In preparation for the next 20 years, I'm reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter, a look at the current aggressively pink girly-girl culture, as the author aptly calls it, and the impact it has on girls, especially very young ones. The impetus for the book was the author, Peggy Orenstein, having a daughter who flung herself unencouraged into princess fantasies, even while the author attempted to keep the "beauty first" mindset out of her child's developmental life.
The book asks disquieting questions that have been coming to my mind, as well, as Christian and I raise Viv. We are careful to sparingly use words that would value her appearance over her intellect, which has been far harder than I expected. She's just so damn cute, and it's the simplest thing in the world to comment on her apparel or hairstyle and not think what, if any, repercussions that will have on what she thinks we value in her later. To me, being told that I looked pretty or lovely or even just nice was the highest compliment I could ever be paid. I didn't care if I were smart until after Anne of Green Gables, and that was too late. I only knew that other girls had the gene that seemed to tell them what to wear, how to be thin, what to say, and I didn't have it, and because of that, no one would ever like me. I was supposed to wear makeup, Mom did, Tina did, other girls did, but I hated it. I always felt grubby wearing it, and I couldn't touch my face, which was impossible as I was always trying to hide behind my hands as well as my oversized clothes, as my weight was the albatross following me all my life.
This issue of weight and body image is the most resonating for me in the book. Ms. Orenstein discusses how a friend has a chubby daughter, who has always been chubby and probably always will be. A healthy kid, but one whose parents have to control her portions and ignore her constant pleas for food. As a fat person, I find that I feel towards Viv the author's gratitude over her own child's current slender size. This relief, however temporary, makes me worry, as it does the author, that we are already valuing this slenderness in our children too much. Is it that we don't want our children to be teased in preschool, or is it that we want to look with pride at our children who are more attractive than we are ourselves? I can take no genetic pride in my child's looks, and she doesn't like to eat, despite having two parents who love it, so it simply is who she is. She's actually too thin for her height, and that should be a bad thing. But it isn't, if I go by the comments I get from strangers about her "adorable" skinniness. I keep hoping that maybe her attitude towards food is a healthy one, that she can instinctively control her portions, unlike me as a child, and that this is her way of getting enough nutrition without using food as comfort, as I did.
I realize that she's only two and her eating habits will likely change dramatically and often, so I am stunned by the amount of time I spend thinking about her eating. I'm very aware of my own issues towards food and weight, so have begun to be extremely careful in the language I use in front of her. I never use words to describe body size other than comparatively (ie., our hands are big because we're adults) and I never refer to myself in terms that could influence her ideas of worth according to BMI. I have taken the lead from my friend Jen, the mother of two girls, and use the word "healthy" when discussing what we can and can't eat. We have actually started to eat much better since we now all sit down for dinner together. I'm trying to replace my old, terrible food habits now that I have someone watching me to set an example. But I still have this desperate wish that she'll stay small, as I'm illogically convinced that it will eliminate an enormous amount of problems she might face down the road if she ends up like me.
There are so many aspects of raising a girl, especially an African American girl, that we are trying to tackle effectively. We want her to love her hair and accept it as it is, so we tell her how much we love her curls and how soft they are. We want her to love books and reading, so we praise her interest in memorizing her stories. We want her to form her own opinions of what is for her, to shirk gender roles and avoid being put in a girl's only corner, so we tell her that men wear dresses sometimes and buy her dinosaur flash cards. We compliment her for trying to achieve instead of only achieving. It's okay if the tower of blocks falls down, it's supposed to when they're all piled on top of each other. But it's not enough. She has to be empowered but not in a way that places value on her appeal to others. She has to be tough but kind, smart, resilient to the incredibly damaging array of images that affect especially black girls and know and respect herself well enough that she demands the same from others. And this is while everyone is telling her something different, opposite from what we're saying. It's a good thing that I'm loud, I might be able to drown out some of the noise, but she'll have to learn to how to shout for herself, all too soon.