Monday, September 14, 2009

True fiction

"Turn on the TV!"

I'd often hear this, when I was growing up. TV was exotic for my parents--my father, an immigrant from Greece would regale me with stories about his first encounters with "I Love Lucy" and "All In the Family." My mother grew up poor, before having TV was considered a necessity, as it is today, right up there with Internet access and orthopedically supportive running shoes.

The idea that TV, this strange wonderful box that connected you to world events, was bad, never occurred to them. Walter Cronkite, "60 Minutes," and "This Old House" were all on TV. Need I say more?

So you might assume that the media had no affect on my eating habits, given I was a bookish child. I liked Snoopy cartoons and Mary Poppins and "Mr. Wizard's World," but buy me a book to get me through shopping (with a few pieces of cream-filled Brach's pic-a-mix) and I was far happier. I liked to enter into the world, the mind of a character.

Of course, linking TV consumption to childhood obesity does not mean a lack of TV yields a thin child. I loved to create feasts built upon books. Sara Crewe in The Little Princess, for example, receives a great hamper when she is at her most poor and desolate, confined in an attic by a cruel headmistress. She also buys sticky buns with a penny given to her, when she is mistaken for a beggar--of which she eats one, and gives to an even poorer girl. (Sara is largely beyond food, except when she is emaciated). Or in a less highfalutin note, in the TACK mystery series for kids, I came to enjoy peanut butter and banana sandwiches, because they packed that for an outing at the zoo.

I hate to say it, but although there were books that portrayed very healthy foods in a positive way, like one short story I read in grade school about a wee Eskimo girl who waits all year to get a perfect orange from a trading ship, I tended to get more excited about the peanut butter sandwiches, Christmas cookie aspects of stories. Turkish Delight in a wardrobe, anyone? (Candy had to stand in for that--I didn't eat TD until I was in my 20s, living in England).

I also hate to say that although reading was great, I also remember in these books that it was the thin girl who was the protagonist, the fat girl who was the 'friend.' Oh yes, a nice friend--but as in The Little Princess and Anne of Green Gables, the fat friend is always the less nimble friend, the less creative one, the one who is loved because she is nice, rather than brilliant and witty and athletic. Stories about fat or even mildly chunky girls were focused on their fatness, their overweight status was never merely incidental.

Perhaps that is why I tended to prefer stories about animals, who often liked to eat without issues, and whose bodies were furry or bony, never fat or thin. Templeton the rat in Charlotte's Web never had 'issues.'

As I grew to middle school age, I began to read slightly more adult fiction, likethe 19th century mystery of mistaken identity The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (which was actually the first slightly 'grow up' book I read) I also noticed that heavier people were not approved of, like Count Fosco. The heroine I identified with was brown-haired, dark-skinned, and disliked fat people. The man who threatened her liked to drink cubes of sugar dissolved in water. So much for the purity of life before Coca-Cola, eh?

I guess the take-home message is: sorry, but sugar for kids does have a special power, no matter how you try to dress up fruit (although I adore fresh fruit now) and that good books are no protection from problematic body messages. I did like Barbie, incidentally, although never identified with her shape. It's hard to feel envious of someone who can't rest on her hells.

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