In 1981, when I was just 9 years old, I went on a diet.
I know this because I mentioned it in my diary. I don’t know what the diet involved – probably no sweets and no seconds, at the very least. I suspect it must have been my mother’s idea, but I also vaguely remember how adult it seemed, to be on a diet. It was something a grown woman would do, to make herself more appealing. Even the act of complaining about my diet felt cool and worldly.
I mention this because when I found those diaries as an adult, I was shocked to discover how young I’d been when I first tangled with voluntary food restriction. I assumed I was an outlier, a grotesque anomaly, that the fact of my childhood dieting said something about my family dynamic, not the culture at large. Turns out I was wrong. Researchers found, in 1986, that 80% of 9-year-old girls surveyed were dieting. And I’d still be wrong if it happened today, according to this article in the Wall Street Journal last week, which discussed the 1986 study and revealed, among other things, that fully 60% of today’s fourth grade girls believe they have to be thin to be popular.
In the summer between fifth and sixth grade, the same summer I spent dreaming of making a living selling friendship bracelets, little more than a year after I started that diet, I made a list. Perhaps this list, too, was more ordinary than it sounds in my grown-up memory. It was a list – a written to-do list – for becoming popular.
Looking back, I can see this was never going to happen. I was a loud, hot-tempered, awkward Jewish girl in a town of cool, well-mannered WASPs. I was a teacher’s pet. My kinky-curly hair didn’t feather. I often had bruises or scrapes – my mother always thought I was clumsy, but the truth is I just couldn’t resist climbing trees and playing rough on the soccer field and otherwise being careless with my body. That, and there was a set of boys who made a sport of coming up out of nowhere and knocking me to the asphalt during recess, to our classmates’ great delight.
But that’s all retrospect. The list I made back then is innocent of any of these factors, focusing instead on wardrobe aspirations and how to become better friends with the two or three socially-accepted girls who didn’t seem to hate me. And on the top of the list? Two words: Lose weight.
I was born chubby. It makes for particularly cute baby pictures, but that’s the last moment it’s an advantage — especially for girls, whose bodies are measured on their ornamental value at an astonishingly young age. By the time you’re wearing "Huskies" jeans in size 6X, you know you’re failing. Your body is failing. You’re in elementary school and you already understand that your body is fundamentally a failure, no matter how fast it runs or high it climbs, no matter how much pleasure you take in that motion, or any other. You understand, even accept, that the literal shape of your body is enough to make kids spit on you, call you names, treat you as though you have a contagious disease that you are actively trying to spread to them. (It does not help at all, btw, if your last name contains the word "fried.")
The heartbreaking truth of it is that those fourth-grade girls aren’t wrong. They haven’t been misled. Too much of the time, in the culture we’re living in, you do have to be thin to be popular or successful. And, especially when you’re a kid, you will get teased and tormented if you’re not.
Once you get those lessons down, you’ll learn more things about being fat. As you grow up you’ll be taught that you’re lazy and have no self-control. You don’t deserve health care or a seat on the train. You’re responsible for global warming. Your sexuality – any sexual expression from you – is either laughable or repulsive. Anyone who expresses sexual interest in you is sick, but you better put up with however s/he treats you, because you’ll never find anyone else that wants you, ever again. You’re unrapeable, because you would obviously be so grateful for any offer of sex that you wouldn’t think of saying no.
These things aren’t true. Not a single one of them is, but it will be a struggle, all your life, to reject them. Because those first awful things you learned about your fat body turned out to be true, so why wouldn’t the rest of them be?
All through junior high and high school, I never stopped trying to be popular, or to lose weight. I failed at both over and over again. Since then, I’ve gradually stopped trying on both counts. As an adult, I’ve been blessed to find many good friends. I guess you could say that I’m popular now, though one of the cool things about adulthood is that there are infinite crews you can roll with – if you don’t gel with one, it’s not that hard to find another. I’ve had lots of good sex, with the occasional crappy sex or spectacular sex mixed in. I’ve performed in front of crowds as large as 2000 people – sometimes in very little clothing – to great acclaim.
But I still haven’t found peace with my body. I’m still worried, on dates and in social situations, that people will look at me and see fat, and stop there. I still, despite all the personal and political work I’ve done to undo this, stand in front of the mirror sometimes and suck in my belly, thinking about how much happier, more successful, and more desired I’d be if I could just lose some weight. Maybe that’s even true. I don’t know.
But I do know this: it doesn’t have to be true. We can – we must – find a way to make it stop being true that the shape of your body has to do with anything besides the shape of the clothes you wear. Not just for me. For the future of 9-year-old girls everywhere.