A Unique Resource for Treating Eating Disorders and Body Dissatisfaction
follow on Facebook
follow on LinkedIn

Cruel Days Cruel Days

by Dr. Deah on Aug.21, 2011, under Tasty Morsels: by Dr. Deah Schwartz

You know it when you see it.  It’s subtle but intense.  It is that look of terror in the eyes of girls all over the country right about now.  Not all girls; mostly middle to upper middle class girls.  And not girls who go to schools with required uniforms.

Heck, maybe this just affects all of the middle to upper middle class girls in the New York Metropolitan area who live in homes that still get The N. Y. Times delivered who don’t go to schools that require uniforms.

In fact, I may only be talking about one girl but it’s my blog so I’m going to write about her anyway.

For as long as I can remember, each year, on a Sunday, in the late summer, like swallows to Capistrano,  The N.Y. Times arrived on my doorstep with the special Style insert peeking out from in between the other sections.   This special magazine contained the mandate…our marching orders if you will, for our back to school clothing. Tweeds, knits, woolens all beckoning with that come hither promise of a new year filled with possibilities of popularity and happiness…guaranteed for anyone who showed up on the first day looking like one of the girls in the photos.  Which was only possible if you were a size 8 or under. 

Each year the ritual of thumbing through the magazine began, and with each flip of a page, self-hatred and despair billowed inside me.  I knew that it would be only a matter of days before I would be shopping for my new set of school clothes.  And because there were no contradictory messages available to soothe my plummeting self-esteem, I marched with my mom to the tune of my own internal dirge to the department stores.  We were on a quest to find something, anything that would fit and bear some semblance to whatever the girls were wearing in The Times Back to School Issue.  There were never any girls in that magazine that looked like me. Yet, I and girls like me, believed that buying owning and wearing those clothes would catapult us into a year filled with happiness and fitting in.  But here, alas, was the problem.

Fitting in.  As I tried on outfit after outfit; my hope dwindled with each battle lost against a non-compliant zipper.  It was devastating to be a size 12-14 in a size 8 world.  Occasionally I would find an outfit I thought looked good on me AND was in style. I brought it home, ceremoniously hung it in my closet, and awaited the First Day of School.

Finally the day arrived. I woke up hours before I needed to, and adorned myself in my Fall Plumage; bursting inside with the anticipation of fitting in on the First Day of School.  Unfortunately, it was inevitable in “New Yawk” that the  temperature would still be in the 90’s. By the time I finished walking to school, clad in my woolen array of Autumnal Splendor, I was already wilted and droopy.  I lamented the unfortunate transformation…I was now a far cry from the crisp, perky girl trotting off to school an hour earlier, and so with a little less bounce in my step,  I entered the building.

It was a Project Runway episode long before any reality shows existed.   Brand names and labels paraded down the halls in shoes not yet scuffed. You could smell the intoxicating aroma of new leather pocketbooks and matching belts.  The outfit that I had once felt so proud of was now a laughable shroud.  By second period I was sweating to death, fighting desperately to maintain my poise.  I know I wasn’t the only one that felt victimized by the tenet that our appearance categorized us as chic, hip, beautiful, cool…and the grand prize…envied.  But no one said anything.  It was the accepted, unquestioned and unchallenged paradigm of the K-12 world. I hated it AND bought into it with every “wrong” curve of my body.

It was only the first day of the new school year and already I was getting failing marks. No extra credit assignment would ever earn me a passing grade.  I already had an F on my report card. I was Fat. 

I am not a proponent of the, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” theory of life.  Nor am I one to look back on my life with regrets or wallow in the “should haves.” I do acknowledge, however, that those years shaped my personality in many ways, one of the most obvious being my eventual career as a therapist working in the fields of body image and eating disorders.  But as I sit here in Oakland, California thumbing through this year’s Back To School Style Section of The New York Times, I  am contemplating what I would have done differently if I knew then what I know now.

  • I would have led a “rebellion” against the unquestioned one size fits all mandate.
  • I would have gone to a P.T.A. meeting and showed them other ways to acknowledge their children/students using measures of health and success emphasizing initiative, accomplishments, and individual talents and strengths.
  • I would have organized a letter writing campaign to The New York Times Style Magazine asking them to portray size diversity in their models.
  • I would have launched an anti-bullying campaign at the school and fought against the humiliating weigh-ins if front of the entire student body.
  • I would have written a book about ways to improve body image and self-acceptance.  Oh wait, I did do that! :-)

That’s just a start.  There are many organizations that are taking on these issues today.  I urge you to get involved with one or more of them  About Face, ASDAH, Normal In the Schools, Body Positive, and The Body Positive.  Links and information about these and other organizations can be found on our website at Leftoverstogo.com

It’s a new school year and you can get straight A’s for being:

An Activist Accepting, And Adoring All Anatomical Appearances!


7 comments for this entry:
  1. Jhone

    Egads…how perfectly you summed up my every size 14 fall experience. Shockingly perfect, right down to the wool and sweat and fail.

    …and alas, what I would do to be a mere size 14 again…ahem.

  2. Meg

    NYT Style section was in my NH home. I leafed through it longingly. No one in my school dressed like that–until the new girl from NJ arrived. We thought she looked like some one on TV. And we became self conscious and newly aware of size

  3. DeAun

    It was as bad in the South for this size 26 girl who could onlybuy things at Lane Bryant (when they were still frumpy) it the”women’s” department at the department store. This was all in high school. Thank god for my friends who were often as fashionless as I was!

  4. Sheri

    even though I was a small size, I had a mother who counted cookies when she left the house to make sure I didn’t eat any while she was gone. so although I could wear the clothes in the style section I didn’t think I looked very good in them and felt as awful as everyone else. guess that’s why, like Dr. Deah, I am a therapist trying to help others to suffer less than I did! I’m still struggling with body dysmorphia because what’s implanted in your brain as a child stays with you forever!

  5. Amy Siegel

    Being a fellow New Yawker, not only did I not have the body type exemplified in those pages but we did not have the budget either. I lived in an area where money was not an issue except in my house, well, I did not think it was an issue until I went off to school wearing what I thought was appropriate attire and then always felt out of place immediately for my body, my height and our lack of funds to buy those outfits, not an auspicious start to a school year. Good for you, Dr. Deah for once again shedding light on this nightmare and illuminating would could make it easier, better for the girls of today. Thank you!

  6. Dr. Deah

    I appreciate all of the heartfelt comments. It is obvious that poor body image effects women across a wide spectrum of sizes. Imagine how different it would be if we weren’t all comparing ourselves to the same dress size? We could just choose our clothing for the love of the fabric, colors and design NOT because we are trying to look like someone else in that clothing!

  7. vesta44

    Oh gawd, I remember those wool skirt/sweater/matching knee sock sets that the girls who wore sizes 10 and under always wore to school in the fall/winter. I was taller than most of them and wore a 16/18 so never could find one of those sets in my size. My mother thought she was helping me by making me an a-line plaid wool skirt with a matching lined tank top style vest that I could wear a long-sleeved white blouse underneath. Um, yeah, mom, it’s not the same thing at all (it’s not a pleated wool skirt in a pastel color, it’s not a matching sweater, and where the hell was I going to find salmon-colored knee socks to match the main color in the plaid?). I wore that to school, and my friends thought it was cool, simply because my mother made it and no one else had anything like it (they were into the “it’s cool if no one else can have anything like what I have” style of clothing), but the girls who had the matching sets like what I wanted? Yeah, they weren’t impressed.
    Luckily, once I graduated from high school, I soon got over caring what other people thought about the clothes I wore (and learning more about sewing from working in a garment factory really helped there). I started making more of my own clothes and liking the fact that I could change things on patterns so that my clothes were as individual as I was and that NO ONE would ever have the exact same outfit I wore if I so chose.
    I just wish I had learned that lesson sooner, and that all girls could learn it from the time they learn to dress themselves.

Leave a Reply