Two pre-teen NYC girls think fat is disgusting, yet claim they will never become mentally ill over weight. But present behavior foretells a different ending. Both play games with their food. Chop it into small bites, inspect it minutely for foreign bodies, and try to balance fat calories. They are preoccupied with fat.
Jenna Bao, who is 11 and has thin, layered brown hair she can arrange in 13 different styles, thinks a lot about the food she eats or, more likely, doesn’t. Her friend Patricia Mincone, who is 12 and, as she says, “a dirty blond, definitely boyish,” claims not to ponder food, although she will inspect anything she eats, alert for bugs or smallish rodents.
In this way, these two are like many other preteen girls in their middle-class Queen, New York, neighborhood, or any other town in the United States today: afraid of food. Scared to give in to it. Scared that too much of it will make them something disgusting and unspeakable: fat. While other body issues buzz about their lives — how makeup can only be worn inside the house — nothing is so upsetting, so distracting (from TV, homework, whatever it was Mom just said) as potential fat.
This terror of weight — the fear that one will grow into a teen, grow breasts and hips, and not stop growing — dominates the lives of many American girls.
What’s changed these past few years is that it’s also preoccupying their little sisters. “Over the past ten years or so, the obsession with body weight and shape has become quite exaggerated in the adult population, and so you will see it affect younger and younger kids,” says David Herzog, M.D, executive director of the Harvard Eating Disorders Center and a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School. “That’s partly because of the exposure to media and magazines, but also a result of being brought up with diet foods. Twenty-five years ago, everyone drank whole milk. Now it’s got to be a diet soda or skim milk.”
Here in the Bao household, such food fanaticism — the shrinking number of allowable foods, the demand for “diet” everything — is in full swing, not only with Jenna but with her 7-year-old sister, Meagan. Says their mother, Toni, 32, divorced, and the office manager of a private medical practice, “I tried for so long to cook healthy for them. But they eat, like, two things, and I work and I’m having now to keep a lot of things just frozen. microwaved, because it’s too frustrating. This pickiness — and, look, I always watched my weight — but this just gets ridiculous.”
Not that Jenna or pal Patricia or Meagan even remotely approaches being fat. Jenna, tiny for 11, has the solid, packed-in look of a gymnast; Patricia is overtly lanky; Meagan might be described as adorably scrawny. Setting into the living room, a cozy mass of plants and mirrors and framed communion photos, Jenna cuddles into the corner of a sectional couch. Patricia sits so close they are more accurately sitting on top of each other. Meagan kneels at a square marble coffee table, picks up a crayon, and starts to talk about her breakfast. Jenna interrupts. It is she we are “interviewing … my personal body, thank you.” Keeping one hand ready to clamp over her sister’s mouth, the other repeatedly scooping hair behind an ear, she describes “a typical food day … I mean, so you can see I do, like eat.”
She begins, counting off on her fingers. “Okay, like for breakfast, I am not hungry. Even if I’m hungry but, like, really I’m not hungry, what I eat is a Nutri-Grain bar. It’s low-fat” — she has the box out and ready to show me — “and it has good calories. And I have Poland Spring water to flush the system. I eat my main food at lunch.”
From another room, her mother shouts, “Ha!”
Ignoring her, Jenna counts off what she packs for herself: a (very small) bagel with (low-fat) cream cheese. Arizonaa iced tea, and photo chips (low-cholesterol, small bag, she gives most of them away).
We do not quite make it to dinner, because the girls suddenly have a lot to say about eating or, rather, not eating, and the culture and the boys and, as Jenna says, “you know, all that stupid stuff about your waist.”
Patricia explains: “There are girls, and you see them and they are, like, almost anorexias [sic]. Like, there’s this one girl we know…” The two exchange glances to make sure they mean the same girl, “the anorexia” so emaciated she’s called “the bone.” Patricia continues, “So. She’s like, okay, a good friend, and so we did this weird thing — we reported her because she was giving away her food. Like, she’d eat three bites from a cream cheese sandwich, and you could tell she was hungry and she was just saying she wasn’t and starving herself. We told the teacher, who I guessed talked to her, even though she still does it.”
I ask why someone hungry, someone they say is not fat, would give up food.
They are primed to answer, as if they’ve just seen an Oprah segment on the subject. Very rapidly they say: “To be thin. Because of media and ads and, you know, society.”
Kelly Brownell, Ph.D, a professor of psychology at Yale University, tries to expand. “For centuries there has been pressure to look a certain way, because one’s body is a presentation of who you are to the culture. Now it’s to look contoured, perfect. Preteens see the models, they see the advertisements, and they have been around Barbie dolls since they were young. They are bombarded by highly unrealistic ideals.” So are we all, says Dr. Brownell, but the difference is that a 12-year-old “may not understand that the real body is different from the ideal body. It may seem that if you work hard enough, you can look just as you want to.”
The girls, however, are quick to deny that they could be so brainwashed. “No,” says Jenna, “the thing is you want to look good because looking thin and good is what makes you popular. That’s what boys like, and having boys like you makes you popular.”
“But what they like,” says Patricia, “is, you know, not usually what you are.”
What boys like, Jenna says with disgust, are “Pamela Anderson and the Baywatch crew.”
Adds Patricia, “Even if, like, she had it all done, right?”
Patricia sits up and, as if taking an oath, says: “We don’t believe in starving ourselves.” Jenna follows up. “We’ve seen the news shows. We know we have to eat.”
Jenna’s mother passes through and says, sounding a little sarcastic, “I’m really glad to hear that.” Mothers, naturally, take a lot of the heat for the prepubescent diet craze. “What I think,” says Toni, as the girls break for a snack (oatmeal cinnamon bars), “is that it’s the clothing industry, all this making clothes so much tinier all the time that girls are encouraged to dress seductively. They already know this is what boys like.” Opening a bag of potato chips, she says, “I’m vain — I admit it! I sometimes think, yeah, I want to lose a few pounds. But I’m an adult and I can make distinctions. Jenna can’t. She doesn’t understand that her body is still growing, that it’s developing at its own speed. She hasn’t passed through all the changes, but she doesn’t want to accept that. Whatever she says — `Oh, Mom, I know it’s so dumb and fake on TV’ — she wants to look the way they do on TV. Short skirts. Platform shoes this week and shorts, excuse me, with the ass hanging out.”
So, as “silly” and “disgusting” and “fake” as it all is, there is still the inescapable desirability of flat abdomens and tiny thighs. And there are already, at age 11, certain rules.
- In public, do not seem hungry even if you desperately are.
- Always leave something on your plate.
- Never ask for seconds. (“Once, our teacher gave everyone a cookie,” says Patricia, “and there were some left and she said, `Who wants seconds?’ and everyone was afraid to get up. No one wanted to be the hungry one. So finally some guy goes up, then everyone else went and got some.”)
- You must read and be seen reading food labels. (Jenna rejects anything beyond 350 calories — an amount she personally chose as “sounding high”; Patricia watches for cholesterol and sodium, fat and sugar.)
Patricia emerges from behind a curtain of hair to explain that she likes food but that she has problems looking down at it. Whatever is on her plate, it seems, she “must inspect every single bit. Because” — and she giggles. The giggles get worse — “because once I had a dream that a mouse came out of my hamburger, and now” — she pauses for air — “I have to take everything apart, no matter what it is, and look at every part, before I can eat it.” This means that her food, when she gets around to eating it, has been unappealingly shredded.
I ask if either one of them is, in her own view, the dreaded F word.
Jenna, her smile wide, says she likes her body and considers it skinny. Except sometimes at gymnastics, or the beach, and there was, um, the Valentine’s dance. “I don’t know how to say it. I just looked … fat.”
We go off to find the “fat” clothes inside her room — a soft, sunny dream world flush with commemorative around-the-world Barbies and fluffy stuffed animals. On a dresser top divided Jenna/Meagan there’s a crowd of perfumes, lipsticks in Arizona iced tea bottles, fake nails, and bowling trophies (team name: The Barbies). Jenna opens a drawer and finds for me the shimmery rayon shirt, then the huggy matching beige skirt she wore that night. “I just looked in the mirror and I thought, Oh my God, I am gross.”
“So tell her what you wore!” shouts Toni loudly from another room.
“I wore a sweater over it.”
And that was okay? Un-fat?
“Well, I just couldn’t look in any mirrors. I mean…” She flops down on her bed. “I mean I just like being a little underweight and I kept remembering the thing that the doctor told me — that now I’m my normal weight for my age instead of, like, two pounds under.”
Mom enters, asking, “Um, are you girls eating lunch anytime this week?”
And so we eat — grilled cheese that Jenna carefully prepares using bright yellow American cheese slices and Wonder bread, cooked very lightly, with low-fat better. It all comes out sort of raw, which was perhaps the point; now they can really stare at their plates and just pick. Jenna lifts her creation with two fingers and makes conscious little bites around its center. She flushes her body with Poland Spring, leaving a nice-sized sandwich square on her plate. Patricia, as promised, opens her sandwich and looks around inside for a very long time. Later, she eats around the crusts on one half, so that her lunch has consisted of about one ounce of American cheese and strips of white bread.
A little more relaxed now, they begin to eat freely in front of me. in fact, they each eat a bag of potato chips. And as they do, the talk slows up too, loses a bit of that rushed, fat-crisis quality. We talk about milk and eggs (are they bad?) and about MTV, which is fun but, more than fun, bad. And the worst, the most disgusting, is House of Style.
“The models?” says Jenna. “They look sick, like they wear that eye shadow both on top of their eyes and on the bottom?” Patricia adds: “They look dead.”
But models still serve as the ultimate myth girls. “Oh, God, the boys just love it! They just love the models,” says Jenna.
At risk of sounding revoltingly grown-up, I ask them who they hold up as role models. “The Spice Girls!” they say together. The Spice Girls — the Monkees, female division, circa now — inspire half an hour of conversation. The group, according to Jenna and Patricia, manage to look “never fat” but not too badly like “a bone.” Each is an individual, a personality who wears what she wants, and because of her true shining personality makes that garment seem really … great. Popular. Thin.
Both girls swear that neither will “go mental” over weight. Yet it’s easy to imagine that in one or two or four years they’ll do just that. Everything is in place: the voodoo games with food, the attempts to “justify” food by naively balancing out calories versus fat, the nitpicky process of taking only small bites that do not add up to a meal. The way that Patricia and Jenna both solemnly ask me if I think they are fat. Next, they ask whether or not I’d lie if I thought they were fat, and whether people in general lie about fat, not to insult. They ask me this three times.
Toni, still slowly fingering a potato chip, says she hopes her youngest won’t end up “so obsessed” and that all this “food craziness” will end sometime soon. Refusing a chip (I did eat all that raw cheese), I say that I doubt it. And then I say that I was nearly late because I’d had to spend time placating my daughter, 6, who did not like her pants. Reason: “They make my legs look different from my real legs and they are disgusting.” Meaning: They made her look fat.
Every girl has food in her mouth and spits up a bit as she giggles. “Well,” says Patricia, making a line of little candies she and Jenna plan to cut in half and then share, “it sounds like she’s way ahead of the game.”