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A Month Of. . .

'Fat'? Next to Hercules' Meg, Yes--and That's the Problem


September is Baby Safety Month, but we've expanded the definition to look at all "babies," from infants to older children. Today, a father grapples with his young daughter's "weight problem."


My daughter Daniella walked into the kitchen the other morning and announced: "I'm fat."

Her mother and I turned, stunned, and looked at her. "Where, honey?" is all I could think to say.

Daniella grabbed her sides and pulled some skin. "Here, Daddy. Look. I'm fat."

My daughter is not yet 4 years old.

My wife and I both work in the media, and while we have always monitored our daughter's viewing habits, we've never taken much stock in the screaming going on about how media images corrupt children. But then we asked our daughter what made her think she was fat. Did someone at preschool say something?

She told us no, that she just felt fat next to Meg, who has a tiny waist. Meg is a cartoon and the female lead in the Disney movie "Hercules." We'd taken her to see it the week before, and she had talked about nothing else since. We had given her a small plastic Meg figurine, and she had carried it around always. What was the harm? It was Disney. It was a cartoon.

But, suddenly everything we've given our daughter took on new meaning.

Daniella has, among other toys, about a dozen Barbie dolls, from Workout Barbie to Veterinarian Barbie. We always thought it a little odd that a 3-year-old girl would be so interested in Barbies--my wife and female friends say they were 7 or 8 years old before they began giving up stuffed toys and baby dolls for Barbies. But again, we thought, they're only dolls. What could go wrong?

Of course, now we feel plenty can go wrong. In the aftermath of our daughter's "fat" complaint, I saw what feminists on the left and moralists on the right have been yelling about for years: abnormal female forms with ridiculously small waists and skinny legs that send out unreal messages to little girls. They do in fact pick up bad ideas about what women are really like and what beauty is all about.

Without really thinking it through, we as parents had surrounded our daughter with a certain media message: Thin is in. Painfully skinny is normal. The glamour of these dolls, with their clothes and makeup and long hair, dazzled our daughter. Seeing sexy Pocahontas, Esmeralda and Meg up on the big screen pounded the point home. These had become the "women" in her life, the "big girls" she wanted to be just like. They had become her reality.

We've sat her down a couple of times since that morning and tried to walk her through life with the media. We've told her these are just make-believe people. The nurse across the street, the teacher down the block--those are the real women. But she is too young to get the distinction, too young to make much sense of image versus reality. At her age, image is reality. There is no doubt about it.

My wife and I are not casual at all anymore about media for children. We look very carefully now at everything we let her watch; we scour reviews of "children's" movies to see if what Hollywood deems "suitable for general audiences" is suitable to us.

There are pairs of words that can have a tremendous impact on your life. "I do," for instance. But I never thought that among those pairs, I'd find: "I'm fat."

* Next week: How to keep your children safe in automobiles.


Help on Child Safety

For information on children's health and safety:

* American Academy of Pediatrics, P.O. Box 927, Elk Grove Village, IL 60009-0927. Internet: Brochures: Request in writing; topics include chickenpox, children and drugs, car seats, HIV / AIDS facts, baby-bottle tooth decay, allergies. Include a self-addressed, stamped, business-size envelope; write the brochure topic on the envelope and mark it "Dept. C."

* The Juvenile Products Manufacturers Assn. offers "Safe & Sound for Baby," a 16-page brochure on the selection and safe use of baby products, like cribs, car seats and strollers. Send a self-addressed, stamped, business-size envelope to JPMA Safety Brochure, 236 Route 38-West, Suite 100, Moorestown, NJ 08057. Available in English and Spanish.

* For information about car seat safety recalls, call the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Auto Safety Hotline at (800) 424-9393.

* For information on the common causes of eye injuries and eye problems among children, contact Prevent Blindness America at (800) 331-2020 or write to Prevent Blindness America, 500 E. Remington Road, Schaumburg, IL 60173.

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