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Aack! Has comic-strip 'Cathy' shaped your body image?

Born in 1960, I came of age at a peculiar moment in the history of women and their regard for their own bodies. In 1974, the TV show "Rhoda" debuted (the main character having spun off from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"). And in 1976, the groundbreaking "Cathy" comic strip first appeared. The common denominator? Both featured women who weren't happy with their bodies and resorted to a brand of self-deprecating humor to help deal with that discomfort.

I can't help but think that the teenage me was shaped by those influences. I was chubby. But rather than start exercising or cutting back on the cake, cookies, candy and other junk that I ate like there was no tomorrow, I pretty much threw up my hands and kept on pigging out. If these older, more experienced (albeit fictional) women couldn't get a handle on their weight, how could I? And if they could learn to laugh about it, well, maybe I could, too. (Of course, there were plenty of other media influences in our faces in the 1970s; we were still dealing with Twiggy and her ultra-thin ilk.)


Cathy features a woman who isn't happy with her body. (AP Photo/Universal Press Syndicate)

It took many years of horrific experiences in bathing-suit shopping a la "Cathy" before I shook myself out of my unhealthful patterns. While I would never think of blaming "Rhoda" or "Cathy" for my lifelong weight and body-image issues, I wonder whether their misery-loves-company approach ultimately served me well.

As "Cathy" comes to the end of her comic-strip career (with the final strip appearing this coming Sunday), I've been reflecting on the character's impact on women and their weight issues. For this week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column, I interviewed both Cathy Guisewite, the strip's creator, and "Cathy" herself. I learned that the character and comic strip grew out of Guisewite's own long-term struggle with her weight and the attendant dissatisfaction with her body. Guisewite, who at 60 is now quite thin, told me her 50-pound weight gain during college was an act of rebellion against her thin parents.

I've blogged recently about how hard it is for parents to know the right things to say to an overweight child. And I've written about Katherine Schwarzenegger, whose new book is meant to help teen and tweenage girls grapple with their feelings about their bodies. The "Rhoda" and "Cathy" zeitgeist seems to be behind us, with a wave of positive-body-image advocates welling up in its wake.

Yet more young people are overweight and obese than ever.

It's got me wondering. Obviously self-loathing and even excessive self-criticism aren't good for young people, whatever their BMI. But maybe there's something about a little humorous self-deprecation that carries us through the roughest patches, when we feel so disappointed in ourselves for not being in better control of our weight. After all, laughing is better than crying, right?

What do you think?

Has "Cathy" had any effect on the way you feel about your body and your weight? Please vote in today's poll and comment, self-deprecatingly or otherwise, in the Comments section.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  | September 28, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness, Obesity, Women's Health  
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Comments

I think most people know that they're not alone in their weight issues. People should be doing more and more everyday to combat obesity. Check out www.diet-myths.com to learn how to lose some extra weight

Posted by: modolk2 | September 28, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Hi,

I am the original Cathy - my father did the cartoon (not a "strip", but a single box) in the mid-1950s to early 1960s. I looked a bit like a female Dennis the Menace, with a skirt, and was very forward thinking - a women's libber in the 50s who was 8 years old! In real life, I have had issues with weight for years - ironically after the strong character cartoon ended. But finally, I have come to terms with myself, and love this Cathy - maybe I should re-animate my cartoon self....self-assured and 60!!

Cathy Wilkinson Barash

Posted by: edibleflower | September 28, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

I actually think it did. I remember one strip ages ago where Cathy and her date (Irving?) went to the movies and she internally debated getting popcorn or a candy bar. The candy bar, she thought, would keep her feeling thin that night, but blow her up later, whereas the popcorn, in her perspective, would do the opposite.

That strip still sticks with me probably 20 years later--that's twisted. Of course in the same situation I just choose the one I want to eat (usually popcorn :) ), and then keep up my exercise routine. But it's still one of the pestering negative voices I don't need.

Posted by: rallycap | September 29, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

A better question is how low self-esteem helps shape body image. The Cathy character has self-esteem issues that go beyond weight.

Posted by: Carstonio | September 29, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Cathy's views were positive for me in that she reflected my day to day struggles with food. Most of us growing up in the 50s didn't have a clue about good nutrition; many of us just knew we didn't like our bodies and she helped me to normalize how I felt. I will miss her.

Posted by: arcticrose1 | September 29, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

CATHY is the most dull, insipid comic that exists today. Want to improve yourselves? First step - stop reading CATHY.

Posted by: pgr88 | September 29, 2010 11:54 PM | Report abuse

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