03.05.09

Mothers, Daughters, Food

For decades moms were told to shut up about about their daughters' weight. But Lee Aitken says in our toxic food culture, it's ok—indeed essential—to care about, and discuss, what they eat.

My friend was distraught when we met for lunch. The night before she had involuntarily, noticeably winced as her teenage daughter ordered a big slice of chocolate mousse cake. The girl was battling extra pounds—there for all to see—yet for her mother to publicly register disapproval, in front of friends, left her humiliated and furious. And now her mother was wracked with guilt because she’d broken a cardinal rule of last-century parenting.

An entire generation of mothers gritted their teeth and remained silent about the bigger bag of chips or the second cupcake or the too-tight shorts.

This rule was summed up in the phrase “fat is a feminist issue.” That could actually mean any number of things, but it became codified as a prohibition against implying, in any way, that weight matters to a girl’s worth or self-esteem. To do so was to promote oppressive, media-driven ideas about body image that would warp your daughter’s sense of self, derail her career ambitions and likely drive her to eating disorders.

So an entire generation of mothers grit their teeth and remained silent about the bigger bag of chips or the second cupcake or the too-tight shorts. (Of course, the girls absorbed extreme weight-consciousness anyway, from peers and popular culture, and developed eating disorders after all.)

Returning to the US after six years in France cured me of that view, and I hope I cured my friend, or at least gave her permission to trust her instincts.

My attitude now is that “fat is a capitalist issue.” That is, American kids are under attack from a corporate food culture so powerful and toxic that parents should be combating it as ferociously as we would pesticide contamination or the return of Polio.

It’s hard to overstate the shock of coming back to the U.S. from a country where people eat well and don’t get fat, primarily because they eat real food at real meals in reasonable amounts. Americans by contrast are assaulted at every turn by ludicrous portions and fatty, sugary processed concoctions.

Adults can learn to resist these blandishments. Children’s brains are undeveloped in the area of “executive function”—where one weighs immediate impulses against future consequences. So mothers need to push back, undeterred by the risk of being typecast as a domineering Mommy Dearest who doesn’t love her daughter for herself. I was wrong, for example, to hold my tongue about the unhealthy food at my daughter’s boarding school, for fear that it might convey a bad impression of our family dynamic.

Just last week a huge epidemiological study linked obesity to far more cancers than cigarettes, not to mention diabetes and heart disease, so what’s a mother to do? Certainly, public showdowns over dessert are not the answer. You can control the food that comes into your home, but the New York Times recently described the unintended consequences of being too zealous about that: your children might develop paralyzing food phobias or irrational cravings.

The Times story, however, ignored the forest for the trees: The hysteria those parents telegraph to their children stems from the realization that they are badly outmatched. Inevitably, kids enter the wider world where processed food, fast food, nasty additives and grotesque portion are almost always the cheapest and easiest choice.

I will never forget my ‘Lunchables Epiphany,’ another friend, mother of two girls, told me. She was standing in the supermarket reading the “nutritional content” of this latest invention of the junk food industrial complex, heavily promoted on Cartoon Network. At that moment these were a must-have among the first-graders at her daughter’s New York City magnet school. Faced with a grocery aisle meltdown, she gave in for the very reason she should have stood firm: her daughter was chubby, and she feared any lecture about nutrition and marketing might commit “a feminist tort against my daughter’s self-esteem.”

Fifteen years later, it appears mothers are still plagued by Lunchables, according to this exchange on the alittlepregnant blog: "… and a word about Lunchables. It is a fight you will not win. You may be the strongest willed person alive, but Charlie, somewhere around the age of three, will discover them somehow." "We all have to pick our battles. Sometimes you are the superior mom, sometimes you are the loser mom giving crap to the neighbor kids."

Unless, of course, moms band together to, say, declare the local school a Lunchable-free-zone, or ask Starbucks to post the calorie count for every mocha cinnamon white chocolate caramel concoction it comes up with, or urge the local restaurant to serve smaller portions at a better price—and also support government initiatives such as the New York’s ban on transfats and LA’s ordinance limiting fast food chains. It’s infuriating to think that the values of feminism were co-opted to enable the corporate food culture, and it’s time to reverse that. The movement’s other slogan, remember, was sisterhood is powerful.

Lee Aitken is an editor and writer who has worked at Time Inc. The New Yorker, Condé Nast Traveler, and The International Tribune, among others. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her daughter.