Throwing the Tiger out with the Bathwater
June 11, 2009 § 1 Comment
“I don’t know, I’m just so, I guess… disenchanted by the whole thing,” a twenty-something young man walking the opposite direction was saying into his cell phone. As our family hurried into the Essex Junction Exposition, weighted down with an impressive assortment of snacks, hats, blankets and sunscreen, I didn’t have much time to ponder this statement. After all, we had an urgent roster of tasks to accomplish in the next 30 minutes— 1. Register, 2. Visit Bathroom, 3. Find Our Schoolmates, and 4. Get Daughter’s Hair And Face Painted in Garish, Girly Colors— in that order.
We were walking with the stream-like flow of hundreds of other families and seemingly ka-jillions of young Vermont girls into the fairgrounds for one of the most highly anticipated events of our Spring: the Girls On the Run 5K.
For those of you without girls in third grade or older, I will explain that Girls on the Run, along with its partner program for older girls Girls on Track, is something of a phenomenon. The idea, as I understand it, is to combine exercise and healthy living with self-esteem to prepare girls for the onslaught of negative emotions and body image that await them as tweens, teens, and young adults. “Education and preparing girls for a lifetime of self-respect and healthy living,” is the motto posted on the banner of the non-profit’s website, which boasts “more than 150 Girls on the Run councils across the United States and Canada.”
But wait, it gets better. On the “Our Program” page under “Vision” the final goal listed is “to assist in nothing less that a complete transformation in the way girls and women perceive themselves and their place in society.”
Okay- you know what I think? I think this is waaaaay better than watching those Charlie perfume commercials from the seventies about the sexy woman who could (with a jazzy tune in the background) “bring home the bacon… fry it up in a pan… and all the while never let you for-get-you’re-a-maan.” Remember her? Boy, that was sure a liberating message, right girls?
So us moms are all pinching ourselves as we hear this new kind of girl-power rhetoric, one that isn’t corrupted by a product to sell, a show to watch or even a doll to buy. But here is the most amazing part of all: the girls LOVE this program. Practically every girl in our daughter’s entire third grade signed up for GOTR milliseconds after the flyer went home. My own daughter has personally been waiting patiently to join since she heard about the program in Kindergarden. How often is it that we parents find something that delivers this positive of a message, that our kids feel this enthusiastic about? It’s kind of mystifying on some level; as if they were clamoring to join the United Brussel-Sprout Fan Club.
So we’re delighted, our kids are delighted- everyone’s delighted. So who was this dipstick talking into his cellphone, and who the heck was he to be disenchanted with anything? I wondered, irritated. Did anyone ever tell him HE had a big butt?
Then I saw something- or someone- that shook my confidence just a tad: Tony the Tiger.
Yep- there was good old Tony, having hardly aged a day since I last saw him. Just like the costumed characters at the amusement parks, Tony was mute and had an escort leading him through the crowds to greet children and have pictures taken. It was remarkably similar to a visitation from Santa or the Easter Bunny, except for the unsettling fact that Tony has a product to push. A product, I might add, whose second ingredient is sugar and whose fourth is high fructose corn syrup. Oh yeah- I realized- Frosted Flakes is a sponsor.
Now, I’m not going to be unrealistic. I know that every good event has its negative side. For example, was I dismayed by environmental consequences of the fact that every 5K participant got a giant white plastic bag filled with not one but TWO cheap plastic water bottles advertising sponsors? Yes, but no one ever said GOTR was intended to be earth-friendly. However, they did say it was supposed to be healthy… did anyone check, I wonder, to see if those cheap plastic water bottles are PBA-free? And, along those same lines, is there anyone left in the western world who still thinks that sugary breakfast cereals can lay any claim to health whatsoever?
So when I dug further into the freebie bag and found the sample of Frosted Flakes I can admit I was disappointed. They may be “GRRRREAT!” but they also are composed of the exactly the same nutritionally bankrupt ingredients that are ironically making Americans perhaps the first population in history to be both overfed and undernourished at the same time. Adding back in a glossary of “fortified” vitamins and minerals doesn’t change the fact that this is a cereal made of corn, sugar, and sugar made from … corn.
So how confusing is this? All spring long we as parents are obediently taking turns, bringing in appropriately “healthy” snacks for practice- cheese, apples, grapes, yogurts. We arrive at the culmination of an entire season of training to find….? A tiger lying in ambush.
I kind of feel like I’m being a bad guy here, going up against a cartoon character. Worse, I feel perilously close to missing the point of the wonderful day that we had watching our daughter complete her first-ever major run- in the company of supportive friends, siblings, and coaches- and at the side of her Dad who ran with her. She was so proud of herself afterwards she seemed to be hovering several inches above the ground. There was a lot of that going around.
Girls on the Run is an incredible, amazing idea- all the more amazing because it actually works. Weeks ago, on the day I brought snack the girls were running a “conflict resolution relay” which involved standing up and shouting words they could use to resolve problems in their lives. The phrase in total went like this: “I feel —–, when you —–, because——. I need you to——,” the idea being to fill in the blanks for the appropriate situation. (As in: “I feel bad, when you throw spit balls at my head, because it is totally gross and uncool. I need you to move to Alaska.)
When the coach yelled “GO” the gym was filled with running girls and squeaking sneakers and the wonderful, overwhelming sound of young girls confidently yelling out the language of confronting their fears, their problems, their tormentors.
“I FEEL” yelled the first girl running to the front of the line,
“WHEN YOU” yelled the girl running next,
“BECAUSE” the third girl was shouting exuberantly,
“I NEED YOU TO” another voice called out.
And so on, over and on top of one another the words rang out in the gymnasium. Who knows, I thought to myself on the sidelines, when this thought process will pop back into their consciousness- what situation lies in their future, waiting to be addressed by a young girl who wasn’t conditioned never to say “no,” who wasn’t taught to be “nice” above all, who didn’t get the message she wasn’t beautiful just the way she is? Unexpectedly, my eyes filled with tears, and my heart felt heavy and waterlogged in my chest the way it always does when I get emotional. I wiped mascara from the sides of my eyes. Then I got to pass out grapes and cheese.
So, I’ll never know what Mister Twentysomething’s problem was. Maybe it was something entirely different than what stopped me in my tracks, that is to say, the fact that Tony the Tiger belongs at the Girls on the Run 5K about as much as Joe Camel belongs at Race for the Cure.
But I’m a Mom, and Moms don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’m not going to let that unfortunate incongruity drown out the sound of dozens of girls calling out in their own independent voices for perhaps the very first time, practicing defending themselves from the myriad of pitfalls and roadblocks, pains and prejudices, life holds in store for them ahead.