ “Toxic” or something by Jesse McCartney. A lot of dances were filmed on a lot of nights, so it’s hard to remember. We eat a lot of puffy Cheetos and Twizzlers. I was carefree in the way that only a fourteen year old can be.
One thing that I never, ever, ever, ever, ever worried about when I was this age was being fat.
In a recent TED talk, Jess Baker talked to the audience about Complete and Total Body Love. I’m not going to sit here and act like what she said was revolutionary or full of new information, because it wasn’t. I’ve heard it all before. Only 4% of women will openly label themselves as beautiful. I don’t think that means 96% of women think they’re ugly, but if I had to pick a better word I would guess it’d “inferior” in some way. Inferior, therefore not beautiful, not enough. Just uncomfortable simply declaring themselves as beautiful.
There was, however, something that stuck with me.
- 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. It’s their biggest fear. They’re more afraid of this than cancer or losing their both parents. 40% are trying to lose weight.
In high school I remember babysitting an adorable four year old girl and her brothers. The boys were throwing a football around and I was pushing her on a swing. She loved swinging high and then jumping off, just like I did when I was that age. It felt like flying. But as soon as her feet hit the ground, she lifted up her shirt, turned around and said “I’m fat” and proceeded to cry. I was stunned silent.
What kind of world do we live in where a four year old even knows what fat is?
I am a healthy person. Most people in this community are healthy or are recovering from previously unhealthy habits and are here for support to find peace with their bodies and health. I don’t talk much about it on the blog but I struggled with body acceptance for four years at the end of high school and into college. It wasn’t until my late teens that I really started to be afraid of becoming fat. I won’t patronize those of you who had very, very serious EDs but for years I thrived on a set of eating rules that, if I didn’t follow, the anxiety would build up and I would find myself in the bathroom getting rid of the “mistake” as soon as possible for fear that one bad meal would derail everything I was working towards (Side note: I followed my rules very, very well so I wasn’t doing this often, but only when I broke my rules). In college I could have the huuuuge brownie sundae after dinner but only if dinner was broccoli. I tried diet pills, laxatives and other scams. I even had one summer where I made sure to eat the exact same foods every day and follow the same workout regimen, and when it started working and I lost a ton of weight, I was terrified to change up any of the foods I ate. So there it was: 5 mile run at 5am, Kashi cereal at 7am, Supersize Diet Coke at 7:30am, Fiber One Bar at 10:00am, PB&banana sandwich + yogurt and a Diet Coke at 1:00pm, 14 animal crackers at 4:00, and a piece of fish and veggies at 7:00 after a full day as a summer school gym teacher, camp counselor, and part-time waitress. Every day for almost three months. I loved rules and I love love loved schedules. And yes, I lost weight, looked great and had a killer tan. But the anxiety that came when food was mentioned or present was downright insane. When I look back and think about how scary food was, it’s crazy and, even more so, sad.
So what changed me? Reading these blogs. I started out with KERF the next summer during a particularly boring day at my internship and the love of food blogs just spun out from there. Food was photographed, celebrated, shared, discussed, tweaked, perfected and LOVED. It wasn’t feared but it also wasn’t abused. It was simply loved. The bloggers all filled their plates with whole foods, with everything from vegetables and hormone-free chicken to chocolate and butter-laden croissants with full fat lattes. Food was food. It wasn’t a weapon or something that needed constant control. I slowly but surely got rid of the rules and ate what I wanted, when I wanted, but made sure it was mostly whole, real food, not a science experiment, something my body quickly started to appreciate. The month after I gave up Diet Coke the stomach issues that I had been dealing with for years vanished. I quit sugar-free lattes soon after and saw an even bigger improvement in how I felt. I started to realize that the improvement of my overall health was like a domino effect. I ate better, I worked out harder, I gained muscle (AND weight), and I never felt better. And it all came because I started to treat my body well because I loved it, not because I wanted to change it.
Okay so why the personal story?
This struggle, this irrational fear, happened when I was relatively old enough to understand what was happening. That’s not to say I wasn’t young and naive and had that “why aren’t I skinnier than her?” mentality, but I always knew what I was doing was wrong and I think I was just waiting for something to come along and help me get better. Bottom line, I wasn’t ten years old. When I was ten years old I was sprinting to my stereo when I heard Radio Disney play a song I loved so I could hit “record” on a cassette tape and save it forever. I was scootering past my cute neighbor’s house non-nonchalantly because I wanted to. I chased my first crush around my living room and pinned him to a chair just so I could kiss him on the cheek. I recorded videos with my best friend in my basement not because I wanted to see how many likes it would get on Instagram but because we were goofy and young and happy. I did all this, all these happy things, and was the most confident of my life, and I looked like this:
I snagged all the boys in junior high, let me tell you. Ok, I know it’s not THAT bad, but come on, it’s without a doubt an awkward phase. But I had no idea I was anything but me. I would have never called myself awkward, chunky, chubby, or any of the words that might pop into my head now, because I didn’t even know those words were an option to call myself.
Now, how did I look when I was following my rules, regulations, and worshiping the mental anxiety of food control?
The best part is, I still thought I wasn’t skinny enough! It still took me an hour to pick out an outfit because I thought I looked too wide in most of my clothes and ended up wearing something dark and slightly baggy to hide my flaws.
I’m not sharing this to talk about me. What I can’t believe after watching that TED video is that 10 year olds around the world are going through the same pain and confusion that I went through an entire decade later, at a time when I was too busy being a kid to even know what “enough” was. I don’t know when the memo went around that we have to start “being” something or that our everyday existence just wasn’t enough anymore, but 10 year olds being more afraid of getting fat than getting cancer is TERRIFYING.
I don’t think the solution is to allow children to gain weight as much as they want and tell them that it’s all okay as long as they have beautiful personalities. Because while the inside is what’s more important, how you view your body can really affect the way you participate in the world. But the message HAS to stop being so simple. Do this, lose weight, ta-da, happiness! No. A good relationship with real, true, healthy food (butter and cheese included) will lead to a healthy relationship with our internal hunger cues, which will then lead us to have more energy to participate in active exercises, which will then require more healthy/whole foods, which will result in the best weight for our individual body (not necessarily stick thin but perfect for us as an individual), which will boost confidence and help us make healthier, more active lifestyle choices, and the whole cycle will continue into adulthood and beyond. Not everyone has to agree with me but that’s just my two cents. I can’t wait to get started on my journey into a health and fitness profession so I can start to make a difference in how people view food and fitness and then they can pass that knowledge onto their kids so this ridiculous, heinous, irrational fear can evaporate, especially in such young children.