Every morning and some afternoons, I work as a teacher’s aid in a first grade classroom. This is my second year with this job, so by now I have learned to keep a list of all the ridiculous things these children say. From whispered questions about my phone number to shouts about Christopher Columbus being a pirate, this list is an assortment of hilarious quotes that will never fail to cheer me up. However, last week I overheard an exchange between two girls that made me so sad I couldn’t bare to write it down.
It was snack time, and I was listening to a conversation between two best friends that I will call Allison and Carrie. While all the other children were chatting loudly, kneeling in their seats and consuming Doritos and raisins with their mouths wide open, these two had pushed their snacks aside. They sat facing each other, talking in low voices, each pinching the tiny bump of baby fat on their stomachs with both hands.
“It’s okay to have fat, everyone has fat,” said Allison, gathering her pudge in her hands.
“No they don’t,” said Carrie. “We’re not supposed to have fat. You have more than me.”
“No I don’t!” Allison yelled back. “We have the same! And we’re supposed to have it!”
The conversation went on like this for a while. Allison eventually gave up on trying to convince her friend to love her body, and returned to her snack. But Carrie just sat there, staring at her stomach, trying to flatten it out with her palms. Her Ding Dongs remained untouched.
I don’t know if I can accurately convey with words how much this bummed me out. These kids are six years old, and are somehow already developing the body image problems of teenagers. It was actually kind of mind blowing to see them talking so openly about this, because these are the feelings that often circulate in a group of teenage friends (“Which of us is fatter?” “Is it okay to have fat?” “How much fat is too much fat?” etc.) but nobody ever says them out loud. How long will it be before Allison or Carrie doesn’t feel comfortable talking about this with her friends, and starts silenting skipping her snack?
Obviously everyone knows that childhood obesity in this country has become a serious problem, and making sure that children are aware of their health is important. However, has the focus on this issue within families and the media scared children into hating their bodies? By age ten, about a third of all girls and twenty two percent of all boys say that the appearance of their body is their number one concern. Number one. When I was ten I’m pretty sure my primary concern was learning how to spell “vacuum”. Today, kids this age are actually dieting, and the children who try to watch their weight this young often end up more overweight than their peers. A study was conducted amongst normal-weight middle school kids in which they were asked if they planned to diet in the future, and several years later those who said yes actually weighed more than those who said no.
Catherine Hill, research director for the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, says that it is disheartening how a focus on weight can take over so many aspects of a young girl’s life. As an example, she mentions the Dr. Barbie doll, who looks exactly like the cheerleader or ballerina Barbie. The only difference is the stethoscope.
Hill says, “Not only do we want you to become a doctor, a physicist, or an astronaut, but you better not deviate from the standardized body image that we continue to impose on girls.”
Allison and Carrie are not by any means overweight kids. They have that adorable baby pudge that is normal on a six year old child, but it has already become a source of stress for them. Since my responsibility in their lives is just to correct their homework an eavesdrop on their conversations, it’s hard to know if there’s anything I can do to help these girls have decent body images. I spend the entire twenty minutes of snack time glancing around the classroom, making sure each of the girls are enjoying themselves and eating their snacks. When I see one of them put down their Oreos, more often than not it’s just because they want to play a game or trade snacks, but every single time I try to send good thoughts their way. You’re beautiful, healthy kids. One cookie won’t make a difference, and it will probably be delicious.