childhood

Let’s Talk Regression

statregressionlollipop(No, not that kind of regression. I’m studying English. I don’t even know what that kind of regression means.) 

As some of you who have gathered from the amount I complain about writing final papers for university on this blog, I am still working my way through a college degree. On the other hand, I’ve only got one semester left to go (Know any good jobs for a highly qualified English and Creative Writing major, fluent in French and with tons of experience on social media and internet writing? Email me!), since I’m back home again for the holiday season. And you know what Hallmark, Lifetime, and Perry Cuomo have to say about being home for the holidays: apparently there’s no place like it.

But this is my fourth year of coming home for the holidays from college, and I’m beginning to notice a pattern. I wouldn’t call hanging out at my childhood home with my siblings and my parents relapse-inducing. My family has been more supportive of me than anybody else in the world, and I know that I’m way luckier than many in that respect. It’s not a relapse, per se, because I’m not engaging in behaviors any more than I would if I were spending the holidays at my campus apartment with my lovely roommate.

I just find myself having thoughts and emotions that I thought I’d left behind me years ago.

Maybe it’s the environment. Sleeping in my bedroom kind of brings me back to the way things used to be when I was seventeen or eighteen, during the worst times I spent with anorexia. Obviously, I’m much healthier both physically and mentally than I was in 2010. But I’m catching myself engaging in way more negative self-talk in my childhood zip code than in my young-adulthood town.

“You haven’t worked out since Thursday. What are you doing? Seriously?” (My negative self-talk voice has never been particularly interested in the fact that there’s currently seven inches of snow on the ground. God bless you, Michigan winters.)

“Yes, you’re baking cookies for the holidays. That can be fun. But that doesn’t mean you have to eat them, does it?” 

“Whoa, remember last time you were home? You’re up a solid xxx pounds from then. Slob. Look at how your pants are fitting.”

Whoa there, negative self-talk voice. Wasn’t this supposed to be the season of peace and brotherly love?

This is totally me this holiday season… Sorry not sorry.

This is totally me this holiday season… Sorry not sorry.

Now, I will say that I’ve made progress this holiday season, especially if we’re looking in the long-term to how I used to spend Christmakkuh about two or three years ago. I’ve eaten some of those cookies. (Dark chocolate crackle cookies with white chocolate chips. Om nom nom nom.) I’ve worked out, but not desperately, and I’m picking up a gym membership so I can go with my older sister, rather than doing preventative crunches in the basement. And while I might sit down and cry every so often (hey, I’m a cryer! That’s what we do), it’s not debilitating. I can still enjoy myself, and I am so glad to be home.

But it’s strange, that’s all, arriving at the vacation I’ve been waiting for all this time, only to find myself faced with body-image issues and negative self-talk that I just didn’t have time to engage in while trying to finish four research papers and a final exam in seven days. That’s the one positive side to exams: they keep your mind busy, so you can’t allow it to wander off to other, less-productive behaviors.

I’m trying to keep myself busy and to be gentle with myself for the three or so weeks I’ll be here at home. I’ve taken up knitting again with a vengeance – with two newborn babies in my family, I’ll have plenty of reasons to knit adorably small items of clothing in pastel colors. I’ve checked out the first version of In Search of Lost Time by Proust, because one of my life’s goals has been for a few years to be one of those people who have read Proust. And Netflix will be my best friend, as I work through my queue. (Has anyone seen House of Cards? It’s next on the list!)

Still, I’m not sure that constant activity is the best way to fight against these feelings of regression. I’d love to be able to spend an afternoon doing nothing more than sitting on the couch, petting my dog, and hanging out with my family without the evil negative voices coming back. That’ll be something to work for, I’m sure, though it might not happen today, or even this week. We’ll have to see.

Have you had similar experiences returning to spend time with family, either over the holidays or for any other reason? What are your best strategies for coping with voices you’d thought you’d left behind? I’d love to hear from you!

In the meantime, I’ve got twelve episodes of New Girl that I can probably make a sizable dent in before the end of the day.

Advertisements

Childhood, Selfhood, and the American Girl

Image via americangirl.com

Image via americangirl.com

Originally appeared on Adios Barbie, then cross-posted on SheHeroes.

It’s amazing how much of an impact our favorite childhood toys can have on us years and decades later. If I asked you what toy you treasured back in the day, what would you say? Maybe we have some Lego people out there, or Easy Bake Oven folks, or for children of the nineties like me, Doodle Bears. (Seriously, do you remember Doodle Bears? Best things ever.) As for me, I loved American Girl dolls.

Oftentimes, we’ll look back on the things we loved in the past with a more critical eye, and our childhood talismans start to lose their magic a little. Not so with these dolls, though. Even as an adult, I’ll still stand up with pride for them.

You know what the typical doll looks like: perfect, plastic, blonde, white, unrealistically huge breasts, anatomically impossible. Sometimes missing crucial body parts, like noses. We’ve all been raised around these images. The only diversity we see in girl’s toys is the color of their clothes: do you want the purple dress or the pink one? Well, with a choice like that…

But that’s where the American Girls take dolls to a whole new level.

In 2006, the wonderful folks at American Girl launched the line of My American Girl dolls, which is exactly what it sounds like. Children can customize their dolls so that they look like them. The dolls come in three different skin tones, three different hair colors, three different eye colors, three different hair textures, optional bangs, and optional freckles. Doll F1209 would have been me, as a child. Doll F1231 would have been my best friend. Not the catchiest of names, but I guess we would have come up with our own.

Beyond recognizing a variety in skin tones and racial/ethnic backgrounds, American Girl also plunges headlong into a domain that I have yet to see another doll anywhere provide: physical disability. These dolls can come equipped with their own wheelchair, seeing-eye dog, and crutches, among the plethora of other items.

To be fair, Barbie did attempt to make a doll with physical disabilities, cloyingly named “Share A Smile Becky,” in 1997. The doll, in a darkly ironic demonstration of art imitating life, was unable to fit through the door or into the elevator of the Barbie Dream House with her wheelchair, and was shortly after discontinued.

These examples, among others, sum up why I’m so committed to American Girl as a doll-ternative: they look like children.

The target age group for most Barbie dolls is ages three to six. The Bikini Basics Barbie line, a full lineup of skimpy bikinis over anatomically impossible legs and disproportionate breasts, is marketed toward children ages three and up. Name me a three-to-six-year-old who wears a DD bra.

Now, I’m no mathematician. But I did take a basic algebra class in the 7th grade, and I know how to work a scale factor. Assuming that the average 8-year-old is about 50 inches tall and American Girls are 18 inches, it’s pretty easy to work out what the doll’s proportions would be if she were human-sized. How’s this sound to you: 29-inch chest, 29-inch waist (no breasts to speak of, considering that she’s eight), 31-inch hips. All of those measurements are only slightly larger than they would be for your middle-of-the-road 8-year-old. (I’m using this children’s clothing pattern for comparison, because I’m by no means an expert on childhood body measurements.)

Barbie’s life-size proportions, on the other hand, come out as something from a science fiction movie. At 5 foot 9, Barbie would have a 39-inch bust, an 18-inch waist, 22-inch hips, and would wear a size three shoe. The day you see a real-life woman who looks like this, please let me know.

In case you’re more a visual learner than a numbers person, take a look at a lineup of Barbie dolls side-by-side with four American Girl dolls. Imagine you have an eight-year-old daughter. Maybe you do. Which of the two would you want her emulating as a role model?

types-of-barbie-dollstmagArticle

The original American Girl series of dolls had plenty to say on the note of positive role models. Dolls came complete with a set of six books outlining their historical backstory, from one’s daring escape from slavery to another’s confrontation with the child labor industry in the 1900s. These were girls who overcame seemingly impossible obstacles, and who helped young girls believe that they, too, could make a difference.

I grew up with this generation of dolls, which has been retroactively named the Historic Series, and so I understand the complaint of some, including Amy Schiller at The Atlantic, that the stories accompanying second-generation dolls are watered-down and sanitized. The dolls are no longer crossing the Atlantic as pioneers or planting victory gardens in World War II, they’re “having a bake sale to help save the arts program in a local school” or “persuading a neighbor to stop using pesticides… for the organic food movement.” I’ll admit, the girl-power-against-impossible-obstacles theme appears to be fading slightly. On a side note, three guesses what toy conglomerate took over American Girl when the Historic Series was replaced by gardening and bake sales? If you answered “Mattel,” you’re both a cynic and right on.

Still, there’s something to be said for the message that even the “innocuous” backstories of the newer dolls cannot overshadow. I’d much rather show my daughters, when I have daughters, that there are dolls with their ethnic background, skin and hair color, physical disabilities, and something a few steps closer to their body type.

I don’t know if we are what we play with, but I know it can’t hurt to play with what we are.

Psychology is famous for its studies on the effects of toys on young children. The most well-known experiment, and one that recently surged back into the public consciousness in a video from Upworthy was that by Dr. Kenneth and Mamie Clark in 1939. Both black and white dolls were shown to black and white children, asking them which doll was pretty, which doll was mean, which doll was bad, etc. Overwhelmingly, both black and white children labeled the black doll as “bad” and the white doll as “pretty.” Children are not stupid. If they see that dolls aren’t made to look like certain kinds of people, they’re going to wonder why. And they’ll pick up on our internalized prejudice to find the answers.

We can’t say that dolls are “just toys.” They represent the archetype of what society believes we should look like. They teach children from an early age what is acceptable and what is not. If there’s not a doll that looks like me anywhere in the world, children will think, there must be a reason. There must be something wrong with me.

What American Girl is suggesting is just the opposite: No, there is nothing wrong with you. Look, there’s a doll with a face that looks like yours, with a body that moves on four wheels like yours does, with arms and legs and a torso that look like people your age. Look. There are others like you out there.

You are okay.

No, it’s absolutely not perfect. There are obviously more than three skin tones in the world, the “average eight-year-old” is a fallacy that rules out countless body shapes and sizes, and this doesn’t address the issue of boys who want to play with dolls and have nothing but G.I. Joe to turn to. But when you look at the alternatives we’re given, I’ll stake my money on American Girl every day of the week.

When Self Worth Becomes The Biggest Loser

the-biggest-loser

This post was originally published on Adios Barbie and can be viewed in its original context here.

On the inside, I’m still about 7 years old.

There’s a shelf in my bedroom dedicated to Disney movies. When I’m stressed, I’ve been known to break out coloring pages. I’m still a little upset that I didn’t get my Hogwarts letter when I was 11. I look back on my childhood as a simpler time, when there just weren’t so many things to worry about.

childhoodobesity2012

Image via the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS)

And that’s why this billboard that I recently came across struck me especially hard.

The ad, if you haven’t seen it, features three slim, happy children playing on the higher end of a see-saw, and an overweight, sad-looking boy holding a bag of chips on the lower end. The slogan? “Once, kids played like their lives depended on it. If only kids still did.” This friendly fat-shaming message was brought to you by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS).

Now, I’m not claiming that kids don’t need to play outside. I don’t believe that sitting on the couch playing video games and eating truckloads of Cheetos is a good way to spend one’s childhood. (Not to mention the Cheeto dust getting all over everything. That stuff’s insidious.) I think we all agree it would be a good thing if everyone in America were happy and healthy, in whatever way felt right for them and their bodies.

But fat shaming is not the way to accomplish that.

For those of you who think you aren’t familiar with fat shaming, trust me: you are, you just haven’t heard it referred to by that name. Fat shaming is the idea that your body shape is everyone’s moral issue. Simply put, if you’re fat, it’s your fault, and you’d be better off if you did something about it. If a family member suggests you should skip dessert because your dress size has two digits; or if a doctor focuses only on your weight instead of your symptoms; or if you’re being used in a public service announcement as the worst-case scenario, you are being fat shamed.

Fat shaming assumes that if we make people who are overweight feel bad enough about their bodies, they will be motivated to change them. This motivation might not be overt: after all, I doubt the AAOS got together around their conference table and said, “You know what? Let’s make kids hate themselves. Bonus points if we can encourage crash dieting and trigger eating disorders, too.” (I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during that meeting, just to hear what the rationale really was.)

There’s a psychological theory behind this, called operant conditioning. Here’s the gist: each time a subject does something the experimenter doesn’t like, the subject receives a painful consequence until it learns not to repeat the behavior. If this sounds like something designed for lab rats, that’s because it is. Some people argue that even though those on the receiving end of operant conditioning are treated poorly, the shame gets the desired result in the end. If making children feel worthless and unlovable gets them off the couch and out onto the playground, isn’t it worth a few years of trauma?

Shame as a motivator is pervasive in weight loss culture. According to the reality television program The Biggest Loser, the best way to encourage an overweight person to begin exercising is to repeatedly remind them that they’re unattractive, lazy, and otherwise going to die. This can be done either by yelling oneself hoarse or getting more artistic and locking them in a coffin for up to 20 minutes to remind them of the consequences of obesity. The ends justify the means, right?

Right?

I’m not convinced.

Aren’t we supposed to tell our kids that we love them the way that they are and encourage healthy self-esteem? But then we treat overweight children as an “epidemic,” and we belittle and ridicule them in the name of “health.” I smell a contradiction.

We should be supporting health for America’s youth, no doubt about it. But societal norms are not health, and shame is not support.

Ads like the AAOS billboard or the Georgia anti-obesity campaign are not the only ways we’re telling our kids that they only have value so long as they’re thin. In a controversial move, NBC’s The Biggest Loser has teamed up with Seventeen Magazine (which, irony of all ironies, features a section called “Body Peace Pledge,” encouraging teens to love themselves as they are) to feature childhood contestants for the first time.

Pause for a second to let that sink in: some of the new contestants on The Biggest Loser are13 years old.

Yes, trainers have said that the teenagers will not participate in weigh-ins, nor will they be yelled at (or, hopefully, locked in coffins). But this teaches overweight American teenagers that as long as they’re overweight, it’s okay for them to be gawked at. It’s acceptable to push themselves so hard to lose weight that they damage their health, and it’s natural to hate their bodies until they change them. What does it say about us when a show that encourages fat shaming, disordered eating behaviors, and outright cruelty gets a 21% rise in ratings when it extends its tactics to teenagers?

The Biggest Loser’s proponents claim that the drastic lifestyle changes the show encourages may prevent the life-threatening consequences that are commonly associated with those who are overweight: diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, etc. But I can only speak for what I’ve seen. Public weigh-ins in front of entire towns, using junk food as punishment, and of course simulated death as a motivator to crank the treadmill up one more notch… all of these are clear strategies for making overweight individuals feel terrible about themselves, and they reinforce the idea that weight is something to be ashamed of.

Not to mention, of course, the inundation of longitudinal health studies that prove to us that weight cycling, or repeated weight loss and subsequent weight gain, has consequences of its own. Sixty-five percent of people who rapidly lose large amounts of weight regain it within three years,which is hardly surprising. The weight loss program proposed by The Biggest Loser isn’t sustainable for people without eight hours a day to devote to exercise. Weight cycling, alternately known as yo-yo dieting, has been linked to a weakened immune system,high blood pressureheart disease, and a slowed metabolism. This last side effect may actually cause faster weight gain, since the body is accustomed to operating in survival mode and will respond to changes in intake more dramatically.

We want our children to grow up to be happy, healthy members of society – regardless of the numbers on the scale. We need to teach them to accept themselves for who they are and what they can do, not what they look like. We need to ditch shame and use love instead. Engaging in healthy eating and exercise are great, but without healthy self-esteem, what kind of message are we sending?

Kids learn by example. Show them that fat shaming is unacceptable. Encourage health that isn’t based on appearance or size. Aim to love your body.  If you’re in the process of learning to accept your body, be conscious of not engaging in “fat talk” in front of children. Discourage unhealthy diets and negative self-image as soon as you see them surfacing.

Please, let kids fantasize about being firefighters and doctors and Spiderman. Don’t replace their dreams with shame and diet plans. If this continues, we’ll all be the biggest losers.