Tuesday, April 9, 2013
I don't remember the exact context my daughter first called me "fat," but I remember how I felt. A little hurt, irritated with myself for feeling hurt, and then overwhelmed with a feeling of don't-fuck-this-up about having to talk about the word "fat" with my daughter. There's a lot of don't-fuck-this-up moments in childhood, I'm learning. Usually in response to big questions, or off-hand statements, like, "What do you mean 'God'?" "Why is that woman's skin black?" "Boys aren't supposed to wear dresses." For me, talking about body shapes is right below gender, skin color, sexuality, and class. Kids are bullied for their size/shape a lot, and it's important not to let things slide in those conversations because it's awkward.
I am not proud of how I acquitted myself that first time Charlotte called me fat. I think I stammered out something about how yes, I am fat, but it hurts other people's feelings to be called fat, so maybe don't say that to people. She was bewildered, as most 3 year olds are, that stating a fact about someone's appearance could be considered offensive. And you know, she was right. She was stating a fact about me, not making a judgement. Because at 3, she spent a lot of time processing opposites - up/down, in/out, fat/thin, big/small. And adjectives - dark, light, black, white, tall, short, big, small, thin, fat. It was totally reasonable for her to look at me and say, "Hey, you're fat." I am. I am fat. I am bigger than the average person. I am bigger than 99% of the people she knows. That makes me fat. I'm also shorter than the average person, wear glasses, and have my nose pierced. I wouldn't have been insulted if she said, "Hey, you have short hair." But I was when she said I was fat. Because, when my daughter said I was fat, she meant that I was larger than average. What I heard was: lazy, dirty, weak-willed, unattractive, slovenly, lesser.
I am fat. I'm not particularly happy about it, but I don't particularly want my daughter to hear me talk about being unhappy with it. I do my best to teach her healthy eating habits, and model them myself. Contrary to popular belief, even though I am fat, I do know how to eat properly, and I actually do eat (mostly) properly. The reasons I am fat are not relevant, and the things I am doing to not be fat are not relevant, but I feel like I have to say that. This is what happens when you are fat. People look at you and think they know how you eat, and they don't. People look at me and think they know how my daughter eats, and they don't. Example: every time I go to the doctor he tells me I should lose weight. I know I should, and I do not resent him saying that. But he then tries to give me advice on how to do that - "Cut out packaged food," he says. "Don't eat convenience food or drink soda, and maybe try to cut back on salt." I patiently reply that I don't drink soda except occasionally and then it is diet. I don't take sugar or cream in my coffee. I don't eat fast food, except maybe once a quarter on the road. I have been on a low-sodium diet since before I was pregnant with Charlotte, and I eat more servings of fruits and veggies a day than my average sized husband. I don't really drink juice, and I know what the Dirty Dozen are and belong to a CSA. This is not the first thing people think when they look at me, and I try to be patient with that.
When my daughter said a few months ago that I am fat like Cee Lo, I try to take it as the compliment she means it to be. She loves Cee Lo Green. He is, for some reason, a big hero of hers. I am also a big hero of hers. For a lot of people out there, that is scary. Fat people being heroes is scary because it might encourage people to get fat. And that is just irresponsible (sarcasm). I don't think that my daughter is going to get fat to look like me - I think that she's going to wear sequins to look like Cee Lo. She wants me to teach her to sew and knit so she can make things to wear. She looks at Cee Lo and sees a fabulous dresser who is a great singer. She looks at me and sees someone who makes things - clothes, food, craft projects, plans. That's what she wants to emulate. Sequins, big sunglasses, and lots of scarves. Singing and dancing in the kitchen to Cee Lo's Christmas Album.
I want my daughter to be happy and confident in her body. I want her to be strong and unconcerned. I would prefer she isn't fat - because I know how much it sucks to have people look at you and instantly disapprove. That is the truth of it. I know people who think fat people are automatically unhealthy, and I want her to avoid having to explain herself and justify herself just for walking around taking up more space than the average person. I ran a lot last summer - I used to skate with a roller derby league - I was a gym rat for a year and a half. I walked to and from work because I didn't have a drivers license or a car. I walk my daughter to and from school, to and from the library, to and from the playground. There are a ton of parents out there who do less - but when they look at me, they can feel relieved, because clearly they are doing better than at least one other person out there.
I understand that this is controversial. Clearly, using someone's race or gender or sexuality against them is wrong. But people can control their size, can't they? So isn't it different? I would say that it is not. Because not everybody can control their size. Whether they can or not has nothing to do with who they are as a person. To look at a fat person and assume that you know why they are fat and can therefore pass judgement on them is incorrect - and also wrong. Especially when that person is a child. If we teach our children that it is okay to look down on fat adults, and to judge them, that's setting a dangerous precedent. Just think before you speak - if you call someone fat, is there a reason that you are doing so? Are you using it as anything other than a neutral adjective for their size? Is there a reason to bring up their size at all?
I am afraid of giving my daughter an eating disorder. I know that sounds ridiculous - there's this concept that fat people can't have eating disorders. But I'm pretty sure that obsessively categorizing and keeping track of what I'm eating, it's points value or calorie value or carb value is not really all that great of a thing to model for Charlotte. Obsessing about what I can eat next and when I can eat next. I remember my mother talking all the time about how she'd feel better if she could just lose 10 pounds, if she could go down a jean size. She stopped saying the word "fat" after I clearly began to fit the word. I grew up in a skim milk world, with low-fat EVERYTHING. I'm still fat. And my mom is the same average size she's always been, but still would feel better about herself if she could lose a little weight.
There's a lot of talk out there about not saddling our daughters with our own hang-ups. Especially hang ups about our imperfections. So many of those pieces are talking about average sized women. It's hard for me to relate to that. Because the rest of the world is reflecting dissatisfaction with my body type back to my daughter. Fat people are the comic relief. Fat people are not attractive. Fat people aren't healthy. So I do the best I can. I continue to model healthy eating. I keep active when I can. I wear my bathing suit without a cover up and go swimming with Charlotte at the pool and lake. I never say, "Ugh, this makes me look huge and disgusting!" I never say that something is "fat" as negative descriptor, I keep it neutral. I explain that some people's feelings get hurt when we talk about how they look, because how people look is a personal thing. It isn't really good manners to talk about someone's size, or skin color, or body. It's totally acceptable to tell someone that they look good today! Or to compliment someone on an accomplishment. Most importantly, I remind myself to listen to what my daughter is saying. Not what my baggage is saying.