Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Vogue for kids

I read this article in Vogue at the dentist. I was not totally horrified at the story itself. I actually sympathized with aspects of it: namely, that kids can be overweight, that being "positive" about their weight does not teach them good habits, that sometimes you have to retrain them, and that society (schools, other moms, grandmas, etc) can be an obstacle. A few years back, we had to explicitly talk to my son about portions because he, like the girl in the story, did not have an automatic stop. We did not call him fat or call it a diet but we expressed a concern and dealt with it. And we continue to deal with it, to figure out how to encourage his wonderful interest in food while helping him think about food in terms of health as well as pleasure.

The author was aware of the gender politics of her story-- concerns that she might be imposing a beauty ideal rather than a health ideal, concerns about creating anxiety around food which, with girls especially, can contribute to eating disorders.

In the context of debates about obesity among kids, an honest essay about how kids get fat and what has to be done to change their habits and societal habits to fix it serves a real purpose. This article did not necessarily deal with larger issues such as how class or race figure in obesity rates, but it raised some issues to which many parents could probably relate.

Okay, fine. The problem was not the content per se, but its placement in Vogue!

Not only does the story's juxtaposition with fashion spreads featuring rail thin models send a deeply mixed message about the mandate to lose weight, but the story also participated in this double message by including photos of the girl and her mom. Thankfully, they did not subject the girl to a before/after spread. But they included two photos of her now, at her "good"weight, wearing high end clothing, looking like, well, a model. These photos function to render thin beautiful, not healthy. And they make a nine year old girl into a fashion figure, literally a role model. But they do not emphasize fitness, as the story claims to do. They do not show the girl being active, but passively lounging. They do not show her in her karate uniform, though karate was supposedly key to her weight loss and newfound fitness. The pictures include her mom, who admits in the article to her own history with eating issues, if not eating disorders. So what are these pictures of her about? What value do they serve?

Why photograph the girl or her mom her at all? Do we, as readers, need proof of her weight loss? Do we need to see the mom, to know whether she is fat or thin? Would the story mean less without pictures? I do not think so. In fact, the potentially positive information in the article is undercut by the images. The daughter, experiencing a very private pain (and the article makes clear how painful and potentially damaging this diet was) is exposed first to doctors, friends and family as an overeater, then to readers as an overeater/dieter, and again, in photos, as a "successfully thin" girl, an image to which few, including her, should have to aspire.

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