March 14, 2012

How can I protect my children?

Who’s in the Watch Tower?

We all are.

The influence of media today on our lives is unprecedented.

There is a tremendous amount of information as well as misinformation. We have never been inundated with so many harmful messages. They are sometimes delivered subtly, sometimes aggressively, but we end up over-saturated and overwhelmed. This is a global experience with tremendous impact. There is a staggering increase in eating disorders and body image issues in cultures previously free from Western influence.

Maxim photo spread altered by feminist reader.

The connection is undeniable.

As a parent living in the West, I see that our sons and daughters have a greater level of exposure to toxic messages than ever before. It is sobering, if not terrifying. As a mother, I wonder often about the future for my daughters as they grow up with these images and these ideals.  What will it mean for them? How can I protect my children? Educate? Nurture? Monitor? Make it better? When should I intervene—and when do I need to step back?  I wrestle with these questions.

I know I’m not the only parent of young children gravely concerned about raising young kids in this environment. I want to prolong my daughters’ childhood just as they deserve. I realize that we’re fortunate to see the media and advertising as a particularly grave threat. In many cultures, over-saturation by the culture is the least of the family concerns. Basic necessities such as food, clean water and day-to-day survival are far more pressing.

However, when it comes to children, every parental concern is relevant. The safety and education of our children and the investment we make in them will define the world they will inherit. We all have a different approach to parenting, influenced by the lives we have lived, the pasts and stories we possess. Based on my own history, my ear is particularly tuned in to the very real influences media seems to hold today over young women and men.

My concerns lean directly towards ‘girl’ issues. As that is the past I was a servant to and now, watching my daughters, I know I need  to be the “mama on the watch tower” watching what comes into their lives.

As a survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence as well as a long struggle with anorexia, I make every attempt to educate both my daughters and my husband about one of the most misunderstood areas of our lives: food. It starts in my kitchen. This is where I, as a mom, see the hearth of opportunity; this is where I kindle the same flames that women have lit for eons, warm fires that hold families together.

Our dialogue starts with positive affirmations. What food is. What it does. The beauty and bounty that mother earth provides.  We are fortunate to be a gardening family so from harvest to the hearth, my daughters literally have hands on many meals through the summer. They are being raised to understand that food is medicine. We are what we eat. Why do we eat what we do? Not to be thin, but to be healthy. To have energy. Stamina. Balance. Longevity. In the kitchen, we eat and live out a counter-story to the dominant cultural messages about food and the body.

Unlike in my upbringing, there are no “no” foods. We don’t use the F word (fat) or the D word (diet). We don’t talk about sizes. Ever. We talk about shapes and what the feeling is when we are full. We discuss body intuition, and the inherent wisdom of our bodies. There will come a day we discuss and celebrate the change as their bodies transform from those of girls into women. We love our bellies. We rub bellies. Rejoice in bellies! In the cooking, in the talking, in the belly-rejoicing—that’s where I educate and protect my daughters.

I hope to touch those daughters outside of our home, especially those who struggle or might not have support in their own homes. The energy and potential of empowered young women permeate far beyond what can be seen by the naked eye. We are weaving a web, we hope will extend to the far reaches of the world, welcoming more women of all ages into its strands.

Fathers and brothers have such a vital role to play in this. My husband watches, ever eager and ever learning. It can be hard for men to understand the challenge of women’s relationship to food, a challenge always to honor how vital this life-giving work in the kitchen is. He is willing to step up even if he doesn’t get it right; our fathers and brothers—our men—need to be willing to observe, make mistakes, and keep working to connect with their daughters and their daughters’ mothers.

We live in a world that rewards and punishes with food. We live in a world where too many of us fall back on talking about bodies rather than connecting with each other. We all know the saying “better to be seen and not heard.” I don’t believe in that. I spent years being seen and not heard, and on my journey I’ve had to learn to speak up—and to insist upon being heard.

I want that for my daughters; we should all want that for all our children.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta.

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