The building management recently remodeled the laundromat. The same creaky washing machines, of course. Only now, they are in a remodeled room with bright colors on the walls and a new, more hip set of lighting fixtures.
And there are televisions.
Two of them, in fact. Mounted on the walls above two banks of washing machines.
We don’t have a TV in the apartment (we watch shows on the computer, when we watch anything at all). I haven’t payed attention to daytime programming in a while.
As I was dunking the separated whites and brights into the various tubs of suds, there on the screen was a huge, high-def infomercial.
You’ve seen it. Or you have seen a million like it. It was for this gizmo, this gimmick, designed to make your abs flat as an ironing board. It was a body shred and cardio workout all in one. As it can give you the body you have aways wanted.
They said that about fifteen times – the body you have always wanted.
Now let’s be clear. I am a large man. Throughout my life, I have carried about 20 pounds of extra weight. Sometimes I am a little more or a little less toned, but the basic structure has remained unchanged.
As I round through my mid-40s, I have made my peace with this. As a younger man, I howled over it. I dieted and I ran and I struggled – really struggled – with my weight.
Now, as I age, I have made my unsteady peace with my body fat. I still run, but now I do it because I enjoy running, not for any supposed outcome around my middle. I eat pretty healthy, and I enjoy what I eat. So, on the whole, yeah. I have made peace.
All this was going through my head when I noticed my daughter.
Let me remind you that today she is six. Tomorrow she will be seven. She has not yet made her first communion in our Catholic faith. She is not, according to the Church, of the age of reason. I say all this to stress that she is young.
She was standing by the rolling laundry basket, her eyes fixed on the screen.
Let me say as well that my daughter has that natural energy and litheness that comes with youth. She eats better than me, and less. And she is constantly in motion, so there is not an ounce of excess fat on her anywhere. She is a healthy, athletic little girl.
But watching her watch that infomercial, I felt a twinge of horror.
My daughter – my princess-loving and fashion-conscious daughter – was looking at that screen. And I could tell that she was listening to the message (“Your body is fat – have the body you want”). And I watched her start to internalize the message. In just a few seconds of exposure to our beauty-myth culture, I watched her start to think about her body in a different, alien way.
In my Christian faith, we talk about God’s providence. What that means is that everything in this world – rocks, trees, the food we eat, and even our own bodies – is the result of God’s giving. Everything is blessed with given-ness. We don’t own it. We didn’t create it. We maintain it.
But our culture sends a different message – a message of ownership and mastery. We are told we are supposed to be in control of things.
So this morning I began a long conversation with my daughter. I am certain this conversation will last for at least the next dozen years, maybe longer.
We talked about the message there on the TV screen. We talked about how I have felt about my own body, and how she was feeling about hers. I talked a lot about the ways I had struggled to “fix” myself. And we talked about how it is beautiful that humans have been created with so much variety in their bodies.
Today my daughter is six. Tomorrow she will be seven.
Today we discovered that there are those in the world who want to get rich off my daughter by telling her she is not beautiful. They want her to not feel right about herself, just the way she is.
Today, we started a long conversation about why those people are wrong.