Clean eating. Boot camp. Paleo diet, no-processed-sugar-January, new year cleanse. Slim down, tone up, burn it off, amp it up!
To all of this, I say: you’re worse for children than pornography.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the danger of asking people — mostly women — to think so hard about their bodies. I think about it every time I see pseudo-food being peddled near in the grocery store — “low carb” bars and no-calorie salad dressings and lettuce proudly labeled “gluten free!” as if lettuce could ever contain gluten. Once, I did my best to listen respectfully while a member of my family described donuts as “absolute poison.”
Around this time of year, the everyday drone of insistence on vilifying foods and hating our bodies gets louder. Every January, the ads on the internet and TV and in magazines and the newspaper start preying on the women who have not managed to set — or follow — new year’s resolutions to love themselves harder, no matter what. I think about it all the time, and fight its imprinting on my brain with my whole heart, but this week, I got involved in a Twitter thread that reminded me — in case I wasn’t anxious enough about how this would all affect ME — that there’s a population even more vulnerable than adult women.
That population is teenagers.
Here’s how it started: a pediatrician shared a frustrating story:
My daughter’s school weighed the entire class yesterday. She comes home asking if she weighs too much because other girls who weigh 100 pounds were complaining about being fat. They all compared weights. I am furious. What the hell were they thinking?
— Clay Jones (@SBMPediatrics) January 9, 2019
He followed this tweet with a reminder that, as a pediatrician, he’s heard girls tell the story of the exact day their obsession with weight began. They remember moments like the one that prompted his initial tweet: the locker room scale and the conversation with classmates. Even women who don’t end up triggered into an eating disorder by an experience like this describe — as literally hundreds of twitter responses to Dr Jones’ tweet do — an uneasy, uncomfortable memory; a nagging feeling that they were qualitatively worse than their thinner peers; a sense that everyone around them was staring. The words in the responses included: appalling, humiliating, upsetting, inappropriate, heartbreaking. There are more than 600 comments — and that’s just the people who saw it and said something.
This practice of evaluating middle school students on their bodies is not only common but pervasive, and not limited to weight checks. At the middle school my daughter attends, they began calculating student Body Mass Index (BMI) several years ago. The first year, the experience went down much like Dr. Jones describes, followed by local outrage and anger and a promise to allow parents to “opt out” for their children in subsequent years. When my older daughter brought home the letter about BMI testing in sixth grade, I wrote:
You do not have my permission to weigh my daughter. Her weight is none of your business and she is more than a body.
I continued to write similar messages on these letters year after year. With my younger daughter now in eighth grade, I’ve written this letter six times.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only way schools are measuring student’s bodies these days. Several years ago, when purchasing the school P.E. uniforms, I noticed that each child was provided with a chest strap as well as shorts and a t-shirt. This strap is intended to measure the student’s heart rate with an electronic monitor that clips into it under their t-shirt. The monitors broadcast each student’s heart rate to a computer held by the P.E. teacher. Being in their optimal range (60% to 80% of the maximum) for a specific amount of time in each P.E. period is part of their grade.
The problem is that my youngest kid can’t seem to get herself into the “red zone” for long enough, ever. She describes running on a stair climber until she can barely breathe, high-stepping on a rope ladder laid on the floor, doing pull-ups, and several other exercises she’s tried in her school fitness room to get her heart rate up, all to no avail. Meanwhile, she said, her friends are walking laps and managing just fine. I tried to talk with her P.E. teacher about it, explaining that my daughter’s aorta — the main artery delivering blood flow to the body — was surgically pinned to her ribcage several years ago.
“Maybe the monitor can’t pick up her heart rate very well?” I asked at parent-teacher conferences.
The teacher shrugged her shoulders. “It’s probably more because she’s in such good shape,” she said. “You see some of these other kids. They’re just not in the kind of shape she’s in.”
I knew what she was implying. My younger daughter is trim and small — not yet five feet tall at thirteen, and unlikely to make it there — and certainly looks strong and well. However, all of that is not the result of sports or workouts. She spends most of her free time sitting on a stool in my kitchen, eating clementines and watching YouTube. She did eat a fat-free diet for a while when she was eight — but that’s because the surgeon nicked one of her thoracic ducts during the cardiac surgery, and dietary fat could have killed her.
She’s not “in good shape.” She’s naturally thin. And the heart rate monitor? It’s not made for her anatomy, because her anatomy is different.
Besides all that — why would a middle school student want to get their heart rate into the “red zone?” Or, more to the point, why would they rather not? In our majority low-income community, running so hard that you sweat through your gym uniform means more laundry, or more deodorant, or if neither thing is available, more stinking up your next classroom. The focus in public school on “instructional hours” means that there is no time for showers — they’re not available. Those kids who have P.E. before lunch? They may not have had breakfast.
On and on and on I can go, describing the various ways that bodies are different, unprepared for being weighed in front of their friends, forced to race in a stuffy gym, assessed based on fitness that isn’t achievable within the lifestyle with which their parents or their anatomy have graced them. And then they walk home, flop onto couches and floors and kitchen stools, open social media and YouTube, and spend January assaulted with all the ways they could be doing more, eating less, changing their bodies to fit the latest craze about the definition of their abs or upper arms.
To the list of ubiquitous terms at the top of this post, I counter with:
Eating. Moving your body. Protein, carbohydrates, fats, fruits and vegetables. Breathe in, breathe out, tune out negativity, tune into your heart!