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War Is Over —

January 1, 2014
by

Dear Linny and Lottie,

Oksana Chusovitina

Oksana Chusovitina (37) at the 2012 London Olympics.
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

The other night at dinner, Linny said, “I want to be a gymnast.” When I asked you why, your response was, “Because I’m thin.”

Based on a comment that a relative made, you now associate gymnastics with being thin. It’s understandable, given that every gymnast you’ve ever seen on TV is petite with an average age of 16. Does that mean you can’t do gymnastics if you’re in your late 30s? Obviously not. But aside from those two exceptions to the rule, most former Olympic gymnasts won’t return to the Olympics. Does that make them any less capable of performing, let alone enjoying, gymnastics? Not one damned bit.

And the same goes for every man, woman and child who decides to take gymnastics lessons, no matter what your body looks like. If you’re fat and you want to take gymnastics lessons so you can learn how to do backflips across the spring floor, go for it! It’s your body, and only you get to set its limits.

It bothers me that Linny, our older and thinner child, believes she is inclined to succeed at something that Lottie, our younger and heavier child, can’t. Or rather, shouldn’t. Lottie, your preschool has a gymnastics teacher teach classes once a week and you absolutely adore it. And you can’t wait for the summer when your sister will join you. You’re excited to take some dance classes as well.

This is all I want you to know. This is all you should know. I don’t want you to know that there are some people who stubbornly believe that you must be a certain size or shape to leap, dance, run, bike, and play. You should have the opportunity to decide for yourself whether your body is capable of doing whatever it is that you’re eager to learn. Human bodies are beautiful machines, capable of great feats at many different levels. If you want to be happy with who you are, then you won’t spend your time comparing your own body and your own abilities to anyone else.

There is only one Linny.

There is only one Lottie.

Anyone you compare yourself to has come from their own unique life, where they may have been raised with a different set of skills or have a different genetic endowment that gives them an edge. To paraphrase Ben Folds, there’s always someone better than you. But this doesn’t mean you can’t be the best possible you there is.

If you want to measure success, if you want to push yourself to be better at whatever you’re passionate about, then compare your current skills to the skills you had three months ago or one year ago or five years ago. If that’s what you enjoy doing, if that’s what makes your life sing, then do it in a way that honors and respects your wonderful body.

I wish this were the end of the comments I feel compelled to make, but I have more on my mind than just the way society discourages heavier people from finding joyful movement.

As 2014 begins, I run a blog that attempts to help people stop feeling like crap about their bodies. And they’ve been made to feel like crap about their bodies because we live in a society where our value as people is largely based on physical beauty. Men aren’t nearly as affected by these issues as women, which is why I haven’t included your brother in this letter. For the most part, men haven’t been the targets of a war on their body and self-esteem.

For decades, fashion and beauty has revolved around thinner and thinner women, creating an increasingly difficult ideal to achieve. As a result, there are millions of women with eating disorders or who have spent a lifetime yo-yo dieting in a desperate attempt to circumvent genetic predisposition. We’re often told to compare our modern obesity epidemic to the 1950s Leave It to Beaver family.

The Cleavers

Ward and June with Wally and the Beaver.

The only thing is: June Cleaver didn’t obsessively weigh every morsel of food. Fitness and balance was essentially built into the average American family. Wives were expected to stay home and perform housework and prepare meals, and their grocery selection was largely fresh, whole foods and a small, but increasingly popular selection of convenience foods like TV dinners, Tang and Pillsbury Cake Mix.

Pillsbry

Although Ward Cleaver was a white collar worker, 45% of men performed physically rigorous blue collar work, which dropped to 24% by 1990.

Work in America

Women in the workplace went from 34% of the labor market in 1950 topping off at 60% in 1999 (PDF), as women flooded into the workplace. To learn what happened next, I highly recommend you read The Two Income Trap by (now Senator) Elizabeth Warren when you’re old enough to appreciate it. But in short, just as our nation’s job options became less physically demanding, our culture changed from one parent having to work to two parents having to work.

As a result, the Cleaver kitchen changed dramatically from June’s perfect, homemade meals to the modern kitchen equivalent: the Morgandorfer’s frozen lasagna.

Daria

Girls, if you haven’t watched Daria by the time you read this, you need to correct that straight away. Unlike Ward and June,  Daria Morgandorfer’s parents, Jake and Helen, both  work full time in white collar jobs. By the time they get home, the Morgandorfers sure as hell don’t want to cook. For the first few seasons, every time you saw the Morgandorfer’s sit down to eat, they were cutting into an instant lasagna. Back in 1997, when the show began, this was normal modern life for two income households.

It wasn’t until around 2004, when the country really began panicking over obesity rates that the upper middle class Morgandorfer’s of the world would start having healthier convenience food options than the common rabble who are still eating frozen lasagna, even though their need for convenience foods was exactly the same.

While all of these social shifts took place, women (primarily) started hearing in the 1960s that they needed to be thinner to be more beautiful, which would help them advance their career and find love and happiness and the answer to all their problems. And the most effective campaign in that war on women’s bodies has been the New Year’s Resolution.

As long as I can remember (having been born in 1979 and retained lucid memories since around 1986), January 1 is the day that women (primarily) resolve to get thin once and for all, whether they are actually fat or already pretty thin. For way too many women, the New Year’s Resolution is just an annual ritual that has come to resemble religious atonement ceremonies with its repetition and rituals.

Now, I’ve got absolutely nothing against New Year’s Resolutions. Personally, I enjoy using January 1 to make resolutions about my writing or my health or my personal goals because the fresh start to the year does inspire me to set the bar higher for myself. And at the end of the year, I like to reflect on how much I had achieved or how far I’d come. And as John Lennon sings in “Happy Xmas” (although referencing far more significant changes):

So this is Christmas and what have you done
Another year over and a new one just begun

The progress and evolution of life is what makes it so interesting, and each new year provides you a convenient opportunity to consider the direction your life has taken and whether you should continue down the same path or choose another. But if you want to make a resolution about your health or personal improvement, make it something worthwhile, rather than aiming for some random ideal on the scale. Want to be healthier? Resolve to become a stronger swimmer or a faster cycler. Resolve to eat more fruits and vegetables. Resolve to treat yourself kindly and to love the body that your family has handed down to you genetically. Change is only positive when it leaves your sanity and soul in tact.

It won’t always be easy to love yourself and your body, particularly as you walk the gauntlet of cruelty from around middle through high school. Kids can be dickweeds, but you need to remember that the opinions of others are a meaningless distraction. By the time you get to college, life settles down and the dickweeds disperse a bit and you will find it far easier to be yourself. But I know from experience what the worst of adolescence can feel like and I know there may be dark days ahead for you. When you feel beyond despair, when life is at its darkest, remember the future I’m assuring you of today as your north star, a pinpoint of light to train your eyes on.

Someone I greatly admired once told me when I was young and struggling with my own self-esteem issues that it takes a lot of crap to grow a rose. He was right. I put up with a lot of crap and I like to think that by keeping the opinions of dickweeds in the proper perspective, I was able to use that crap as fertilizer, rather than just allow myself to stay buried beneath it (although I’m not sure I’m a rose so much as a healthy sunflower or maybe a stubborn dandelion, but still).

As we continue raising you, I know that we are giving you the tools necessary to convert crap into fertilizer. I know that with our guidance, you will understand how ridiculous it is to expect women to maintain 1950s standards in 2014, when wages have been stagnant for decades and we seem to have less and less free time every day.

This morning, Linny, you told me something else that gave me as much hope as your gymnastics comment sent me despairing. You told me, “Everyone is perfect in their own way.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Throughout your life, people will tell you that you’re too fat or too thin, too plain or too made-up, too hyper or too quiet. You have not only my permission, but my whole-hearted support in ignoring what others tell you to do with your body. You know what your perfect is and that is the perfection you should strive for. And anyone who thinks otherwise doesn’t deserve a the privilege of residing in your heart or mind.

I love you both and I want you to know that I will always be with you whenever you begin feeling the pressure to get drafted into the war on your body. You may give into the pressure, but you I hope that each year around this time, when you’re considering how you will ring in the new year that you will consider the value of living at peace with yourself. And you are always capable of bringing about that peace. As John Lennon also said, war is over, if you want it.

I LOVE YOU!
MEMEMEMEMEMEME

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 1, 2014 5:34 pm

    There was a time when your daughter, as you pointed out tangentially, would not have been able to make her gymnast wish because she was a girl and gymnastics was for the men, girls could be baton twirlers perhaps. I don’t envy you raising daughters in this fear of fat frenzied society, but I know that your daughters are fortunate beyond belief to have a dad who is there to help them keep their self love compass’s direction firmly in place…pointing to their true north. Thanks for sharing this poignant parenting moment with us.

    • January 2, 2014 9:53 pm

      I hadn’t even thought of the gender differences, Deah. I’ll have to mention that to Linley tonight. Sadly, tonight, right before bed, Lottie started running around the island in the kitchen and said, “I’m jogging so I can be thinner than Linny.” It sort of caught my by surprise and I didn’t know what to say. We were all getting ready for bed, so I didn’t want to start a big discussion right then, but I’m going to have a talk with her soon. I hate that she feels competitive about this and I hope we can help her guard her self-worth. She’s nearly five and she has a whole lot of school to get through full of little jerks and other assorted assholes. This is the part of parenting I hate.

      Peace,
      Shannon

      • January 3, 2014 9:23 pm

        I hear ya Shannon. The sibling rivalry is totally normal but when it slippery slides into the arena of body comparisons and envy it’s hard not to go into a bit if desparenting! My son was called pillsbury dough boy all thru middle school. I was more angry at the fat connotations than the racial ones. He was one of a small group of white boys in his school. And as bad as it was for me, it would have been so much more painful if he had been a girl.
        Peace back atcha!

  2. January 2, 2014 12:27 pm

    Shannon, I’ve been following your work for a long time, and finally delurking to say how blessed your girls are to have a dad like you. Thanks for the awesome pic of the fat girl doing a back flip and the fabulous Oksana! I was a participant in gymnastics throughout my adolescence (late 70’s)and constantly dieting. I had the same magical thinking pattern that Linny had, that being thin was going to make me a great gymnast. Funny how that didn’t improve my skills any; there were lots of girls much bigger than me who were better gymnasts than I could be in my wildest dreams.

    If your girls want to see more great gymnasts who don’t fit the pixie mold, there are plenty on youtube: Larisa Latynina, Ludmilla Tourischeva, Agnes Keleti, who won her first Olympic medal at the age of 35!!

    Thank you for sharing this; it made my day!

    • January 2, 2014 10:01 pm

      Thank you Laura, I will check them out and show them. I think anyone should be able to participate in gymnastics, at every level. Not everyone gets to be a professional baseball player, but plenty of people enjoy playing baseball or softball for fun. Why should anything else in life be any different for people of any size?

      Anyway, thanks for coming out of the shadows. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Peace,
      Shannon

      Peace,
      Shannon

  3. gingeroid permalink
    January 3, 2014 11:34 pm

    You see this mentality in figure skating as well. Short, skinny, and young are the preferences. Seems like any time someone over a size 10 asks for advice on where to find skirts or dresses, they’re told they’re too fat to be wearing that. Usually there’s an apology for being fat on the part of the OP as well.

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