Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Wild things and the cruelty of children

194 pounds

I saw Spike Jonze's film adaptation of Maurcie Sendak's beloved children's book, Where the Wild Things Are, this weekend, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Maybe because the film is primarily about something we’ve all been through—childhood and the challenges that come with it.

And the main idea—that children are “wild things” that sometimes need to be let loose inside their own emotional and intellectual universe—is one that resonates with me on many levels. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I think it’s crucial that we all let ourselves go a little crazy sometimes—whether it be how we act or what we eat. And this film—as well as Sendak's original—seems to agree with this point.


But on another level, in a much more subtle way, the film broaches the issue of childhood cruelty, especially adolescent cruelty, when it shows the friends of Max’s older sister mocking Max and eventually crushing him inside his homemade igloo, making them a different, more malevolent kind of “wild thing.” This moment happened early in the film, and it was flat out terrifying: both in the sense that I worried for Max’s safety—Would he be able to breathe? Would he get out alive?—and because I was appalled by the older kids’ lack of concern for him as he crawled out from under the snow and ice and eventually stood next to his destroyed igloo in tears. It was this moment that took me back to the ugly part of childhood—the times when it seemed that no one cared about anyone else’s feelings or well being. Ultimately when Max arrives on his island, the Wild Things of his imagination want him to create a world where there is no unhappiness, no loneliness, so that they won’t have the desire to hurt each other, and we intuitively understand that this is what Max wants, what we all want: an exile from sadness, both in childhood and in life.


This may seem like a strange post for a blog about not dieting, but from my point of view it’s directly related to the topic at hand. For, as much as I hate to admit it, I believe many of our ideas about our bodies are formed during childhood, shaped by the wild and cruel behavior we encounter as kids on a day-to-day basis.

For instance, I remember hearing people make fun of one girl for having cellulite in fifth grade. Let me repeat that—in fifth grade! I also remember being told I had thunder thighs before I was even a teenager. And I remember sharing a common understanding that if a another girl in our class would just lose some weight, she would be the prettiest one in our school. What's even more frightening is that I was on a diet from the time I was eleven until I was twenty, always trying to lose weight, to be more thin, which I equated with being more attractive. And I know nothing has changed today because two of my nieces—ages 10 and 14 and about as big as my earlobe—talk all the time about how “fat” they are and how much they need to lose weight.

Why are kids cruel? It’s hard to say. I certainly can’t imagine an adult hanging out at a party and making fun of someone’s cellulite. If that happened, we would all think that the person was insanely superficial and pretty juvenile, not to mention a weirdo.

Sometimes I think kids are cruel because they feel so vulnerable and so not in control. I mean, how would you feel if someone took away your ability to decide what you did every day? If people told you when you had to get up and go to school, when you had to go to sleep, when you had to eat, even what time to play? I think if I didn’t feel like I had some control over my day-to-day life I would probably start losing my mind, and it wouldn’t take very long for me to start lashing out at those around me. Of course, it’s also clear that kids—like the Wild Things in the movie—are mean to each other as a defense mechanism: if they hurt someone else first, they’re less likely to be hurt themselves.

Unfortunately, there’s probably nothing we can do to make our children feel more in control of their own lives—nothing short of home schooling them, which isn’t possible for most parents.

But what we can do is combat the negative lessons they learn from their peers by challenging those comments—when we hear them ourselves and when our kids repeat them back to us. We can also show them that beautiful women come in all shapes and sizes by reading magazines and watching movies and television that feature real-sized women (and appreciating those women). And most importantly—and this is big, people! it's possibly the thing I care most about on this blog—we can show them with our behavior by not giving into the temptation to constantly criticize and feel bad about our own bodies, by reveling in our curves rather than always trying to erase and hide them.

Because, I mean, honestly, isn’t it the least we can do?

In the film, Carol, the Wild Thing Max is closest to, tells Max that as king of the island he can do whatever he wants because it's his world, and I would argue the same is true for us. It's our world—we control what it is and what it becomes. And if we do, maybe we'll be more like Max, "a truly great king."

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