“Six Year Old Girl Worries She is Fat.” As I read the article that described the unfortunate state of affairs that has six year olds already hating their bodies and feeling fat, I couldn’t help notice the irony. The article which cautions against the toxicity of the media’s endless message that girls and women must be thin is flanked with pictures of half naked women pulling tape measures around their waists; promoting the latest diet fad.
But this warning about younger fat phobic girls is nothing new to anyone who has been paying attention to eating disorders and body image trends among children over the past few decades.
In the late 1970′s I had a job at a preschool program in Marin, California. It was my first time working with kids that young and I was excited to add that age group to my repertoire. The kids were totally adorable and wide open to trying all of my theater, art, movement, and recreational activities. The lack of inhibition was so refreshing especially compared to the adolescent population I had spent the previous several years working with at my last job.
These 3-5 year old children, in retrospect, reminded me of that greeting card that was so popular a few years ago. It was something like, “Dance as if no one is looking, sing as if no one is listening…etc.” They were fearless, spontaneous and trusting. With one exception.
During the course of the “school-day” there was a free-play time. Stations were set up around the class room and the kids could choose an activity at any of the stations. Free-play was justified by the staff as age appropriate, designed to foster decision making skills, improve social interaction and leisure awareness. And it was supposed to be fun! One of the stations was a dress up corner over flowing with an extensive array of costumes, props and a few mirrors for admiring outfits.
My personal memories of dressing up as a little kid were wonderful especially in juxtaposition to my later years of torment in real life dressing rooms; those furtive embarrassing visits to Lane Bryant in order to find something that would fit. As a three-five year old, I savored the opportunities at my preschool to transform into a pirate, cowgirl, and of course the ultimate dress-up op…a princess. It WAS fun!
The first time I heard Jenny (not her real name) say, “No” to an invitation to play dress-up I didn’t pay much attention. She had been completely absorbed, in that tongue-out-of-the-mouth completely focused way that preschoolers have, with a Play-Doh(tm) machine. Squishing the red dough out in spaghetti strands, the blue dough out in long fat cylinders and squealing with delight as the green dough emerged in heart shaped noodles. She probably would have said, “No!” to pony rides in that moment, so I thought.
As the weeks passed, however, I noticed that the only station she NEVER visited was the dress-up corner even though from time to time I would see her sneaking glimpses of the other kids as they danced around with an abandon that would have put Salome to shame. After a while the other kids stopped asking her to join them in rifling through the trunks and racks of clothing, it was understood that Jenny just did not “Do Dress Up.”
If Jenny had been a noticeably “overweight” kid, I may have had some clue as to the reason behind her reluctance. But Jenny was a solid, athletic, and active child; so if it hadn’t been for our end of the year production for the parents, I never would have known the “WHY?”
We were getting ready for our extravaganza and all of the kids were putting on their hats, funny noses, boas, feathers and costumes. Jenny was standing off to the side, fussing with a witch’s dress…tugging…pulling…frowning…forehead knitted…I came up next to her with a hat for her outfit. She looked at me as she took the hat and said, “Am I fat in this dress?”
My heart sank. This had been the reason all of these months to avoid the Dress-Up corner and now it was wheedling in on her ability to enjoy the end of the year showcase! There was so much I wanted to say, starting with, “Even if the dress did make you look fat, why is that bad?” Or, “Is this what you see your mom do when she is getting dressed in front of the mirror?” Or, “Yes, you look like a big fat fabulous witch, woo hoo!” But I just looked into her five year old eyes, knowing that this was one of those teachable moments and not knowing what to say.
I turned her away from the mirror, zipped up the dress, put the hat on her head and as I began painting her face green I said, “That dress makes you look like a scary witch, it’s perfect!”
She visibly relaxed and so did I.