Starving our daughters
Are parents and schools forcing girls to aspire to an unattainable physical ideal?
A mother and daughter sat in the lobby of an exclusive private school, listening to me interview the secretary about the tuckshop.

The mother chimed in: ‘If you spend so much money on your daughter's education, you would at least ensure that she is fed the equivalent in food substances. (I'm guessing nothing that isn't green, lite and kilojoule-orientated). ‘After all', she continued, 'you wouldn't want fat girls walking around'.

Before scuttling into the recesses of the principal’s office, she volunteered the information that her daughter was now 'ano' (anorexic). Whilst I tread this topic lightly, it's amazing how much of an effect a parent's words can have: 'you're looking fat/ are you sure you want to eat that chocolate'?

Please enlighten: how is a wonderful young girl meant to escape such a pressure to conform when all she is faced with are wraps, lettuce leaves and fat-free dressing on her plate? How is she meant to find self-worth when it is wrapped up in centimeters and kilograms? How is your young teenager to be groomed for the realities of life, when all she knows is her reflection, and yours?

Later the principal explained that it was school policy to provide a range of foods rather than ban anything.
'I don't believe in taking things soon as you take things away, you make an issue of it. If you allow them to make the right choices, it's a different situation. Then they(the girls) can make healthy choices.'

I asked where the pressure to conform to Barbie status came from. The principal’s response was the expected one: society and the media. 'This (pressure) is a societal problem. Wherever they go, there are mags, TV etc. It's subtle pressure from all the media,' she said.

Pressure close to home

I wondered, however, about the 'two-step flow model of communication', a theory that suggests that media has a limited role when influencing the individual. More effective than the TV screen and ad billboard is a role-model individual interpreting the information: typically mother or father for these teen girls.

Talking to a few ex-private school girls, stories tumbled from their mouths, for every girl could recount food-deprived narratives either from their own experiences, or that of friends.

One girl from Summer Strand, Port Elizabeth, told of a particular parent who would scold his daughter in public, saying that she had now eaten enough, that she should stop eating. Behind closed doors, she was told that if she put on 'any more weight', she would be disallowed the family holiday. Even if this girl was overweight, this treatment is inexcusable.

How about giving your daughter choice, telling her she's beautiful despite her extra 4kgs (not to even mention them), and maybe even try putting a little less pressure on yourselves?

Do parents put pressure on girls to be thin?

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