Which one of these seems like the better choice?
Option A: You have a great job, a great relationship, are happy and healthy, get to travel the world, and look adorable in hats. Also, you have really fantastic hair. You cherish all the wonderful things about your lucky, privileged existence. Oh, and you are fat. Like, fat fat.
Option B: You have those same things. But you are still fat, so you fail to see the greatness of your life, living instead in perpetual expectation that things will fall into place when you lose ten pounds. (Or a hundred pounds, because remember: you’re fat fat.)
Asking for a friend!
* * * * * * *
Kidding! I’m talking about me. And I’m not really asking, because the only reasonable option is A.
(Aside! If you are already mentally preparing a comment that defends any of the following ideas or phrases, rethink that choice: “there’s no way to be both healthy and fat,” “calories in/calories out,” or “you’d be even happier if you were less fat.” The likelihood that they will be moderated is high, because this is my blog and not a public forum. And I will not feel at all guilty about abridging your freedom of speech, because the US Constitution does not guarantee your freedom of speech on my personal website.)
The idea that thinness is the Holiest of Holies, especially for women, is a fairly pervasive one, and when I say pervasive, what I mean is “beat into our psyches from an incredibly young age, no matter the damage it does to our minds or bodies.” Close on its nasty little heels is the vicious trifecta of “being fat is a moral failing,” “if you are fat, you are not allowed to be happy,” and “everything will be great once you lose the weight.”
The third is especially insidious, because it prevents us from recognizing wonderful things we have in our lives right this very minute, or from acknowledging the many incredible things our bodies — even our fatty fat fat bodies — can do. Worse, it stops us from pursing new experiences. I’ll look for a new job when I lose 15 pounds. I’ll take that vacation when I can fit into that bikini.
(A bikini body primer, in case you’ve forgotten: just put a damn bikini on. A related tip for anyone who wants to heckle a fat person in a bikini: shut your piehole. If you can’t be a fucking grown-up, look the other way.)
These are deeply ingrained ideas that are incredibly hard to overcome. Option A very clearly describes my current life, but I have to remind myself constantly that being fat does not negate all the good things, and that I’m “allowed” to have and enjoy the fruits or my labors — whether it’s the love of a partner or getting paid well to do work I enjoy or visiting other countries — despite my size. I have to remind myself that there are people who don’t think I deserve to have those things, and I have to remind myself that those people don’t matter.
When I say constantly, I mean constantly. Every day. The more I remind myself, the easier it is to believe it, but it’s still work. I’m getting better at it, for the most part.
Then I spent the afternoon with a small child.
* * * * * * *
I don’t have a child of my own, though I do very much enjoy spending time with other people’s children and then going back to my quiet apartment where I don’t have to keep the kitchen cabinets zip-tied closed and there’s not a special trash can for poop. Children are generally cute, and are often Monty Python-ly hilarious in the unfiltered, non-sequitur things that fall out of their tiny mouths. When they’re younger, they’re easy to make laugh with things like hide-and-seek or throw-the-toddler-in-the-air, which is both adorable and personally satisfying until they vomit on you from on high. Still, it’s mostly worth it.
On a recent afternoon with a young child — old enough to be potty-trained, young enough to get it wrong sometimes — my reminding skills were strained to their breaking point; here is a largely accurate transcript of our conversations:
“It’s true, I am!”
“Even your arms and legs are fat.”
“Look how fat your leg is, next to my leg.”
“You’re very fat.”
“Well, you’re very small.”
“Why are you so fat?”
“That’s the way I am.”
“Look how fat you are.”
“How did you get so fat?”
Eventually the child left, and I went back to my poop-less apartment and wondered how someone who’s barely in elementary school could ruin my day so profoundly. Possibly also I ate a cupcake. Mostly because it was a delicious cupcake, but partly, I think, as a private way to spite this child: I am a grown-up, and that means I get to have cupcakes on demand and don’t have a bedtime and am allowed to watch as much Powerpuff Girls as I want, take that.
Not my most gracious moment, perhaps; but then, not my best day.
It was not lost on me that eating cupcakes may be correlated with fatness.
* * * * * * *
Typically, I don’t mind a “hey, you’re fat” comment from a kid. Because you know what? I am fat. That’s an accurate descriptor of me, like “curly-haired,” or “nearsighted,” or “sparklingly witty,” or “staggering genius.” It doesn’t need to be a hurtful word, although I recognize that it’s most often used as one, and I don’t mind being the person to tell a kid, “It’s true, I’m fat! Some people are fatter than others, just like some people are taller than others. Some fat people would like to be less fat, but that’s up to them. I like who I am.”
I can do that once. I can do that twice. But once I hit the fourth or fifth time, my internal narrative starts to shift.
“I like who I am.”
“Things are pretty good, but I could stand to lose a few.”
“I should just throw a shirt on over my bathing suit top while we’re sitting here.”
“Everything else in my life seems pretty good; the last thing to tackle is losing all this weight.”
“Maybe I should make that dress I was thinking of a reward for getting down a size.”
“I’ll just skip lunch today.”
“Man, I’m fat.”
Gradual, but insidious. By the end, “fat” has gone back to being a loaded, pejorative word. I’m cranky, because I haven’t eaten all day. And I don’t like who I am any more.
* * * * * * *
I’d like to think that the repeated statements and questions were born of a child’s natural curiosity about people who are different, but the cultural context in which they occurred and the tone with which they were said (“Ew.”) push me to think otherwise. “Look how fat you are,” is rarely meant as a value-neutral statement, and a kindergarden-aged child in the US has already absorbed a range of troubling messages about women, beauty, food, and fat. There are no shortage of fat jokes in book, cartoons, and movies, and no shortage of media that reinforces the importance of thinness for women.
There’s also no shortage of reinforcement in real life. I remember well what it was like to grow up with a parent who was unhappy about and concerned with her weight. I remember how she talked about her body and, by extension, mine. I remember watching her do Jane Fonda-esque calisthenics in an effort to reduce her “trouble spots.” I remember watching her eat bowls of lettuce while my father and I ate pasta, or pork chops, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
I also remember well when I lost my pork chop privileges and got the bowl of lettuce — I was eight years old or so — or when new clothes or fun excursions began being dangled as rewards for weight loss. I think (I hope) that most kids don’t have their bodies policed in so direct a way, but few are the children who don’t grow up with a mom who has issues of her own with body image, fat, and food. Who’s trying to lose ten pounds. Who has “fat pants” and “skinny pants.” Who gnaws on a carrot while everyone else at the party has a piece of cake. Who won’t wear a tank top in the dog days of summer because she doesn’t like showing her upper arms.
(If there is a part of the body and less deserving of our concern and emotional energy than the upper arm, I’ve not yet figured out which one it is.)
To be clear: none of this is specific to moms, and none of this is inherently problematic behavior. If you want to lose ten pounds, more power to you. If you love carrots, or opt to skip the piece of cake because you’re concerned about your health or sugary icing makes your teeth itch, huzzah. If the idea of flaunting your upper arms gives you the jibblies, keep your cardigan on. If you want to go for a jog, or lift some weights, or, god forbid, do some burpees because you like feeling strong or have a secret dream of competing on American Ninja Warrior, which, yes, is an actual thing, let me be the first to give you three cheers. Do what makes you happy, what makes you comfortable, what makes you healthy.
Recognize that your body is an impressive piece of work. It moves you around the world. If you’re reading this, chances are your life isn’t half bad, compared to large swathes of the global population; your body supports you in having that life. Hell: if you’re a mom, your body made a person.
If you’re a parent, your kid’s body is also an impressive piece of work. If that kid is a girl, she’s going to get hit with more and more messages telling her what’s wrong with her body, and not very many telling her what’s right. When you look in the mirror and poke at your double chin or lament how you look in skinny jeans, that’s one more message telling her what’s wrong, except now the call is coming from inside the house.
Pro tip: no one looks good in skinny jeans anyway. Except maybe Kate Middleton, who is a literal princess.
Cut yourself some slack. It’ll cut your kid some slack, and then your kid will cut me some slack, and we’ll all be happier for it. And I’ll share my cupcakes with you
* * * * * * *
If your takeaway at this point is, “Man, Michelle should really go to therapy to work through her body image issues,” don’t worry! Already on it.
If your takeaway is that I need to hear some harsh truths about my weight and it’s just as well they come from a child, you and I were probably not meant to be friends anyway.
If your takeaway is that children can be assholes, I don’t think anyone who’s been to middle school would disagree.
My takeaways are that my life is awesome and I like myself, my body is not as strong as I’d like it to be but I’m working on it, those two things can both be the case simultaneously, and my fatness is peripheral to them. It’s not always easy to believe that, so I’ll let this post be a reminder.
If those pants make your butt look big, it might actually be because your butt is kinda big. And that might be fine, and you — and your kid — should know it.