Two summers ago, it got personal.
I was sitting at the hair salon, my infant daughter, Tallie, gurgling beside me in her stroller, when a middle-aged woman with wavy blond hair ambled over, peered into the stroller and, with wrinkles creasing around her eyes, exclaimed, "Oh, look at her!"
I've always been used to peoplestrangersmaking a fuss over Tallie. Even at five months old, she was quite engaging. But before I could smile or utter a proud "Thank you," the woman continued effusively, "Look at those fat thighs! Me, oh my! Enjoy it now, honey. It's the only time fat is cute." Then she laughed, and a woman nearby nodded in agreement.
I was thinking, of course, that the woman was an idiot. Not malicious. Just clueless. As far as I was concerned, she may as well have said, "Fat is bad, bad little girl, and you'd better learn it now!"
Taken aback, I simply responded, "She's a really healthy baby and doing well! We're so glad." I wish I had said more before she smiled and continued on her way, with absolutely no recognition that what she had said was the least bit offensive. Fat-bashing in all its varied formscriticism, exclusion, shaming, fat talk, self-deprecation, jokes, gossip, bullyingis one of the last acceptable forms of prejudice. From a very young age, before they can walk away or defend themselves, women are taught that they are how they look, not what they do or what they know. Drawing attention to a woman's "assets" is usually the stuff of tabloid fodder, accompanied with a compulsory snicker or "wink, wink." Butt. Boobs. Legs. Think Betty Grable famously insuring her legs for a cool million, or the more current Mariah Carey upping the ante to a whopping $1 billion. The message is clear: A girl's body, stripped down to its "perfect" parts, slapped with price tags, carries a higher value than anything else she possesses.
Our daughterswith their beautiful, developing selves watch closely from the sidelines and peer into their mirrors with derision, wondering, "Am I acceptable the way I am?" A November 2009 poll conducted by Girlguiding, a scouting association in the United Kingdom, found that an alarming 95 percent of girls ages sixteen to twenty-one want to change their bodies in some way, with portions of the group already expressing interest in cosmetic procedures. (A similar poll conducted by the Girl Scouts of America in 2006 reported that two-thirds of girls were not very satisfied with their weight.)
When girls believe that "fat" is bad, they internalize that message and think, "If I'm fatif I have fatI must be bad, too." And they'll do whatever they can to be "good." Plastic surgery. Extreme dieting. Overexercising. It's not an idea they grow out of. On the contrary, they grow into it.
But it's not just the physicality of being overweight. Ask almost any girl to do a word association for the word fat,
and she'll likely give you a deplorable laundry list of connotative insults: ugly, lazy, gross, stupid, nasty, unpopular, smelly, blameworthy and, of course, bad. Play the same game with thin,
and you'll get its virginal opposites: beautiful, successful, sexy, smart, sophisticated, controlled, well-liked and good.
In 2003, I created the Sassy Sisterhood Girls Circle for girls ages nine to fourteen, an ongoing workshop/coaching series that explores issues affecting body esteem and self-image, and the girls tell me that these hidden definitions color every aspect of their lives. Every year, on one of the first days of group, I ask them to close their eyes and raise their hand if they sometimes feel "too fat" or "not thin enough." And every year, after shifting for a few moments in their seats, they all raise their hands.
At first, the exercise alarmed me. The enemyregardless of weight or body typefelt so undefined and omnipresent. But with the help of my Sassy Girls, I compiled a "flawed" belief system, a fixed and coherent set of erroneous guiding principles, based on the commonality of their experiences in order to fully understand the harmful messages they'd picked up and what we were up against. I now use this as a launching pad for discussions whenever I work with girls. I call it "The Good Girls' Weight Rules":
1. I believe thin is good, and fat is bad.
2. I believe my power comes from without, not within.
3. I will take unhealthy risks if I want to be thin and beautiful.
4. I strive for size 0.
5. My emotions should depend on how fat I feel.
6. My goals should focus on how I look.
7. I believe the media tells me the truth about how I should look, how thin and beautiful I can be if I just try hard enough.
8. My friends and family love me more when I'm thin and respect me less when I'm fat.
9. My values are to be disciplined enough to eat as little as possible, courageous enough to do whatever it takes and driven enough to strive for what perfect looks like.
10. I believe that I'm worth more when I weigh less.
The elephant in the room had finally been revealed in all its lackluster splendor. How was I to teach girls to follow their passions and embrace their most "extreme dreams" when their sense of purpose and personal power were tied up in a number sewn into the back of their jeans?
At the same time I started working with my Sassy Girls, I was knee-deep in my dissertation research at Tufts University, where I was hoping to find some clues that would help them. I set out to compare typical women's perceived sense of competence and body satisfaction with working and aspiring plus-size models. Why plus-size models? Because, in my view, they beat the odds.
They not only embrace a larger body type, citing a 13 or 14 as an ideal clothing size (my comparison groups cite a size 4 or 5), but they put themselves out there as examples of beautiful, confident women who don't strive to be "thin." I thought, Let's identify and harness these character traits. Let's expose the influences that drive plus-size models and other successful girls and women to feel proud of their bodies, their skills, their "assets," so that other girls, plus-size or not, can learn to be proud of theirs, too.
I have a firm conviction in the self-fulfilling feedback loop: You get what you giveand you give what you get. Girls will project the saturated messages they absorb from the many influences around them. So, if you're concerned about your daughter's weight and wondering whether you should be the one to tell her that she is "getting fat" or "putting on too much weight" or "needs to watch it" or "go on a diet," let me tell you now: Don't. Take a good look through this book and you will see who has already beaten you to it: friends, frenemies, acquaintances, advertisers, models, actresses and strangers, all of whom tell her and show her every day and every hour that she needs to be thinner. So many of our girls project grossly distorted images that lead to disordered thinking, disordered eating and disordered behaviors. To figure out how we can go from disordered to fulfilled, we must begin with young girls themselves.
I've structured this book from the "inside out," unveiling the ugly things going on in our girls' beautiful heads, and then following the ripple effect those ugly things have on the people around them. Each layer that we exposefrom the self to mothers, fathers, family members, teachers and peersprovides us with an opportunity to address the overarching issues corrupting our daughters' sense of self and move them closer to becoming "Asset Girls," girls who own their strengths and use their power to do amazing things. Chapter 1, "The Body Bully Within: Her Own Worst Enemy," offers an illustrative reflection of the girl who believes she is fat, whether society would affirm that or not. A girl's inner body bully can be the meanest of all.
The next three chapters, "The Secret Impact of Mothers: I Love My Mom, But
," "Father Figure: Daddy's Not-So-Little Girl" and "Hitting Home: The Butt of Family Jokes," tackle the sometimes paralyzing family dynamics that rule supreme in girls' lives. While our homes are supposed to be safe havens, sometimes families set up destructive codependencies that make our homes a battleground with direct or indirect hits about weight, pressures to diet, comparisons with siblings and bartering for pounds.
Chapter 5, "The School Fool, Part I: Teachers," exposes the difficulties educators have in combating body bullying within their school, as well as the insidious ways they may sabotage the future opportunities of girls who don't fit the thin ideal. Chapter 6, "The School Fool, Part II: Friends, Foes and Beaus," lays bare the powerful impact of the student populationpeers, bullies, clubs, the dating sceneon our girls' self-image.
Chapter 7, "Kiss My Assets: The Secrets of Girls Who Thrive at Every Size," is a celebration of womanhood at any size. Here we trade in our self-limiting "Good Girls' Weight Rules" for the "Asset Girls' Ten Commandments," an affirmation of our daughters' abilities to pursue their dreams at any size, rather than wait for a moment of perfection that will never come. You'll read stories of happy, healthy and powerful girls who, having overcome body image struggles and other hardships, inspire with what they say and do.
At the end of Chapters 1 through 7, I've included a Body Image Quotient (BIQ): a brief questionnaire that will help you determine how your daughter is faring in this "thin is in" world. Your answers, which will take into account your perception of her views as well as the influences around her, will be awarded points. Your scores will be tallied and evaluated in Chapter 8, "Your Daughter's BIQ (Body Image Quotient): What's Her Total?" which provides a synopsis of where your daughter stands and tips on how to maintain or strengthen her BIQ. And, finally, Chapter 9, "Goodbye, Good Girl. Hello, Asset Girl!" is a resounding battle cry for finding health and happiness at any size, along with a list of asset-building resources, clubs, curricula and websites that provide ways to help girls become their best and be happy with who they are.
This book is not just an exposé and call to action, but a pointed and prescriptive guide for parents, guardians, families, teachers, counselors and anyone else who works with or cares about our young women. You are the ones who can make a difference. You are the ones who can counter these superficial messages. They listen to you. How do I know? They tell me they do.
My Sassy Girls have opened my eyes by opening their hearts. And then there are my friends, daughters of friends, friends of friends and the countless others who contact me through social networking sites and my Kiss My Assets blog, who shyly approach me after personal appearances or strike up conversations in the local coffee shop, bookstore or airport. My honorary Sassy sisters. You'll find lots of personal anecdotes; wisdom from physicians, educators, psychologists and other experts; and scientific research. But the stories of these girls and women who openly expressed their very personal experiences and deepest concerns are what have made this book possible. To all of them (in some cases, names, ages and other descriptive information have been changed, but never the sentiment), I am truly indebted.
I hope and pray that one day, when my daughter stares into the mirror and asks, "Am I acceptable the way I am?" she will confidently say yes. But I know that the real triumph will come when girls of all sizes and every age don't even have to ask. They'll just know.