"At least, I thought, she didn't hear it from me."

By Stephanie Wilkes

For a twenty-four year old who envisions children in the latter part of her ten-year plan, I find myself oddly captivated by thoughts of parenting. It’s a frequent pastime of mine to ponder hypothetically: what kind of parent do I want to be? Specifically, what kind of parent is a feminist parent, and how does one translate their beliefs into action through parenting?

In reading a recent NYT Magazine article about food politics and parenting, I was struck by the polarized quandary parents face today in regard to food. The obesity crisis and the push for healthy and organic food butt up against disordered eating and body image concerns that remain an issue for both girls and boys. To be a parent teaching a child how to eat and be healthy, physically and mentally, seems like an arduous task.
The article brings up a prime example of the Obama’s struggle with this task as they raise their young daughters.

Michelle Obama found that out firsthand when kicking off her campaign to eliminate childhood obesity. In an attempt to destigmatize the condition, especially for African-Americans, she confessed that the family pediatrician warned her that “something was getting off-balance”; she needed to watch her daughters’ body-mass indices. So she cut back on portion sizes, switched to low-fat milk, left fruit out on the table, banned weekday TV viewing.

The news that the First Mom put her daughters on a “diet” set the blogosphere abuzz. She was accused, even by supporters, of subjecting her daughters’ bodies to public scrutiny, making their appearance fair game….The president also has overshared about his children’s weights, saying in a 2008 interview, “A couple of years ago — you’d never know it by looking at her now — Malia was getting a little chubby.” He, too, was criticized, though less harshly, maybe because while fathers’ comments sting, nothing cuts deeper than a mother’s appraising gaze.

Aside from being a prime example of how the media’s obsession with political celebrities may be harmful to the health of their children, I think this section highlights a crucial point–how does your gender as a parent affect how you parent? Does a mother’s (potential) disapproval really sting more? For daughters, I say yes, but I would argue that is less the approval of the mother and more the influence of the mother that has the real sway.

Peggy Orenstein, the writer of the article, took that idea to heart in adopting a ‘conscious antidiet’ for the sake of her daughter:

By the time my own daughter was born, I realized that avoiding conversations about food, health and body image would be impossible: what I didn’t say would speak as loudly as anything I did. So rather than opt out, I decided to actively model something different, something saner. I’ve tried to forget all I once knew about calories, carbs, fat and protein; I haven’t stepped on a scale in seven years. At dinner I pointedly enjoy what I eat, whether it’s steamed broccoli or pecan pie. I don’t fetishize food or indulge in foodieism. I exercise because it feels good, and I never, ever talk about weight. Honestly? It feels entirely unnatural, this studied unconcern, and it forces me to be more vigilant than ever about what goes in and what comes out of my mouth. Maybe my daughter senses that, but this conscious antidiet is the best I can do.

Still, my daughter lives in the world. She watches Disney movies. She plays with Barbies. So although I was saddened, I was hardly surprised one day when, at 6 years old, she looked at me, frowned and said, “Mama, don’t get f-a-t, O.K.?”

At least, I thought, she didn’t hear it from me.

Orenstein’s recognition of the “entirely unnatural” nature of her own eating habits speaks volumes about the confusion with food we face as a collective culture–since when did enjoying eating and exercising because it feels good become bizarre behavior? Combined with the fact that society still sent her daughter the very messages she tried so hard to eliminate regardless of her efforts, the task of raising healthy children seems even more daunting than before.

But I think the key is not to see the matter in absolutes. Leading by example and providing an alternative viewpoint to those children will surely be inundated with is one solution, a solution that can temper both extremes and allow them to make their own informed choices. True, they may rebel and eat nothing but doughnuts for a year, but in the end it is the influences they experience at home that will affect their lasting habits, no matter how many Barbies and sugar-laden sodas stand in the way.


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