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.