You know it when you see it. It’s subtle but intense. It is that look of terror in the eyes of girls all over the country right about now. Not all girls; mostly middle- to upper-middle-class girls. And not girls who go to schools with required uniforms.
Heck, maybe this just affects all of the middle- to upper-middle-class girls in the New York metropolitan area who live in homes that still get The New York Times delivered who don’t go to schools that require uniforms.
In fact, I may only be talking about one girl, but it’s my blog so I’m going to write about her anyway.
For as long as I can remember, each year, on a Sunday, in the late summer, like swallows to Capistrano, The New York Times arrived on my doorstep with the special Style insert peeking out from in between the other sections. This special magazine contained the mandate – our marching orders, if you will, for our back to school clothing. Tweeds, knits, woolens all beckoning with that come hither promise of a new year filled with possibilities of popularity and happiness guaranteed for anyone who showed up on the first day looking like one of the girls in the photos. Which was only possible if you were a size 8 or under.
Each year, the ritual of thumbing through the magazine began, and with each flip of a page, self-hatred and despair billowed inside me. I knew that it would be only a matter of days before I would be shopping for my new set of school clothes. And because there were no contradictory messages available to soothe my plummeting self-esteem, I marched with my mom to the tune of my own internal dirge to the department stores. We were on a quest to find something, anything that would fit and bear some semblance to whatever the girls were wearing in The Times Back-to-School Issue. There were never any girls in that magazine that looked like me. Yet, I and girls like me, believed that buying owning and wearing those clothes would catapult us into a year filled with happiness and fitting in. But here, alas, was the problem.
Fitting in. As I tried on outfit after outfit, my hope dwindled with each battle lost against a non-compliant zipper. It was devastating to be a size 12-14 in a size 8 world. Occasionally, I would find an outfit I thought looked good on me AND was in style. I brought it home, ceremoniously hung it in my closet, and awaited the First Day of School.
Finally the day arrived. I woke up hours before I needed to, and adorned myself in my Fall Plumage; bursting inside with the anticipation of fitting in on the First Day of School. Unfortunately, it was inevitable in “New Yawk” that the temperature would still be in the 90s. By the time I finished walking to school, clad in my woolen array of Autumnal Splendor, I was already wilted and droopy. I lamented the unfortunate transformation; I was now a far cry from the crisp, perky girl trotting off to school an hour earlier, and so with a little less bounce in my step, I entered the building.
It was a Project Runway episode long before any reality shows existed. Brand names and labels paraded down the halls in shoes not yet scuffed. You could smell the intoxicating aroma of new leather pocketbooks and matching belts. The outfit that I had once felt so proud of was now a laughable shroud. By second period, I was sweating to death, fighting desperately to maintain my poise. I know I wasn’t the only one that felt victimized by the tenet that our appearance categorized us as chic, hip, beautiful, cool, and the grand prize, envied. But no one said anything. It was the accepted, unquestioned and unchallenged paradigm of the K-12 world. I hated it AND bought into it with every “wrong” curve of my body.
It was only the first day of the new school year and already I was getting failing marks. No extra credit assignment would ever earn me a passing grade. I already had an F on my report card. I was Fat.
I am not a proponent of the “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” theory of life. Nor am I one to look back on my life with regrets or wallow in the “should haves.” I do acknowledge, however, that those years shaped my personality in many ways, one of the most obvious being my eventual career as a therapist working in the fields of body image and eating disorders. But as I sit here in Oakland, California thumbing through this year’s Back-To-School Style Section of The New York Times, I am contemplating what I would have done differently if I knew then what I know now.
- I would have led a “rebellion” against the unquestioned one-size-fits-all mandate.
- I would have gone to a P.T.A. meeting and showed them other ways to acknowledge their children/students using measures of health and success emphasizing initiative, accomplishments, and individual talents and strengths.
- I would have organized a letter writing campaign to The New York Times Style Magazine asking them to portray size diversity in their models.
- I would have launched an anti-bullying campaign at the school and fought against the humiliating weigh-ins if front of the entire student body.
- I would have written a book about ways to improve body image and self-acceptance. Oh wait, I did do that!
That’s just a start. There are many organizations that are taking on these issues today. I urge you to get involved with one or more of them About Face, ASDAH, Normal In the Schools, Body Positive, and The Body Positive. Links and information about these and other organizations can be found on my website at drdeah.com
It’s a new school year and you can get straight As for being:
An Activist, Accepting, And Adoring All Anatomical Appearances!