On “Fat” and Loving Our Daughters: It Begins With Me

Last night, I came across an article on Facebook about one mom’s response to her 7 year old daughter who proclaimed, “I’m fat.” I couldn’t ignore it. She writes:

“What’s up, girl?” I ask. “I’m fat.” she responds without hesitation. I’m instantly weak. She continues, “My stomach jiggles when I run. I want to be skinny. I want my stomach to go flat down.” I am silent. I have read the books, the blogs, the research. I have aced gender studies, mass media, society and culture courses in college. I have given advice to other mothers. I run workshops and programming for middle school girls. I have traveled across the world to empower women and children in poverty. I am over qualified to handle this comment. But in reality, my heart just breaks instead. I am mush. Not my girl.

This is my nightmare. For my own little A, my sweet pea, my angel pie. I know it’s inevitable – someday she will look at herself in the mirror and wonder, Am I girly enough? Am I pretty enough? Am I skinny enough?…and ultimately, Am I good enough? And, it sucks, because it’s also not limited to girls. There was an episode of True Life on MTV (a channel I watched much too much back then, sad to say) called “I’m On a Diet,” and the person that caught my interest, particularly because he was local, was a boy, a wrestler.

Cory lives, breathes and sleeps wrestling. He was recruited by one of the top wrestling schools, which asked him to compete at a lower weight than he is used to. Cory soon began having to drop 18 -20 pounds weekly to make weight for matches. This became a huge struggle for him and he soon began to get very ill, so much so that he wound up in the hospital. He now only has to drop about 10 pounds per week in order to make weight. He is on a very strict diet consisting of only toast and water. Cory “lives and dies” by the scale, which determines whether or not he will make weight for his matches. In the end, Cory’s extreme dieting helps him become the best NCAA wrestler in the country.

Granted, this is for a sport. But, hello. Extreme. What will it be like for D when he’s in middle school gym class? What will D think about his body? About his masculinity? About whether or not he is good enough?

It’s everywhere. When the interview of the 6 year old girl who had body-image issues popped up during our morning blahblahblah show last summer, I was riveted to the screen. They asked her, and she said she knew she was fat. They even asked a “panel” of 6 year olds what they thought about her.

Dr. Rachel Bray, Taylor’s pediatrician, used the girl’s height and weight to calculate her body mass index and said Taylor’s weight is normal. “She is not at risk of being overweight and is not considered overweight at this time,” Bray said. But with young girls, perception can override reality. A 2009 University of Central Florida study found that nearly half of the 3- to 6-year-old participants said they worried about being fat. Meanwhile, the number of eating disorder hospitilzations for kids under age 12 more than doubled between 2000 and 2006, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).

The children’s panel responded with the same sentiments – “she needs to lose weight,” “she’s chubby,” etc. What precipitated her own feelings happened at a birthday party – a boy called her the “fat girl.” Seriously??? Ok. I have mixed feelings. Kids are kids, and they say simply say whatever, usually without the malice that comes with age and too-coolness. Maryann McKibben Dana points out:

“Fat” has become such a dirty word that we’ve become unwilling to use it at all. I’m not advocating calling people names, of couse, least of all our children. I’m saying it’s time to reclaim “Fat,” to use the word again and strip it of its shameful subtext.

Except here’s the thing. Our kids are growing up faster and faster. Even the girls are hitting puberty earlier. Not to say that they’re emotionally maturing faster, but they do seem to know and be aware of a lot more (certainly, a lot more than I did at that age – I feel like what 10 year olds know these days is much more than what I knew at 17. Maybe, I was really sheltered, who knows?). And there seems to be a lot more pain and hurt at such a young age – bullying, and whatnot.

Ultimately, I don’t think, as Maryann thinks, that we can claim this word, “fat.” I agree it needs to be done, but the cynic in me believes it’s a word beyond redemption. Sad, I know. But. I’m realizing something. I have for awhile, which makes it more shameful that I’m only now claiming it. There are other things that can be done, too. For instance…Owning that:

It begins with me.

Yes, I have body image issues. Pregnancy certainly didn’t help in some ways, but in other ways, it did, amazingly – because I was too tired to worry about what jiggled and what went soft. But for nearly more than a decade before the pregnancy, I struggled with eating disorders. And I still struggle with them, everything from feeling the urge to binge/purge (I haven’t been symptomatic in a number of years) to little things like thoughtlessly saying, “I’m fat,” for no reason at all. Like vomit, no pun intended, it just comes out. So, that obviously needs to stop.

But, also: To approach food in a healthier way…not simply a utilitarian way, but in a sacramental, eucharistic way. An approach that takes the preparing and enjoying of food with others as sacred. As meaningful. As having eternal significance for this temple. And an attitude that is marinated in thankfulness and drenched in goodness and love. There’s so much more to get into here including the ethics of eating, eating mindfully and conscientiously, but for these purposes it suffices to say that the intention I bring to each meal, each communion, each breaking of the bread, needs to be different. Not just me shoveling whatever is near by into my mouth.

Second, for sure, and truly a parallel: To approach words in a much more deliberate way. That is, to also be intentional about my words, and to choose silence when I feel otherwise. The language that these babies will grow up in the house will need to be so crazy strong and resilient so as to hold up to the cultural forces that seek to pressure, change, transform them into consumers and even lifeless objects. I don’t want those powers to have any influence on these babies. I only want what’s good and right and real, which I will work like a deranged dog to support and create in this world. Finally, despite the skepticism I feel constantly: To cling to hope. Hope that they will make it out ok. Even if there is struggle, hurt and pain, to believe that they will overcome it.

I don’t know if it will be good enough. In the end, all that matters is they think that they are good enough. They are God’s beloved creation, precious and a gift. And that promise, that reality is good enough to give them identity and direction, passion in life. There is so much we can do, and most of the time we won’t know what will come out of it, but as the mom said, I can still be faithful in this effort, and by doing so, to our children, too:

On this night, I have no idea if I have succeeded. I’m not sure if what I said and did had an impact, if I fixed anything, or even if I changed her mind. But I do know that I must continue to infuse myself and my children with bold confidence. I must check in, ask questions, take the time. I must build and undo. I must be open and genuine. I must but willing to dance naked in the mirror, resist the urge to see all the ways five babies have changed me, and stare straight into my reflection with love. Then together, with a twinkle in our eyes, we only see radiance shining back.

Updated: Re-read some Emerging Mummy (Sarah Bessey) posts and realized that part of the inspiration for this post came from her (the bulk of the inspiration came from Andy though). Love:

And so I will sing a song of wonder and beauty about womanhood for you to learn from my lips.