Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing

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Fourth grade. It was 1972 and I was nine years old. I went to school at Alice Birney Elementary School, in Charleston Heights, SC. It was the year my education became an experiment. It was the year I discovered boys (and girls.) It was the year I discovered junk food. It was the year that I discovered Teen Beat, Tiger Beat, and Seventeen Magazine. It was the year everything changed.

In fourth grade, my little southern school adopted the educational practice known as Individually Guided Education (IGE for short.) There were no letter grades, instead we received pieces of paper marked "All of the time", "Most of the time", "Some of the time", and "Seldom". My class was made up of a group of children in fourth grade, fifth grade, and sixth grade with the idea that students in all of those grade levels could work at the level that best suited them. I thought it was brilliant and while I was still occasionally bored and drove my Spelling teacher insane because she had nothing to offer me above the sixth grade level, what I liked most was that my friends were the more mature kids and not the same old kids I'd been in class with for years.

My best friends became the sixth graders and they opened my eyes to a whole new world.

Instead of spending my after school hours and weekends building forts in the woods or playing street hockey with the younger neighborhood kids, I was just hanging out with the older girls.

We read teen magazines. We talked about boys (and I quietly thought about girls.) I was introduced to the joys of junk food.

We would pool our money, head off on our bikes to the Red & White in front of our subdivision and buy bags of Doritos and bean dip. This is when my affinity for cream horns began - we ate them by the dozen, literally.

I never thought about going on a diet. I didn't worry that I was too fat. But my friends the older girls, many of whom had older sisters (I was the oldest child in my family), did think about diet. They would devour Doritos and cream horns and sodas and then talk about how fat they felt. I would nod my head and laugh or moan but I didn't really get it. It didn't make sense. They were all bigger than I was but they weren't fat, they were just older and thus bigger. Whatever. I went with it because that's what they did.

When Suzanne told me last week about being interviewed in the fourth grade about fat, I wondered what I would have said had I been asked those questions. Would I have played the part and said yes I was dieting? Or talk badly about my body? Or would I have just shrugged and said that some girls I knew were on a diet but I didn't get it? I don't honestly know what I'd have said, but I do know I wasn't on a diet and I didn't feel fat.

Flash forward to 1992 and my oldest daughter was in the fourth grade. She wasn't fat but she thought about fat, as did all of the girls she was friends with. She wasn't on a diet but she knew what dieting was because that's one of the things she and her friends talked about. Not a lot, but it was definitely a topic for discussion. It didn't matter how often I told her and her friends that they weren't fat, their legs were fine, their butts were not too big and they did not need to lose weight - they never really believed me. I was just a mom. A mom they liked but still, just a mom. They preferred to believe the messages they sent to each other and the messages sent to them by boys and by the media that surrounded them.

Flash forward again, this time to 2005, another daughter, another fourth grader. The diet and weight loss and negative body image discussions were constant. RJ was not fat but she was big. She's always been big. She was tall. She was muscular. She swam hours and hours every week on a synchronized swimming team. And yes, she loved food but she did not need to diet or lose weight.

Fourth graders should not be focused on weight loss. On diet. On food. On how attractive they are to their peers. They just shouldn't be. But they are.

The Wall Street Journal revisited the topic addressed way back in 1986 when Suzanne was in fourth grade. The author of the original article talked to some of the women he had interviewed in 1986 and their responses, more than 20 years later are both fascinating and frightening.

Fourth-Graders Who Spoke of Dieting say Girls Now Have it Worse

In fourth grade, Christy Gouletas told me thin models "are sexy, so boys like them." Today, she is a middle-school teacher in Wheeling, Ill. On lunch duty each day, she notices 10 girls who eat nothing. "We make them take a few bites," she says, "but they fight me on it. They say, 'I'm not hungry,' and I tell them, 'You've been here since 8 a.m. Of course you're hungry!' "

She's not exaggerating. I've been in lunchrooms with these girls and this is exactly what happens. Boys, on the other hand, are having an awfully good time at lunch - eating almost everything that is within arm reach.

The question I always ask myself is why... why are my girls so focused on weight loss and fat? Why are Girls so... thinks part of the blame should land on parents.

But I also feel, in many ways, a reason for a child's self-conscious, awkwardom, is influenced by how parents think of their own image. I'd imagine mommies also face insecurities about their own bodies, but maybe this is one of the many things one shouldn't pass down onto their children.

I can't disagree, exactly. I've heard a lot of moms (and dads) sending negative body image messages to their kids. But, that's not always what happens. Look at my own daughters. I've never been on a diet. I haven't ever talked about my big butt or heavy thighs. I'm not sending these signals to my girls, but there they were - in 2nd grade and fourth grade and as grown women, worrying about their bodies.

From the WSJ blog, When the pressure to be thin starts in elementary school, it's only getting worse.

What’s more, researchers have seen a marked increase in children’s concerns about thinness in just the last few years. Between 2000 and 2006, the percentage of girls who believe that they must be thin to be popular rose to 60% from 48%, according to Harris Interactive surveys of 1,059 girls conducted for the advocacy group Girls Inc.

All of this early fixation on size and dieting can result in eating disorders but ED Bits makes a really interesting point about what happens when it doesn't lead to eating disorders.

And these preoccupations can ultimately lead to eating disorders. None of the women in the study, it should be said, developed an eating disorder, although most suffered from body image woes throughout their lives. And maybe that's the really sad part: how many lives have been blunted by these preoccupation of ours, even if it never reaches the point of formal diagnosis.

Even if the dieting and body image angst girls exhibit doesn't turn into full-fledged eating disorders, how does it change them? How does it affect their lives? Girls are thinking about this, worrying over it, expending energy dealing with this. Who would they be and what would they achieve without this anxiety, pain, and fear?

Flamingo House Happenings - mom of four girls who have all survived the fourth grade. Thank goodness.

Editor's note: Alice Birney Elementary School became Birney Middle School shortly after my fourth grade year. Charleston Heights, SC became a part of North Charleston, SC shortly afterwards as well. See, fourth grade really was when everything changed for me.


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