A lighthearted look at news, events, culture and everyday life in New York. The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
By Nina Pajak
Like so many women who grew up in body-conscious regions of this country—the New York area, specifically—I have an admittedly complicated relationship with food, exercise, and the way I look. Mostly, I’ve come to terms with it. And by that I mean that I regularly scrutinize myself in the mirror with a mixture of resigned dismay and lukewarm satisfaction, I eat things I know will make me feel instant regret, I sit on the couch and stew in a cauldron of self-loathing when I should be working out, and I jealously eye skinnier women, wondering how they do it and whether they’ve got “an eating thing.” Then I spend some time wishing I could have a little of that and thinking about how skinny I once was in younger, more roughage-laden days. I’d say I’m a product of my environment, which maybe I am, but at the age of 31 I’m fully prepared to take responsibility for allowing these issues to fester and become inextricably woven into the fabric of the person I’ve become.
If this sounds heavy, relax. As unpleasant as these thoughts may be, I’m still a generally happy person who will never, ever stop deriving immeasurable pleasure from cheese. Really, I’m okay. I’m willing to live with this and I’m hoping at some point it pivots and helps me lose a few pounds. However, much in the same way I’d never let my daughter eat the low-calorie, synthetic food I buy for myself, I am unwilling to allow her to grow up afflicted as I am.
But what to do? Earlier this week, The New York Times reported on a policy adopted by a number of summer camps called “no body talk.” It means that kids at the camps can’t comment on other kids’ appearances, whether those comments be negative, positive, or neither. The idea—and the reality, according to kids interviewed for the piece—is that when children can’t focus on what’s on the outside they pay more attention to what’s on the inside. Looks become unimportant in this milieu, and personality and character shine. Sounds totally super nice.
Except that I’m not sold. On the one hand are the many obvious benefits to this concept. I love the idea of my daughter learning to ignore other kids’ outward appearances in favor of what sort of people they are. Frankly, it would have done me some good when I was away at camp. While many of the girls at my largely privileged, Jewish camp were already heavy into matching outfits, hairdryers and impressing boys, I was still sporting giant glasses and oversized (shiny!) Umbro shorts. Boys were not only not in my sights, they were nauseatingly terrifying. Living with kids who made me realize that I was different for not wanting to spend fifteen minutes in front of the mirror before heading out to the canteen made me feel self-conscious and nerdy, although I don’t remember anyone specifically saying something to demean me.
On the other hand, so many positive, formative experiences were had at camp, and they couldn’t have happened if we weren’t permitted to talk about our bodies. I shaved my legs for the first time, sitting on tables in the ping pong shed, surrounded by ten other barely pubescent girls. I, er, became a woman over one summer, as did lots of other girls. We could talk about it and tease each other and not feel too awkward despite it being the most awkward time of our lives. I learned to blow dry my hair, which is honestly a valuable skill and not at all damaging or evil. The pretty girls were still my friends. At least, some of them were. I liked them because they were nice and funny, not because their hair clips matched their baby tees. And they liked me because they liked me, and they didn’t really seem to care what I wore to the coed socials. And the ones I didn’t like? They were mean or boring. Were they mean and boring because they thought they looked better than me? Who knows. I’m not convinced that it matters. I didn’t like their characters, whatever the catalyst for exposing their inner ugliness was.
The fact is, that’s life. There’s something admirable in trying to create a more ideal society, but it’s not where we live. Rather than sequester my child from reality, I’d rather equip her to navigate it. She needs to know how to see a person for who she or he is without the veil of appearances having been lifted for her. And she needs to be able to feel good about her appearance no matter what, in a world where looks matter to most people. Condemning negative talk and encouraging and teaching constructive, positive conversation is a must, but I’m not sure eliminating “body talk” entirely is the solution so much as an oversimplification.
Then again, what do I know? My vision is already clouded over by demented values, self-deprecation and pizza grease. Mostly pizza grease.
Nina Pajak is a writer living with her husband, daughter and dog in Queens. Connect with Nina on Twitter!