Better in the Garbage than on your Hips
Our Gen X parents’ Instagram habits are fueling a new wave of body anxiety in teenage girls, reports DP's new High School Correspondent.
My friends and I are talking about our mothers. “My mom always calls herself fat,” says Mads, who, like me, is a high school senior at a private school in New York City. “When I was maybe six or seven, she was getting ready for dinner with some friends and she was staring at herself in the mirror and I heard her whisper, ‘I look big, I can’t wear this.’ I was really confused. Yes, I’m biased because she’s my mom, so of course I think she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, but regardless she’s definitely not fat. She might be a size 8, which I feel like is pretty average for women anyway.”
We are quiet for a moment. I think we all shared the same thought. No amount of you-go-girl body positivity can shake the feeling that if your mother thinks she’s fat…what is she secretly thinking about her daughter?
Mothers who have been critical of their daughters’ bodies is not exactly new; there is a rich history of mothers giving the side-eye to their children’s bodies, and demanding, or at least voicing a desire, for improvement. The expression “Better in the Garbage Than On Your Hips” has long been a favorite maternal piece of advice. And there are privileged families where eating disorders were seemingly passed on through the maternal line. There is one family doyenne whose anorexic tendencies were ‘inherited’ by her grand-daughters, one of whom, an extraordinary philanthropist, is rarely seen eating by day. The line among her friends is, “She’ll only agree to meet you for lunch if she’s guaranteed to get a $1,000 check from you.”
But in the last few years, the problem has gotten exponentially worse, particularly among the families I know, where thinness has always been a form of social currency. There are two reasons, both equally unappetizing.
First social media has made it possible for faddish, unsustainable diets—Paleo, Keto, Nutrisystem, for example—to spread like Covid. You—and your parents—can find like-minded people who will sing the praises of just about anything. And the diets will be sold to you with the promise of ‘health and wellness,’ not simply (and more honestly), “let’s get you into that size 2 prom dress.”
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When I was about nine years old, my own parents decided to go on the Paleo diet, one that encourages the consumption of strictly lean proteins and vegetables and completely removes dairy, grains, and eggs. The diet became popular among Gen X in the early 2010s and has since died down, but when it was at its peak most of the information about it was spread through Facebook. As a child I didn’t understand why my mother wouldn’t eat any bread, or why we couldn’t have any food that sounded remotely appealing to a six-year-old for dinner. But looking back on it I can tell both my mother and father were doing what they were convinced was a “healthy” lifestyle change.
My parents’ relationship with food tended to evolve as new diets came and went, but my sister and I both developed similar unhealthy relationships with food. We began binge-eating snacks and desserts at friends’ houses that we couldn’t get at home, and ended up playing sports that involved high-carb diets so we could have an excuse to eat absurd amounts of pizza and pasta for dinner.
But second, and perhaps more insidiously, social media has blurred the line between fiction and reality. One of the biggest factors that can push an already competitive parent over the edge is the way online images are manipulated. While it’s usually pretty easy for younger people to spot when a photo has been altered in any way, it’s often harder for older generations who didn’t grow up with software like Facetune or Photoshop to make the distinction.
Parents I know tend to think that photo manipulation is costly and complicated; they haven’t quite gotten the memo that everyone, regardless of age and skill set, can do it. I have caught my mother and her friends staring admiringly at photos of women like Kim Kardashian and Emily Ratajkowski, both notorious for their use of Photoshop. Celebrity use of edited photos is not a new phenomenon. Even in the late ‘90s and early 2000s before social media was as sophisticated as it is today, magazines like Allure and Vogue had edited photos of women all throughout their content. One key difference? Now it’s inescapable and, as editing software has gotten better, often impossible to tell real from fake.
The ramifications of online diet culture and Photoshopped perfection manifest themselves in real life, not just on the Internet. So many of my friends’ mothers, who are very loving people, nevertheless constantly compare their own kids to their kids’ friends. Comments like “Olivia looks quite thin, maybe you could learn a thing or two from her?” or alternatively, “Ally looks really skinny, is she anorexic or something?” are just two comments I’ve heard from some of the mothers in my life. Two very different comments, sure, but somehow, they hold the same sentiment: Your body is just wrong, and there will always be something that can be improved.
The diet-and-Insta conversations begin at home—and quickly creep into school, straining relationships in unanticipated ways. The in-school competitions can be brutal. I remember one experience my sophomore year, I was sat in between two girls who claimed to be “best friends.” They spent the morning going through each other’s Instagram and telling each other, “This outfit would look so good if you were just a little skinnier” and “I feel like this angle isn’t your best, I’m seeing a lot of your stomach here.” These kinds of conversations are happening more and more frequently among girls, especially with social media giving girls access to older photos of themselves to use as motivation to be skinnier. That chubbier—or skinnier—photo of yourself from two years ago can live on the Internet forever.
Our families are preaching a healthy relationship with our bodies, but with all their love and devotion to us, that’s not alway the message we’re getting. “It’s honestly really sad,” Mads remarks. “I feel like most girls I know are either diagnosed with some sort of eating disorder or have habits that mimic extreme dieting. There’s this whole community on Twitter of people who just compete for who can fast the longest, or who has the widest thigh gap, a lot of weird stuff like that. It’s insane to me that all that’s going on and there are girls who are as young as middle schoolers seeing it, and may be participating in it.”
Private schools across New York City are already making attempts to battle diet culture and Internet fakery, with some offering school guidance counselors who specialize in physical health and wellness, and others bringing in outside experts from a variety of backgrounds such as women in eating disorder recovery, dietitians, and more, to promote the building of healthy habits from a young age. (The NYU Child Study Center and the Child Mind Institute both offer in-school programs tailored for middle and high school students.)
And yet, the competitions in school for ‘who can be the best by being the least’ continue every day. Girls will tell their friends, “I haven’t eaten anything today except coffee” or “I only need to eat one meal a day”, which creates an interesting dynamic between friends, simmering unspoken competition over who has the most self-discipline—discipline that might be better used in a dozen different ways. When I hear friends boasting about how little they ate and how many likes the latest selfie got on Insta, I often wonder: Do their mothers know? And do they unconsciously cheer?