When I was a child, somewhere between ten and twelve years old, I thought I could draw. I decided one evening to do a week’s worth of drawings, all illustrating what pajamas I wore that night to bed. It was done on narrow strips of paper, and I intended to use them as bookmarks. When my father came to tuck me in one night, I showed them to him. It was special to see him because he was always on call at the hospital, so the rarity of the time spent with him made him seem more exotic and special than my mother, who I saw every day. At any rate, I remember showing him the pictures and saying something like “if only I was as pretty as they are.” My father smiled at me and told me that I was one of the prettiest girls he knew. I ducked my head, because I didn’t want him to see my face. You see, I knew he was lying. As young as I was, I knew that neither of my parents thought I was pretty. Nothing about me could ever be pretty, because pretty people were never fat. And I was fat, or at least big for my age, so I wasn’t pretty.
Every day of my young life, I experienced my parents telling themselves and each other, in an infinite number of ways, that fat was bad. They both constantly struggled with their own weight, lauding every loss as a victory, bemoaning every gain as a failure, trying every diet system and nutritional change they could find. My mother brought me to Weight Watchers meetings when she couldn’t find a babysitter, and later to try and get me to agree to join. My father worked out as often as he could manage, and drank only Diet Coke in his efforts to lose (I remember there always being several of the two-liters in the fridge). And when I began to show signs of pudginess, being a sedentary child who was more interested in reading than going outside to play (although I made an admirable effort during recess, despite having very few friends who were willing to play with me), they turned their attention on me. It was not acceptable to be fat, being fat was ugly and lazy and made people not like you, not want to be your friend. I often thought my trouble making friends was because I was so fat and ugly, but I kept that to myself because if I voiced these thoughts my parents would rush to reassure me that I was not ugly, that I was their precious little girl. But their actions told me a very different story, and so I stopped saying it except in frustration and anger when they tried to force healthy food on me, or my mother gave me that look (most people who were fat children know the one I mean, the “we’re with company so I’m not going to say it out loud but stop stuffing your face you lardass” look). The most frustrating thing was that I don’t remember eating lots of bad food. I loved broccoli and celery, relished my mother’s homemade meatballs, piled on the lettuce and olives and tomatoes when we had burritos, and otherwise loved all kinds and varieties of food. As time wore on, my own stubbornness combined with my mother’s efforts to curb or influence my eating habits made me eat more to spite her, to eat more sweets at school when she couldn’t see me, and the situation worsened over time. I was so frustrated and angry and confused about all the stuff that adults told me about food and weight and health. I was fat, so I had to be unhealthy. But every checkup the only thing the doctor said was wrong was my weight. It was okay to eat lots of vegetables, but I should eat less so I could lose weight. Muscle weighs more than fat so you can lose fat but gain weight but being heavy is bad because it means you’re fat. Endless fat camps, workout regimens, and diet efforts made me more and more ashamed of my body and less and less willing to talk about it. My mother threw up her hands in despair because she couldn’t get me to eat anything, so I spent a year in high school eating canned soup, ramen and popcorn for dinner. My parents’ divorce only served to distance me further from my father’s views on weight, and since I saw him less and less often, meant I witnessed the dramatic yo-yo-ing of his weight in a way I never had before, and it alarmed me. Was this my future? Was this what I would spend my entire adult life trying to achieve? The thought terrified me, made me want to run away, and I became even more recalcitrant, less interested in talking about my weight.
Now let me make something clear. What I wrote about above was not my childhood. What I mean is, though I remember this all vividly and clearly and can give you specific examples of times when these things happened, all of it makes up a miniscule percentage of my actual time growing up. A great deal more time was spent at school, reading books, fighting with my older brothers, begging my parents to buy me stuff, obsessing over whatever popular thing my friends all liked, etc. The diet talk, weight obsession, and body image stuff was a much smaller percentage, and my parents interspersed it between affirmations of their love for me, going to school functions, spending holidays together, having my friends over, and all the other wonderful things that good, caring parents do for their children. Mostly my mother, as past blog posts have elaborated further, but the bottom line is that my parents loved me very much. Unconditionally. As an adult, I realize that now, and I cherish it. I was incredibly lucky to have such a good family growing up, who didn’t abuse me physically or emotionally, who encouraged my intellectual curiosity and creativity, who provided every advantage they could, from music lessons to special summer camps to dozens of books, whatever my little heart desired, bordering on being spoiled (yes brother, I see you rolling your eyes there).
So the question is, if I had such a wonderful childhood, filled with as much happiness as any person can reasonably expect from this life, why is it that I mostly remember this one thing, this bad thing that shaped my body image and self-esteem, that warped my thinking to the all-encompassing “fact” that Fat Is Bad? Why do I focus solely on the thing that held me back when other girls my age were experimenting with makeup and learning to flirt with boys and otherwise expressing their feminine sexuality? I can’t answer that. And I can’t tell you what my parents could have done differently, not really.
But I encourage you, each of you who is a parent, who wants to become a parent, who witnesses children in need, I encourage you to think about this. What does your own body image say to your children, past, present, or future? Does the fact that when you look in the mirror, you grimace in disgust or anger, comment on how fat your thighs look, does that weigh more heavily on your child’s mind than your daily affirmations of love for them? Do they hear you tell them that you think they’re beautiful, and know in their heart that it has to be a lie, because you can’t love them when they look like you?
I don’t have an answer. I work every day to fix the damage that my wonderful, loving parents unwillingly and unknowingly did. And I know that I’m lucky, a lot luckier than many others. But if my parents had grown up in a world that embraced their bodies no matter what, had celebrated them even if they gained a few pounds from working a desk job or having a baby, I might be a very different person today. Fat hatred and fat shaming is a societal problem, and parents alone can’t fix it. When your child looks into their mirror, what do you want them to see?