Scales of injustice
Also posted at http://mymilkspilt.wordpress.com
Now that I donate blood regularly, I am weighed a few times a year. This is the most frequently I have stood on scales in recent memory. It’s been interesting, to me, to note in numbers how my weight has altered (mostly increased) during this period of post-partum body adjustments, depression, medication and other health events. The number on the scale doesn’t mean very much: it is a number. It would seem very high to some, but then, I know that my dense body is heavy even when not particularly fat. So I don’t fret. But I can’t share that number with you here, as much as I would like to have that kind of fearless candour. It is still too early in my fat acceptance journey, perhaps. Or maybe it’s because I know what numbers mean to other people.
I know what numbers can do.
Like many people, high school Physical Education classes were not funtimes for me. I was labelled as unfit and unco-ordinated very early on in my school career and thereafter it didn’t seem to matter what I did. If I tried hard to improve my fitness, I was laughed at (mostly by other students: one notable time, by a teacher.) If I dawdled and wheezed, I simply confirmed the stereotype. If I listened too hard, I heard the slurs whispered behind my back as teams were picked or we lined up at the swimming pool, bodies exposed to scrutiny. Sometimes the hostility was overt.
A few times, we were weighed in class and those weights were listed publicly. I remember the trembling shame, and the flooding relief to not be heaviest. I remember the knowledge that I would never be popular until I was thin. But my body doesn’t do thin. It didn’t do acceptable in those formative years any more than it does now.
Kate Moss was it-girl of the moment (how little things change!) and my body, my unwaif-like body, was never going to make it onto the ‘hot’ list. And because I am obstinate and strong, I decided to just bide my time until I could choose to be around less-judgemental peers. But that wasn’t an option for everyone – fad diets were a weekly event for some of the students at my boarding school and I sporadically joined in. I remember telling a friend, mid-diet, that she was perfect how she was, and being laughed at. I was a fat girl, a lost cause, what would I know?
I feel like I need to say here that I wasn’t that fat. I wore straight sizes. I was active. I may have been in the D grade team, but I played sport. But it was apparent to me that in the eyes of my adolescent peers, and also my family, my body was outsized, unattractive and out of control.
My stepmother wasn’t generally big on body shaming but she did worry about my weight. Inconsistency raised me: my parents encouraged me to restrict portions one day, indulge the next. They loved me with food because physical and verbal affection were generally out of their range. And they singled me out from my siblings by making me do extra exercise. A lowlight was when my stepmum publicly informed a few other mothers from my primary school that I had graduated up to adult sizing (something that frequently happens quite suddenly to girls about to hit puberty). They were audibly shocked, no doubt thinking, gosh, I’m glad that hasn’t happened to my daughter yet. It’s twenty years later but their judgement still smarts.
It wasn’t that I didn’t try to control my body. I documented my first serious attempt at a diet in a notebook. I drew up tables and stuck them on the fridge, indicating which days I would be allowed to have dessert. I was eight years old.
Eight is the same age of the daughter of one of the commenters on this post by Mia Freedman about weighing children, and about the age at which most girls are beginning to be aware of their weight. In her post, Freedman asks: “We’re obviously keen not to give our kids any complexes about their weight but does that mean turning a blind eye to weight gain for fear we might say the wrong thing?” Apparently, Freedman accepts the premise that the growth of a child’s or adolescent’s body requires commentary, and that such commentary could actually control that growth.*
The problem with these types of arguments about weighing children to ‘fight childhood obesity’ is that they show little understanding of how diet–weight–health interact: that is, in a far more complex and non-linear way than is popularly believed. A number on a scale doesn’t shout to your body: hey, stop growing as you wish to grow (largely due to genetic factors) and fit neatly onto this chart, dammit! But it may say to the adults around a child: start putting undue scrutiny on this child’s appetite, start singling her/him out for ’special’ exercise or food, start making her/him feel less than for not looking the right way.
What infuriates me most about the idea of frequently weighing children and adolescents – or publicly weighing them – to keep them ‘on track’, is that it singles out the fat kids, and the solid kids, and even the underweight kids. It perpetuates the disproven notion that weight and health are intrinsically linked. I’m all for improving the health of young people. I think reducing our reliance on processed foods and increasing people’s activity levels are admirable goals. But when you aim these goals almost solely at vulnerable people who are already singled out by their appearance and who are already at risk of low self esteem, you do them a huge disservice. And actually you do everyone a disservice. Because thin children need nourishing foods and plenty of fun exercise in the fresh air, too.
More than that, we all need to stop buying into the lie that a single aesthetic ideal is a virtue to strive for, or the answer to everything. It has taken many years to overcome the damage done in PE classes, but finally I don’t much care what the scales tell me. They can measure how much the fluids and tissues of my body weigh. They do not know if I am strong or healthy. They also do not know my worth.
Concerned parents, teachers, public health authorities and popular culture commentators with successful blogs take note: We must not make the mistake of letting some children think that they are worth less — worthless — because they weigh more. Numbers on a scale are not nuanced, they are not intelligent, they are not loving, they do not listen. They are no substitute for real information about health and wellbeing and they are not a parenting tool. Our children deserve so much more.
* N.B. It is common sense that where sudden weight gain is large or coinciding with other symptoms (other than puberty) then that is a good reason for a health check with a good GP, and subsequent discussion. But for a typical increase in chubbiness? For heaven’s sake, children ought to be allowed to just be happy in their bodies. Bombardment with fat-shaming media is never far away so parents aren’t actually required to join in. Besides, shaming children into restricted eating and/or exercising will not make them lose weight – unless it pushes them to starve themselves. For more information on how children can regulate their own food intake and body size, Ellyn Satter is a good starting point.