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Daughter, Too, Adopts The Slimness Hang-Up

Sun., March 5, 1995, midnight

There is no appropriate spot in the baby book for this particular milestone, and yet here it is.

At the ripe age of 6 years and 3 months, our daughter for the first time expressed a desire to be thin.

It happened the other night at dinner. My husband, observing the food left on her plate, remarked that she should eat more so she wouldn’t be so skinny.

She looked at him in wonderment.

“But I like to be skinny,” she said. “The skinnier I am, the more I look like a princess.”

In the resulting silence, I felt the weight of a thousand studies on girls’ vulnerability to eating disorders settle on my shoulders. Is this how it begins?

“There are fat princesses, too,” my husband told her.

Challenged to name one, however, the best he could do was Britain’s former Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, whom I regard as big-boned at most. And being separated from her prince husband, she is not even current royalty.

Our daughter was unimpressed.

And so before our gap-toothed little girl has mastered her lowercase letters, she has absorbed the lifelong obsession of womankind.

I see the future, and it stinks.

A survey of 3,100 South Carolina fifth-through-eighth-graders found that 40 percent thought they were too fat or wanted to lose weight, and one-third of them had dieted. Fewer than 20 percent were in fact overweight.

I find myself wondering where I went wrong.

I have never expressed a desire to lose weight or spoken disparagingly of my own body. I have remarked to her on the attractiveness of several overweight friends. When I deny her candy, it is on the basis of harm to teeth, not danger of weight gain.

But it is all for naught. I am fighting a losing battle with the culture, generally, and Barbie and her skinny ilk, specifically.

In my daughter’s case, the most serious problem is with Barbie-clones like Cinderella and Princess Jasmine dolls. They are the princesses she emulates, and their waists are barely bigger than their necks. Her path is clear to her.

And so I am left with the futility of my little campaign and its fundamental dishonesty.

I have tried to impress upon her that there is nothing inherently good about women’s being thin. Yet I know full well that in this society, there is.

The overwhelming, inescapable message is that thin is beautiful. The world smiles at a thin woman. A not-so-thin woman - well, the world does something else.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that overweight women were less likely to be married, completed fewer years of school and had lower household incomes and higher poverty rates than women of similar backgrounds who were not overweight.

And that doesn’t count the taunting, cruelty and friendlessness.

I lie to my daughter about the importance of thinness, I tell myself, for her own good, to keep her from heading in obsessive directions.

But why is this my battle? She is responding to real cues from the world around her. If our culture were to stop promoting thinness, parents wouldn’t have to work so hard to do otherwise.

What favor have we done our daughters if we persuade them that it’s OK not to be thin, when to the rest of society, it’s not OK at all?

But until the dawn of that rational utopia in which we would care no more about a woman’s girth than about whether she had black hair or brown, I can do no more than assure my daughter that a princess can be any size she pleases.

And while I am at it, I may mention that so can a mathematician.

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