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Generation to Generation

by Jane Hirschmann

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all? If you are a little girl growing up in this food- and weight-obsessed society, it is never you. The message is clear: To become the fairest of them all you need to starve yourself and stay young forever. By now, you would think that the message would have changed. We have fought hard for equal access to jobs, training programs, scholarships, government seats, et al, and to some extent there are more opportunities awaiting our daughters than ever before. Given their better situation, why don't girls today look in the mirror and like what they see? Why do they continue to see themselves as inadequate or not good enough?

With increased female power come increased anxieties. For young girls and women, that means increased body preoccupation irrespective of weight. Growing up female means learning to body-shape rather than life-shape when things are difficult or things go wrong. We constantly rearrange ourselves with the expectation that physical transformation will mean life transformation.

No matter how tough, how powerful, or how ambitious they are, girls are always being reminded of their "proper" position in life. The other day in the mail I received The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. This deluxe edition is the complete guide to superheros of the day. Each hero and heroine has a page or more documenting his or her history. Here's what I discovered: Captain Marvel is a woman and a woman of great powers. But she hasn't forgotten what counts! The comic book reads, "After spending several weeks in outer space, she found that she had lost a noticeable amount of weight by the time she returned to Earth." Obviously, weight loss or gain was not mentioned in the write-ups about her male counterparts. Let all the young girls who read this magazine remember that no matter how powerful they are, body size is key!

Mimi Nichter of the University of Arizona Department of Anthropology recently studied the attitudes of white and black teenage girls toward body image. Ninety percent of the white girls she studied expressed dissatisfaction with their bodies; 70 percent of black teenage girls were satisfied with their weight. The difference may be due to the fact that black girls do not identify with the cultural images presented to them. The white girls described the perfect girl as 5 feet 7 inches, weighing just over 100 pounds with long legs and flowing hair. Obviously, Barbie is alive and well in the hearts of most American white girls. Barbie, who celebrated her thirty-fifth birthday this year, has never changed. And neither have the images presented to children. We may have attained a certain level of power, but our eye is still focused on the prizeā€”the unattainable skinny body.

How can we take up the challenge and present our kids with images that truly represent the diversity of body sizes, colors and shapes? How do we embrace the child who is in the ninetieth as well as the child who's in the tenth percentile on the growth charts? Who says that one size is better than the other? Where did that idea come from? We need a size acceptance movement for children. It should be led by them, with a gentle push from us.

We must think of ways to challenge the ideology that permeates Marvel comic books and Barbie dolls. Children come in all sizes and shapes and their uniqueness should be celebrated. Mattel should sell Barbie alternatives. Someone should publish a superhero comic book with women of power of all sizes (Captain Marvel is 5'10" and weighs 130 pounds).

The next time you hear a young girl berating herself for what she looks like, help her challenge that thought. Explain how we have all been taught to hate our bodies and to focus on them instead of on what's really bothering us. When your child complains that her clothes don't fit because she's too fat, tell her she is perfectly fine the way she is and that it's time to buy new clothes. If your son comes home crying because the kids at school teased him for being fat, let him know that he doesn't have to be ashamed that his body is large. Some children are tall, others are short, some read well or are good in math, while others are accomplished athletes. His size needs no apology. He need not remain silent when he's provoked and neither should you. When you're silent, you collude with a culture that says fat is bad.

The time has come for us to say "No more" on behalf of our children as well as ourselves. Intervene wherever you can. Write in and tell us what happened. We'll write it up in this column. We must fight back against the body-hating messages our children absorb so early and easily.

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