The Fat Trap

By Peggy Orenstein,

Food is never just food.  Food is love.  Food is solace.  It is politics.  It is religion.  And if that’s not enough to heap on your dinner plate each night, food is also, especially for mothers, the instant-read measure of our parenting.  We are not only what we eat, we are what we feed our children.  So here in Berkeley — where a preoccupation with locally grown, organic, sustainable agriculture is presumed — the mom who strolls the farmers’ markets can feel superior to the one who buys pesticide-free produce trucked in from Mexico, who can, in turn, lord it over the one who stoops to conventionally grown carrots (though the folks who grow their own trump us all).  Let it slip that you took the kids to McDonald’s, and watch how fast those play dates dry up.

Doing right by our kids means doing right by their health — body and soul.  Yet even as awareness about the family diet has spread across the country (especially among the middle class and the affluent), so, it seems, have youngsters’ waistlines.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a full third of America’s children areoverweight, and 17 percent are clinically obese — a rate that has more than tripled since 1976.  Those figures may be alarming, yet equally disturbing are the numbers of children, girls in particular, who risk their health in the other direction, in the vain pursuit of thinness.  In a 2002 survey of 81,247 Minnesota high-school students published in The Journal of Adolescent Health, more than half of the girls reported engaging in some form of disordered behavior while trying to lose weight: fasting, popping diet pills, smoking, vomiting, abusing laxatives, binge eating.

Parents, then, are left in quandary, worrying about both the perils of obesity and those of anorexia.  How can you simultaneously encourage your daughter to watch her size and accept her body?  My own initial impulse, when I found out I was pregnant with a girl, was to suggest that my husband take responsibility for feeding her.  After all, he doesn’t see a few extra pounds as a character flaw.  Nor does he serve up a heaping helping of internal conflict with every meal.  It’s not that I’m extreme; it’s just that like most — heck all — of the women I know, my relationship to food, to my weight, to my body is . . . complicated.  I did not want to pass that pathology on to my daughter.

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