Food is always a challenge on the parental grind. Whether competing with commercials that highlight the nutritional value of the latest sugary cereal (food coloring, sugar, corn syrup, and FIBER) or the newest cross marketing promotion that requires a burger to secure “that thing,” I often find myself fighting an uphill battle. If only fast food “restaurants” and tween characters were in the business of selling apples and broccoli, I might find the challenge a little less taxing.
While the challenges of competing with hyper-marketed, colorful, and processed sugar delivered in various shapes and sizes is nothing new, I have found the struggle to be especially difficult with my oldest daughter (almost 9) over the last year. Partially reflecting her increased independence – the ability to get her own food from the pantry – and her growing appetite that has not resulted in an expanded menu, I have really had to look inward to evaluate my own reactions. Is my concern about her intake a normal response to children’s insatiable desire for unhealthy yet appealing foods? Is this about my failures as a parent, as someone running around, pulled in different directions, and thus unable or unwilling to have the conversations and the battles over the difference between fresh fruit and packaged fruit snacks? Or is it a gendered reaction particular to my buying into society’s demands about female beauty and skinniness? In other words, is this specific to my daughter, whereupon my level of awareness when it comes to my son will be different? I don’t know the answer to these questions, which is telling in itself.
I have found myself in dialogue with myself, asking often if my reaction is wrapped up in the gendered policing of girls’ and women’s bodies? For example, is it two cookies is too much or two cookies for her is too much? In this regard, am I giving voice to the daily lessons widely disseminated in the media and countless other institutions? Am I serving as a conduit of these destructive and hurtful lessons? Whether I am subconsciously buying into these societal beauty standards, merely trying to “protect” her from a sexist society (or harmful foods), or simply just trying to get her to eat in healthy ways, these moments have forced introspection as a parent. They have forced me to think about my own capitulation, wondering if the lessons learned from media, from schools, from everyday interactions, those grounded in misogyny and sexism, are impacting my parental choices.
While the efforts to empower our children with food knowledge (yes, fruit snacks are not fruit; 100% fruit juice doesn’t mean right squeezed into the bottle) and to provide knowledge so that kids can make good choices about what they put in their bodies through their own lives, I also find myself worrying about how my parenting, how the arguments about food, how the struggles about soda or snacks, may have a deleterious impact on her in the long term. That is, is making food into a source of conflict a problem in itself? Anthony T. DeBenedet, explores the larger issues at work here:
Sure, promoting healthy eating, regardless of one’s weight or age, seems like a positive thing on the surface. But here’s the potential downside: We know kids and teens react differently than adults to external pressures like persistent messaging. Sometimes these pressures can translate into incredible waves of anxiety and fear. At the extreme, a healthy-weight youth could be pushed to monitor his weight more frequently or even begin an unsupervised diet — behaviors that might represent an impending eating disorder.
Yet again, these concerns are real; these real concerns and questions lead me to wonder how gender fits into my parenting, into my questions and answers, which in itself needs to be a healthy part of my parental growth. Raising a daughter in our contemporary moment, where messages of worth and value are wrapped up in dominant ideas of beauty and the Barbie body is challenging not just to me as parent but most certainly my daughter. As Rafael Casal says, we are all stuck in Barbie and Ken 101 but need to work on getting an “F.”
I know that my parenting choices are never made in isolation. The challenge remains to nurture children to question what they put into their bodies whether that is the Monsanto-produced treats they eat or the media images. Questions, not answers; tools, not menus—this is what is needed. The challenge also means to remain vigilante in examining the lessons I have learned during my life. According to Kathleen Lebesco, author of Revolting Bodies? The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity, “In a modern capitalist patriarchy such as the United States,” observes “fat is seen as repulsive, funny, ugly, unclean, obscene and above all, as something to lose.” Critical consciousness or knowledge of the literature, the impact of these lessons is impossible to escape.
While my fears and internal struggles around food and parenting embody a myriad of issues, ultimately my own childhood shapes my relationship to food and body. It not only impacts my sense of self, and my struggle to maintain a strong sense of self through excessive exercise, limited food consumption, and mirror avoidance, but also how I parent. It clouds my own battles and those internal questions about parenting. My fears about food, and food leading to my children being overweight, are very much about memory. It is about the day my grandfather came to see me play little league only to say “not bad for a fat kid;” it is about the time I was in Paradise only to be teased as the “fat kid riding a jet ski;” it is about the number of times classmates, friends, and others called me “fat,” “fatso” or countless other insults. It is about all these memories, and the fear of rejection from friends and girls I was interested in because I didn’t look like “Ken” or some muscle man. It is the number of times I felt embarrassed or ashamed because of my weight; it is about the number of times I couldn’t find clothes that fit, only to wear shorts and huge sweatshirts to hide not just my body, but my pain, anguish, and suffering. It is about my fear that my genes have been passed onto my kids, fearful that they too will face the venom of kids and adults alike.
These lessons, memories, and pain leave me at a perpetual crossroads, ubiquitously questioning whether my encouragement to eat a banana or yogurt is about health and wellness, or sexism, our body image culture and my own scars. Given the cultural and institutional context, these parenting dilemmas and struggles are never benign and never done in isolation. “Our current phobia about flesh — not when it comes to showing a sexy glimpse of skin but rather when it comes to revealing wobbly or lumpy parts of the body that have not been toned to a fare-thee-well — is at an all-time high, writes Daphne Merken. “Our collective fear of fat and idealization of thinness has resulted in a seriously askew notion of the physical self that has produced an epidemic of body-dysmorphic illnesses like anorexia and bulimia, which increasingly have included young men as well as young women among their victims.” In other words, the personal is political, and the political is personal. Whether we like it or not, whether we dismiss the politics of food as simply about healthy living or wellness, we cannot never escape the matrix of gender, race, class, and body. We constantly police ourselves; we police our children and our partners; because in the end we are policed. We parent with mirrors and memories, just as we parent with knowledge. The challenge though is to look in the mirror and confront those memories and offering new lessons about self, challenging the teachings above all else as we strive to fail Barbie and Ken 101.