Monday, June 20, 2011

Letter from a fat woman to a mother who is afraid her daughter will look like me

Dear Ma'am, walking down the street:

There are some things I know, and when I say "know" I mean I know. They burn holes in my brain. You should listen.

Every fat woman I know was wrong about what she looked like when she was younger. Every--and I mean every--larger woman such as myself whom I know has said, looking at a childhood photo, "Wow, I wasn't that big." Images from childhood, adolescence, high school, college. "That's how big I was?" "I thought I was so huge then--I was so normal-sized." "I wasn't big at all." I have lost track of the number of times I've had this conversation. I've lost track of how often I've heard women say these things: in astonishment for the first time; in unbelieving fury; with real grief; in matter-of-fact resignation. It's an ongoing rite of passage. It is downright shocking as an adult to see evidence that you used to fit in, when you were sure you didn't. Especially if you don't now.

And the time when it turns out we weren't very big at all--that's actually when we learned we were huge.

There is a particular impetus to the worry that gets attached to a growing body's perceived differences, perpetuated with common stuff like "if you don't stop eating you butt will be as wide as a barn." Because you are young, because your body is changing, you know even less than you might about how to hear a statement like that. It is chaotic, occupying a growing body, especially in a world where trusted adults may be less trustworthy in this area than anywhere else, about their own bodies and yours. Perhaps it's almost a relief to grab onto this idea that you are too big, just as a way to orient yourself.

Most fat women I know lost autonomy of their body around this time, and instead got invested in--usually completely lost in--a narrative about how big she was and needed to be smaller. In many cases the story was thrust upon us, sometimes it was outside confirmation of what we believed. Regardless, most of us were told constantly in word and deed that we were fat--too big--different--outsize.

What I have never known is if the parents who tell their child how fat they are at the time look back at those photos now and also think: "Wow, she wasn't that big." Do parents do that? Or is it too painful? Or do they not see it, even now?

Let me say it again: we weren't that big then. Sometimes we were somewhat bigger, but not unusually so. Sometimes it's clear in retrospect that we "looked" bigger--in the face, for instance--but were pretty average-sized. Very often we were just a different body type. Or taller. Or differently-proportioned. But rarely much bigger.

Most of us probably would be smaller now if we had been left alone then. Most of us were probably headed to size 14/16 land. If it would have been okay to be that size, well--we might have been able to be. Things would be different. But is size 14 actually okay?

I'm telling you how to not have children who look like me. I'm willing to use your horror at the idea to get your attention, although I refuse to believe that is the worst thing in the world. I do not believe a size 30 is worse than a size 14 is worse than a size 2. But I've heard "Wow, I wasn't that big" too many times to not crystal-ball it a little. I think I've earned the right.

The world is ready to eat your child up, and you are going to have to fight, and not by fighting your daughter. The earlier you mess with growing children's metabolisms, the earlier you screw with a girl's sense of ownership of her own body, the earlier and more harshly you interfere with your child's relationship with food, the better your chance of having a child who becomes fat.

When you see your child, or see a photo of her, what do you see? Can you really see her, not some fear of what she might be? Can you see that she's not that big? Or somewhat big? Or big--whatever she is--but can you see her? Can you see that your child might just be different from something you've decided is the norm? Can you see her instead of yourself? Are you willing to get better at recognizing and more accepting of the differences in human bodies? Are you willing to stop calling yourself fat (if you're not)? Are you willing to unhook from the lazy barrage of body-judging in the air we breathe? Are you willing to teach your child to disagree with her peers? Are you willing to side with your child? Because although it may not feel like that now, that is the battle. There isn't any middle ground. It's an illusion. I-love-you-honey-but-you-just-need-to-lose-a-little-weight is the same thing as I don't love you as you are.

Here's something else I know: very often when you hear adults talk about wanting to lose weight or to be a smaller body size, what they are really saying--so close to the surface it tears through--is that they want to be younger. I want to have the mobility and ease of being younger--I want the freedom of youth--I want to be young and coltish and less banged up. I want that old body back. And a lot of times the body people want back is the hated, "fat" body of those early photos, when we thought we were huge cows. It is corrosive to live like that, looking back. It's horribly painful to not be able to let go of the fact that you missed a chance to know you were okay. If your goal is to save your child pain, think about this.

You don't save your child from pain--including the pain the world inflicts on fat people--by making her thin. You save your child from needless pain if you love her and support her as she is, teach her to manage the changes that come to all of us as our bodies age, give her a chance to know she is okay in the present. That is what will make the difference.

This is what I know, the large fat woman walking down the street.



  1. I love this, and I have a parallel story for you.

    I've always been thin, but my mother has always been "fat". She remembers being a fat kid. She always said, when I was growing up, that she wished she'd had my slim physique.

    It wasn't til my Year 11 formal dance when she took my measurements for a dress that she realised with shock that my waist and hips were thicker than hers had been at the same age (16).

    She realised in that moment all the things you have just written. She's always been ashamed of her body. And only now that it's gone (and she is, admittedly, a heavy woman) can she recognise that no, she wasn't always a fat kid. And you're right - shaming by her father had a lot to do with this skewed perception of herself.

    It's important to teach kids healthy habits, because habits die hard. But judging yourself and hating yourself and censoring and adjusting and hiding and blaming yourself - these are all habits, too.

    It's a specific issue but it all comes down to badly-organised or thoughtless parenting. I'm so lucky for the mother I have - it sounds trite but she really did teach me to recognise and appreciate my own beauty, inside and out.

  2. Yes yes yes yes yes YES. Exactly this. I would have been a size 14-18 if I'd been given the gift of better body image. Instead, I was constantly told that I wasn't good enough, that I was too fat, in spite of the fact that I was much taller and more muscular build than my shorter, smaller, mother. I was repeatedly reminded that she was 45 kilos when she got married. Repeatedly put on fad diets and only given positive attention when kilos came off. I ended up with terrifically bad self worth as I grew taller and heavier going into adulthood, culminating in anorexic behaviours that were encouraged because as long as I was aiming to be thin, it was good in their eyes. Im still bullied about my weight, signed up to a diet magazine without my consent this year, and nothing I ever do will be enough to please them because I don't look the way they want me to.

  3. Fabulous post, so glad I eavesdropped on your twitter conversation with @Doc_Samantha!

  4. Oh gosh, I vividly remember as a pre-pubescent little girl I got a little chubby, but sadly my memory has filed this version of me under 'huge' 'enormous' 'repulsive' and the worst 'different in a bad way'thanks to comments from my family. I look at those photos now and see a pre-pubescent child' about to hit a massive growth spurt who goes from 50kg and 4ft nothing to 170cm and still 50kg in next to no time. I also see a child who felt mostly ok with herself instantly become incredibly self-conscious and fearful and believed she was a second-class citizen. I never felt ok with who I was. At 41 years old I am still struggling to feel good enough, ok etc and I am now a size 16. After reading your post I wonder, I wonder if I had been loved and accepted for who I was. I wonder if my abilties and talents had been nurtured rather than made fun of. The family joke so to speak. I wonder if I might have achieved more success in life and if I wouldn't have felt the need to 'fight' so much and I wonder if I would have had a better relationship with food and my body? I still feel like that fat chubby child in many ways.

  5. I was a fat child. I can see that now.
    I never had that idea that I wasn't forced on me by my parents or friends.
    I would ask "do I seem overweight to you?" And the answer would always be "no, you're fine" and I would keep stuffing my face.

    I started dating an asian girl (only so you get some sort of idea. Small, very thin) and when we had photos together, I was easily twice the size of her. I don't mean that I was bigger, I mean if she was able to stand next to herself, I would cover both of them.

    I stopped and looked at myself. I weighed 130kgs. I was told I wasn't overweight as a child, and I kept eating more than I should have, not playing, exercising and trying to live a healthy life.

    I struggled to buy clothes that fit me, struggled to do anything.

    One day I said "that's enough" and changed everything. I eat healthy meals, I exercise. I can go in to the majority of stores and buy clothing I want, and it fits on me. The only thing I can't do is run. Many years of being over weight have damaged my knees. I still run though. That feeling in my knees tells me where I was from.

    I was never told I was fat as a child, and I turned out fat.

  6. Awesome post. So true in my case too. Especially that Ï wasn't even that fat". I actually bring out my photos every now and then to show others.

  7. Looking back at my pictures now, I hit my adult body early. I got tall quickly, I had boobs early, I've had size 10 feet since I was about 15. I was 5'10" or 178cm at 16. I was always bigger than nearly every other girl my age in just about every way. And oh man, was I aware of it and awkward about it. The thing is, I wasn't that much bigger than the average size. However, I always felt bigger. I was always told, "You're built like your father." or "You've got the Parker arms". With the clear implication that that wasn't necessarily a good thing, but it wasn't my fault. It makes you very aware of yourself in a negative way at a time when my body was already growing and changing rapidly.
    My mother was short, 5'1" and quite slim when she was young, she never quite got over the fact that after she had me, she put weight on, forgetting that there were a number of issues contributing to her weight gain, in particular hormonal imbalances and lifestyle, neither of which she was willing to do anything about. She was also forever joking about her body and size, 'Egg on legs" etc. I think she passed her own body issues onto me and it's only in the last few years that I've been ok with my body and able to let go of a lot of these issues. It's like a huge weight has been lifted.
    Now, my daughter is 6.5 and she's already showing signs of being built along the same lines as me, she's really tall for her age and built pretty big. Same sized feet as her brother who is 18 months older. She's already comparing herself to other girls and has come out with some things that make me really sad to hear from her. I'm working really hard to make sure she knows every person is different and that we are all OK. I encourage both kids to be active, because they should enjoy being young and running amuck. I'm also attempting to get through both kids' heads that 'fat' is not a dirty word, it is just a descriptor.
    Mostly though, I'm just trying to get them to be OK with themselves, so when they do run up against the crap that everyone does, they have the foundation to not accept it.
    Had I been aware of size acceptance back when I going through puberty and even earlier, it would have been easier, I think. But I got there in the end. And I can look at my old pictures and think, "Wow they were full of shit and WOW my hair was bad!" Now, I'm ok with myself and yes, the hair is much better.

  8. I do relate to this. It's much more complex than I think you realize though.

    I think I believe in size acceptance and yet I just find it very difficult to perfectly adopt all the things. For one thing, calling myself fat. I AM fat. I have always puzzled over this. How do I not confuse my daughter about my weight, etc.? She is not blind. She sees.

    But then on the other hand, she LOVES my fat.

    You always want to make up for all the mistakes of your parents and have a do-over with your own kid but then new problems raise their head. I was harassed by my parents when I was normal sized. This is the oddest thing. I can't believe it when I think about it. I was a completely normal medium-sized kid. So I do understand so much how ridiculous it is for parents to bug the shit out of their kid for the way they look.

    But is not easy to deal with food, size and everything. It is so difficult to know exactly how to teach a child to eat healthily and live healthily in a world which is constantly trying to feed your child horrible foods--but foods she's naturally going to like so much more. What do I say? I emphasize health. (My child is completely average to slim now.) But I admit--I have talked to her about how there are foods that cause overweight.

    I think we should also practice other kinds of acceptance--like how confusing it is to be a parent and raise your kid in our crazy world.

    Finally, there are lots of good reasons to want to lose weight. And wanting to feel younger is a good reason, to me. It's OK if people want to lose weight, isn't it?

    Accepting your child as they are--this is a real issue. You seem to not have children. I am telling you that when you become a parent, you have to teach your child how to live. You CANNOT accept them as they are for the most part. For example, my kid is sometimes impulsive and this is absolutely her nature. I have to help her channel and change it.

    Teaching my child to love herself--yes, I am ALL for this. So completely for this!!! I don't have complete control over whether she will. That's another thing you learn when you have children--they aren't little bits of clay you can mold. They have temperaments. You can love them fiercely and agonizingly and unconditionally and hope they learn from that how lovable they are. But an exquisitely sensitive child may very well be hurt by the world's cruelty no matter what kind of love you heap on her head.

  9. Ozma said, "Finally, there are lots of good reasons to want to lose weight. And wanting to feel younger is a good reason, to me. It's OK if people want to lose weight, isn't it?"

    I don't know about it being OK, but it's not very healthy either physically or mentally. Physically, deliberately losing weight through dieting almost always results in a greater *increase* in weight in the long run. The best way to *gain* weight is to lose some. For over 85% of people, weight lost through dieting returns and brings more with it. Mentally, wanting to change one's appearance says more about the way one views oneself than it does about anything else. Why do you not like the way you look? How could you change how you feel about how you look? Can you consider the possibility that you look great just as you are? If not, why not? What can you work on in how you feel about yourself?

    I'm not sure what those good reasons to lose weight are that you allude to. It's not necessarily healthier to weigh less, for sure, and messing around with your metabolism by losing and then inevitably regaining weight is certainly not the road to better health. Better, I think, to work on how you think and feel than damaging your body by trying to change it.