For me, it was age 9. I thought I was "fat," and my best friend at the time, Tiffany, knew it. She wielded the word like a mean-girl sword. Our teacher had asked us to start writing in journals, so I even have written records of it (please excuse the halting grammar):
“When Tiffany would say at lunch time, ‘I’m full,’ and throws away her food, I’m always hungry after I eat and Tiffany’s so skiny (sic), I feel fat... Tiffany and I always get into fights. She calls me fat.”
By fifth grade, I’d already absorbed the belief that a slight, wispy body type like Tiffany’s was preferable to my own sturdier one. Where, exactly, do these ideas about needing to be thinner come from? It’s easy to say, “society!” or “our moms!”
But have you ever looked back to trace what was going on in the culture, and in your own life, when you first started disliking your body? I did. Here’s what was going on between 1985 and 1989, when I first started recording my own feelings that the body I had was somehow “wrong:”
Alba 77 “diet” shakes were everywhere.
Including in our cupboard. My mom has never been overweight, but she drank these anyway. I think I thought that’s what grown-up women did: drank diet shakes.
The rise of the supermodel.
Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, and Kathy Ireland were ubiquitous. And do not start that bullsh*t about them being “normal-sized” and “Amazons.” They may have had more flesh on them than some of the 15-year-old catwalkers do now, but you can still see their ribs, and they still had breadstick arms.
In the blockbuster movie Weird Science, two teen boys create the ideal woman.
This is her.
My older sister came back from a long summer trip heavier than she was when she left.
My mom put her on a salad-and-bread diet to lose weight before school started, and my brother used to “oink” at her if he caught her with anything but lettuce in her mouth.
I went on my first diet, using old-fashioned calorie-counting books to track what I ate.
I remember telling my mom one day that I’d only had 900 calories. She said, “Good job, Sunny!”
It’s not insane for tween girls to have a bit of body weirdness—age 9 or 10 is when average girls start putting on puberty weight and hormones really start pumping. That’s also when friends and media start to become more influential in kids’ lives.
But body worries are starting earlier and earlier, experts say. Nearly half of the 3- to 6-year-olds in a 2010 study of more than 100 girls “worried” about being fat, and about one-third wanted to change something about their appearance. Earlier studies found that many kids are aware of “dieting” by age 6 and may even have tried it. WTF.
Down With "Diet" Culture
We’ve got to do better than this, people. For our own sakes, and for all the girls who will come after us. How? We’ve got to reject diet culture—the cleanses, and the pills, and the companies that make millions by making us feel like we’re not OK as we are now. Don’t sign up, don’t give them your money, don’t make what they do so profitable.
Bodies naturally comes in different shapes and sizes, and that’s the way it should be.
We’ve got to watch what we say in front of children, our own or otherwise. If they see us poking and prodding and picking apart, of course they’re going to do the same. We’ve got to stop publicly picking apart and/or celebrating famous people for their weight gain or losses. Weight shifts are normal for human beings, and we all have them, so how is Kim Kardashian being smaller than she was when she was pregnant “news”?
Finally, we’ve got to push back against the widespread assumption that thin equals healthy and fat equals sick. Bodies naturally comes in different shapes and sizes, and that’s the way it should be.
Sunny Sea Gold is Greatist's body image columnist and the author of Food: The Good Girl's Drug—How to Stop Using Food to Control Your Feelings (Berkley Books, 2011). The views expressed herein are hers. A health journalist by trade and training and a mom of two little girls, she's also an advocate and educator focused on reducing the rates childhood obesity and eating disorders by building Body-Positive Families. Reach out to her @sunnyseagold.