Saturday, April 23, 2005

Why children aren't eating

Quite a few things have happened since I last blogged in here. I'm trying to be good, but without my very own internet connection, tis a bit hard.
I'll try to get things out in the order I think of them.

Children who Don't Eat (but have food available)
I had two students pass out last week. Both times I was frantically summoned to the side of the student involved. One was okay, and one went into respiratory distress and had to be rushed to the hospital. The things they had in common? Both were girls, both were 13, and neither had eaten anything at all that day.

For those who didn't realize, I'm an eighth grade ESL teacher, so most of my students fall into the 13-15 year old range (I have a couple 16 and 18 year old students, all boys). The vast majority of my students are boys. Which means they're rowdy, often rebellious, quite smart, and very very physical people. In a word: teenagers.

The boys even meditate in silence together- they do have the occasional deep thought, which I can recognize by seeing 2 or 3 of them sitting on a red concrete bench, silently examining the leaves on the trees. I have very few boys who aren't accepted into the 8th/9th grade group as a whole when they're all shoving and sweating and scoring on the basketball court. Or walking (illegally) to the Taco Bell/Pizza Hut to share about 50 tacos between them at lunch bell . And even those not with the main group have their own little cliques. I'm used to this, so I know to look out for the boy who's alone, 'cuz he's probably in some state of crisis.

But being a girl in the 8th grade is significantly harder now, as both Ms. Wolfe (my Title I teammate) and I are coming to realize. We were once 8th grade girls ourselves, not so long ago, and it was nasty then, but worse now (I can't believe 10 years feels like yesterday!). It's hard. Not academically- the girls are in the sunny afternoon of the period before high school where the girls are just accepted to have better grades than the guys. Socially, though- 8th grade is killer, I mean crazy tough for my young ladies.

Ladies. Damas. That's what I call them when I need them to listen up, earn the grown-up status they want so much. They sit up, thrusting shoulders and a-cups higher, eyes bright and aware. They're shorter, more vicious versions of their grown mothers. They're becoming part of society. They notice things. Like the girl whose skintight 'uniform' pants show the presence of dimpled thighs or the absence of a thong. Or the one who wears a DD, or heaven help her, the AA. They see everything and are vicious about it. Because they know that she who has the juiciest morsels, the sharpest snaps, the most devastating observations, she's the one who reigns. Or gets the 'best' boyfriend (here, likely to be one who doesn't hit her or choke her like the other boys have), the opportunities to be a promoter, get easy money.

And so they don't eat.
They are killing themselves.

At a time when obesity is the health condition most concerning administration on this island nation within the USA, I've had two girls pass out from not eating within a week. They want to be the dancers in the Daddy Yankee videos. They're smart; they don't worry about facial blemishes, the acne that terrified me at that age. "Missy, eso no e' na'!", they tell me, unconcerned. "Se usa un poco de maquillaje y ya", just a little makeup and, voila. I've seen their mothers and aunts, cousins and babysitters come to work wearing perfect faces worthy of the 3 Miss Universe titleholders who were born here, so I believe it. Their waist length hair is cut and shaped, curled or straightened or even just ponytailed with the nonchalance that comes of being able to do so with ease.

But they're starving themselves, because they know that imperfections that make grown women are a lot harder to hide in the spandex, low cut, brazilian wax expectations here. They cut each other down on the basis of a little healthy hip jiggle, the slight rounded belly.

Some of the girls realize that this isn't a game with a winner. They stay to themselves in their groups. These are the ones who won't fit in the society now, but will be on top later. I hope. They're healthy and don't mind modeling themselves after women and men who are smart enough to ignore the quirks that come of being made individuals.

My question is, why? What can I do to stop this? How do I get my girls to see that videos aren't the be and end-all of their lives? To stop them from trying to undermine puberty for the sake of vanity? I can't and wouldn't want to force them to eat. And food itself is available to them. They just aren't taking.

What is wrong here, that girls would rather die than eat?

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