This morning, as we were dressing and getting ready for the day, my four-year-old looked at me and said “Mama, why are you fat?”
I told her that I just had a larger body, and went on to talk about how she had a smaller body, and we have friends who are tall and some who are short. She was satisfied with that.
However, I took a moment to pause and feel victorious — both because I did not immediately take her question as an insult, and because she is learning to view different bodies as just… different. Not good and bad, just different.
This one moment was the culmination of years and years of mental work on my part.
Growing up, I was teased all the time about my weight, and it affected me profoundly. I was almost 30 before I reached a place where I could just inhabit my body without seeing it as a problem. I decided that I didn’t want to view my own skin as an enemy. And I certainly don’t want my children growing up thinking that everyone should look like people in magazines, or that we should all just be miserable with our physical bodies because they aren’t “perfect.”
I used to think that dissatisfaction with one’s body was a problem that only large people faced. Then, I grew up, and started teaching, and met literally hundreds of women who all had the same story. They were “too big” or “too thin” or “too short” or their behind was “too jiggly.” They were “too big to wear that,” or “didn’t have enough bust to wear that,” or “shouldn’t try to wear that, as short as they are.” They should “eat a sandwich,” or “not eat that,” or “follow this diet,” or “not be so lazy,” or “not spend so much time exercising.”
They all were led to believe that they should be using the next cream, foundation, product, depilatories, elasticized undergarment, or bust-enhancing bra, so that their bodies could be pleasant for others to look at. I have friends who have struggled with eating disorders or self-harm because of the relationship they have with their bodies, and you know what? Not all of them are fat. Some of them have never even been fat. The prospect of possibly inhabiting a large body is so scary in our culture that some would literally rather die than be fat.
We all fight this fight, and we probably all want a better world for our children to have bodies in. How do we make that happen? We change the way we talk to ourselves and to our children. We don’t look in the mirror and complain. We don’t look at them and comment that they are putting on a little weight. We don’t poke their bellies and mention that they are getting chubby. We don’t praise people for weight loss because they “look so great!” We don’t talk about what we eat in the context of “making you fat.”
Body shape needs to become just one more way in which people are different. And it needs to be okay to have a body that is smaller or larger, or darker or lighter, or taller or shorter, than someone else’s.
If we want our children to be healthy, and not ashamed of their bodies, we need to separate eating healthy foods and being physically active from judgment about body size. And everyone should take care of their bodies, whether they have a small body or a large body.
My observant child also asked why my tummy was squashy. I told her it was because she and her brother stretched it out when they were growing in there. She thought for a minute and said “You are lucky to have a squashy tummy then.” And she’s right. I am very lucky.