Wednesday, July 31, 2013

To Sarah

Dear Sarah,

Thank you for your article, "How to talk to your daughter about her body". I agree with most of it.

When I read the few sentences with which I disagree, I feel a familiar sense of disquietude, worry and even fear. Those feelings color my perception of the entire piece, which does neither you nor I any good. I hope you're willing to discuss your article and my reaction to it, because mutual understanding could benefit us both.

The sentences with which I disagree most strongly, and which present the greatest obstacle to my interpreting your piece objectively, are these.
Don’t say anything if she’s lost weight. Don’t say anything if she’s gained weight.
I am a compulsive overeater. I weighed over two hundred pounds by the time I was in sixth grade, and over three hundred pounds by the eleventh. At the age of seventeen I lost one hundred fifteen pounds. During the following twenty-three years I struggled with my relationship with food, following a pattern familiar to many: a roller-coaster ride of weight loss and weight gain that trended gradually upward. In the spring of 2011 I got help and got clean. Since October of that year I've been within five pounds of my ideal healthy weight.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence there was never a moment when I didn't hate my body, never a moment when I felt comfortable in my own skin. I of all people understand your concerns about shaming. I wouldn't wish shame on my worst enemy. I used to think that shaming had its place among useful self-motivational tools, but over the last decade or so, thanks to the influence of my wife and friends, I've come to see things differently. I understand that shame never helps. So please understand that I in no way advocate shaming.

Also, please understand my concern for my own daughter. When she was thirteen, I discovered she was plucking her eyebrows. When I attempted to tell her that she didn't need to change herself for anyone, she wailed "But Daaaaad, I have a monobrow! I desisted, because I felt that to show my distress over her reaction to her cultural pressure would only alienate her.

At around the same time, I was becoming more and more disturbed to see advertisements sexualizing girls at an ever earlier age. I took her aside and, with all the earnestness I could muster, told her about the pressures I saw on girls her age and that she shouldn't feel like she has to be anything that anyone else wants her to be.

I wrote all that in the hope that you will understand why I get so scared when I read the words "Don’t say anything if she’s lost weight. Don’t say anything if she’s gained weight." I understand that you want to teach girls to love themselves and their bodies, and never to let anyone limit them with shame. But loading a girl down with body shame is not the same thing as teaching her the importance of physical fitness, and I fear that your statements dangerously conflate those two concepts.

If my daughter gained or lost a significant amount of weight, I would be concerned, and I would express that concern to her because either change could signal emotional or physical problems. I want her to be healthy, and unless I misunderstand you, that means something different to me than it does to you. You seem to want to disconnect the notion of health from the context of the body, and I think such attempts render the concept meaningless. We cannot be healthy if our bodies are not healthy, and a healthy body implies a set of quantifiable attributes.

You speak of your rib cage, and of course I would not want anyone telling your daughter that there's anything wrong with an immutable quality of her body such as that. But we can and should recognize that a person of body type X and height Y will have an optimal weight range Z, and that deviations from that range will cause cardiovascular problems, joint problems, skin problems, skeletal problems and diabetes, just to name the first few of a long laundry list of ills.

Obesity is the worst health problem facing our country, and I know from personal experience exactly how much it harms body and spirit. You seem not to recognize this, and it terrifies me to think of a girl reading your words and thinking that the state of her body doesn't matter. It does matter. It matters to her, it matters to her mother and father, and it matters to a world that desperately needs her to exercise her vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording her scope.

Here's the second part of your article with which I have a problem. To be clear, I disagree not with the entire paragraph, but with the conflation of different ideas.
Don’t you dare talk about how much you hate your body in front of your daughter, or talk about your new diet. In fact, don’t go on a diet in front of your daughter. Buy healthy food. Cook healthy meals. But don’t say “I’m not eating carbs right now.” Your daughter should never think that carbs are evil, because shame over what you eat only leads to shame about yourself.
Again, you seem to equate the recognition of demonstrably unhealthy food choices with shame. Having made unhealthy food choices, and felt shame, for most of my life, I can tell you emphatically that they are not the same thing. I can recognize unhealthy food choices in myself and in my daughter without shaming either of us.

In May of 2011 I got off flour and processed sugar. For three weeks, I was a junkie in withdrawal. Soon, though, I started feeling better than ever before. My blood pressure dropped to normal levels for the first time in my life. Now, two years later, I'm in the best shape of my life because I made quantifiable choices that led to my body having quantifiable attributes. I talk about all those things with my daughter, including the history of shame and dysfunction that led to it. None of this is shaming.

After hearing about my struggle with obesity, you might imagine that I'm obsessed with the thought of my daughter ever gaining five pounds. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the years she's gained and lost a few pounds here and there, and while some of her family members were telling her that she needed to lose weight, I was scoffing at the notion and telling her that she was fine. If anything, I'm more concerned with her potential to be underweight than overweight.

Yet even if we were to agree that I should express concern were my daughter to gain or lose a significant amount of weight, we would be missing the big picture. The notion of a "Goldilocks weight" is not even remotely sufficient to indicate health. For that, we need a sane notion of exercise, and I don't think you realize how lacking your article is in that regard.

You seem to think that if you extoll and demonstrate the positive benefits of exercise, your daughter will naturally achieve a healthy weight. I am sorry to tell you that, based on my personal experience, this is not true.

I spent decades struggling with my weight despite being much more physically active than the average man. Through it all, I thought in terms of compensating for my eating through exercise. During the last few years especially, there was never a moment when I wasn't obsessed with burning calories and maximizing the area under my metabolism curve to compensate for what I would be eating. Although I would never have recognized this at the time, I was an exercise bulimic.

If you and your daughter are lucky, she will absorb your enthusiasm for exercise, and her eating will naturally remain subordinate to her physical activity. But this is by no means guaranteed. If she's like me, she may latch onto the idea that she can eat whatever she wants and compensate for it by exercising, and there is nothing in your article to tell her otherwise.

If your daughter eats whatever she wants and compensates for it with exercise, she will not be healthy. Please, please trust me on this; neither her body nor her mind are designed for that ghastly equation.

My last concern is not so much for what you said, but for what I saw in the comments. There's a deplorable thread running through feminism: the conviction that men will never know a woman's perspective and therefore may be peremptorily dismissed. Sure enough, this notion was given full throat by "Ali".
Ok, Ray- please just don’t comment because you have never nor will you ever know how it feels to walk in the shoes of a female, or to be the mother of a girl. Just stop.
This can't be useful. For either man or woman to hope to be anything but a homunculus, neither perspective can be meaningless. I understand wanting to score points by dismissing someone from the conversation. I also understand that it's the exact behavior that made me give up on feminism back in college. Afterward, I spent over twenty years staying out of the feminist conversation. What a waste. Maybe I could have been of use during that time. Maybe my actions or words could have prevented one rape, or helped one woman resist those same forces I saw my daughter struggling with.

I know what it's like to live in shame. I know what it's like to have an eating disorder. I know what it's like to be a father. And I know what it's like to feel tiny and terrified as my daughter struggles beneath cultural influences that seem too big for me to fight. Please examine your own motivations for writing this, and consider a less monolithic response to the problem of shaming.


Kim said...

Thank you for sharing your perspective.

Karin Kief said...

Thank you, Hugh, for writing this. I think it's hard for many people (especially mothers) to talk about weight and bodies in a pragmatic, health focused way without bringing all that other crap into it. As I see it, when we pretend or ignore weight as a real health consideration, we give credence to the notion that there is shame associated with food or weight and that weight is associated with beauty and value. As the parent of a 10 year old, I encourage her to by physical and we have talked about food choices since she was a toddler. We don't use the word diet, and we choose to indulge sometimes. She is the only one of her friends (according to her) that chooses white milk versus chocolate at school. She says she does it because she understands that sugar is something to choose carefully. She shows no sense of shame about her body, even as it now is going through changes due to puberty. I see a lot of women who can't seem to find a balance between allowing their own insecurities to influence their parenting and being able to have a frank conversation about health. And I see a lot of kids with a limited palette that eat a lot of processed food.... many appear to have a healthy weight, but I worry about their future health.

Sandra Mort said...

I don't know if you saw my reply but copying it and pasting it makes google all spazzy. I agree with a lot of what you said. And I believe that these issues, while more girls are struggling than boys are, need to be talked about for ALL kids and by ALL parents.

Takita said...

This is a fantastic response - thank you for braving the overwhelming 'How dare you comment on a women's perspective without being one' response and still posting as a concerned dad. My husband and I talk a lot about how the complete opposition to any criticism or dialogue from the opposite sex is further harming our society - men don't want to be part of the conversation, because we don't let them.

I agree with a lot of things you posted. I think it is important for kids to see us struggle through some of our own insecurities and come out winning, rather than brush it completely under the rug and pretend we never had issues.

Keep writing.