[Ed. Note: Due to an error on my end, email and RSS subscribers to The Lunch Tray may have received a very rough draft of this post on Sunday, August 14th under the working title, "The Post I've Been Afraid to Write." Here is the final version.]
Last week a Lunch Tray reader posted on TLT’s Facebook page this photo and asked me to share it with my readership:
The quote on the shirt, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” is widely attributed to “heroin-chic” fashion model Kate Moss who said it publicly in 2009 (although I’ve seen some news accounts indicating that Weight Watchers used a similar slogan before that time). As soon as über-thin Moss uttered those words, she was widely criticized for promoting a pro-anorexia message. Incidentally, only a few days ago the UK actually banned the advertising to children of the specific shirt shown above for the same reason (which I’m guessing is how the photo came to the attention of the TLT reader who posted it).
TLT Facebook fans immediately criticized the shirt’s message, calling it “disgusting,” “terrible,” “disturbing,” “wrong,” “dangerous,” and “anorexia propaganda.” The first reader seemed taken aback by the outcry and while she/he backed down a bit, she/he still defended the slogan as “a powerful tool” for combatting childhood obesity.
My response to the reader on the Facebook page was as follows:
. . . I think the concern is that we certainly want kids to be eating well and living a healthy lifestyle, but if you promote the end goal as “being skinny” (as this shirt does), it’s problematic for a lot of reasons. For one thing, the emphasis on “skinny” creates a real stigma for people who are larger than “skinny,” sometimes due to their own lifestyle and sometimes through no fault of their own. . . . Second, a single minded focus on appearance versus health can trigger an eating disorder (the reason why the UK banned the advertising of this shirt.) Third, “skinny” and “healthy” are not always the same thing. There are a lot of kids out there who are thin but eating a terrible diet which could have a longterm negative effect on their health just as much as obesity does. (For example, don’t know if you saw Jamie Oliver’s last season of Food Revolution, but it featured two kids, both thin, whose dad was feeding them fast food 9 times a week) . . . .
The discussion on Facebook has since died down, but following this exchange something was niggling at me, although it took me a few days and about fifteen re-writes of this post to figure it out.
It’s not that I’d take back anything I said to the reader who posted the offending photo. With my own children – especially my preteen daughter – I strive always to speak about healthful eating only in the context of maintaining good health. I’m painfully aware that an emphasis on eating healthfully to achieve a certain body shape can quickly lead to obsessive habits, including outright eating disorders. I’m also aware that many people – children and adults – don’t conform to our society’s aesthetic ideal for reasons having nothing to do with their eating habits, and that the ideal itself is a ridiculously Photoshoppped fantasy seemingly designed solely to make us all feel bad about ourselves. Good health, not the size of your jeans, needs to be the goal we promote to kids.
But in a somewhat bizarre coincidence, the day before the reader posted the photo, I’d just put the finishing touches on an essay requested by a women’s magazine editor. I was asked to address my own body image issues and I wrote about how I’ve always been someone who loves to eat and who could stay fit with only a modicum of self-control, but now that I’m in my forties, that’s starting to change. Over the last few years I’ve put on a few extra pounds, a relatively small but stubborn weight gain that maybe no one else notices, but I’m not at all happy about it.
Overall, my diet is quite healthful and I exercise moderately but regularly. To the outside world I still qualify as “thin,” and I certainly fit the ideal of “healthy” that I promote to my children. Yet, despite what I tell my kids about health being the sole goal of eating well, I still very much want to lose the weight.
Why? Part of it is pure vanity, I admit. There’s an undeniable pleasure in being able to wear the clothes you want to wear, in (generally) liking what you see in the mirror’s reflection, in feeling that your body is in optimal shape, whatever that means for your particular body dimensions and type. I was lucky enough to feel that way most of my life, and I’m unwilling to give it up without a fight. But I also want to lose the weight as a preventative measure. I may be healthy now, but when this year’s extra five pounds is added to next year’s and the year after that, one can easily wake up having crossed the line into “unhealthy,” and losing all that excess weight becomes that much more daunting.
So even though I’m not even close to “overweight” now, even though I’m “healthy,” I find myself looking at food in a new light: Is this this morsel worth the calories? Is this worth the potential weight gain? And when the answer is “No thanks, actually I’d rather fit into my pants, now and down the road,” I can’t deny that I’m saying to myself something close to Kate Moss’s controversial motto — that the food in question just isn’t worth the consequences.
But for the reasons I laid out on Facebook, this is not a thought process I dare share with my children, especially my daughter. As a result, I feel downright furtive when I pass up some delicious dish at a restaurant that the rest of my family is enjoying with gusto, or when the entree I’ve prepared on a given night is more calorie-dense than usual so I take a smaller portion than I’m giving everyone else at the table. If one of my kids raises an eyebrow, as they sometimes do (since they can’t fathom why someone would pass up freely available, objectively yummy food at mealtime), I feel like I can’t come right out and say, “I’m watching my weight, so I feel I need to eat less of that, even though I’d otherwise happily eat it, and lots of it.” Instead I find myself hemming and hawing: “I just feel like less tonight.” “I ate so much dinner, I’m just not in the mood for dessert.”
In other words, I’m lying to my kids.
At the same time, though, I wonder if my silence is actually depriving them of a necessary and useful tool to navigate today’s world. We now live in a society in which abundance, not scarcity, and inactivity, not overwork, are widespread problems. A society about which the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention once said: “. . . if you go with the flow in America today, you will end up overweight or obese” [emphasis mine].
So maybe I should be sharing my Kate-Moss-esque mental calculus with my kids. Maybe it’s actually beneficial for them to see that at some point (well after childhood, certainly, and maybe not until middle age), even a “healthy” person in today’s world might need to be vigilant to avoid “going with the flow.” That it might be necessary to sometimes ask yourself if the food on your plate – even if it’s healthful – is worth it to you, both for health reasons and — yes, I’m going to say it out loud — a purely superficial (but undeniably human) desire to look your best, whatever that means for your own body.
What do you think?
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