So Your Kid Called Me Fat
Where Do We Go From Here
Come on now. You know this story.
You've either been the parent, or the kid, or the fat person, or worse yet, the unwitting witness to the tragedy, but you definitely know this story.
Fat person just out living life.
Kid loudly states observation about fat person. (Did I mention loudly? So loudly that folks in the neighboring state probably heard every syllable).
Fat person hears the loudly-proclaimed observation. Looks crushed (or ashamed, or red-faced, or angry, or all of those things).
Parent of kid looks like they might actually die.
Kid looks bewildered at the sudden ocean of shame that has engulfed every adult within earshot.
Parent loses shit on kid.
Here, let's add a little imagery with a real-life example:
Fresh off the treadmill after dragging nearly 250 pounds on a 4-mile torture sesh, I walked into the family locker room to splash cold water on my face. A little girl and her mama sat on the bench near the lockers, chatting about butterflies and getting ready to hit the pool.
As I walked past them, the little girl's voice trailed off and her gaze followed me as I hovered over the sink. As I walked toward the towel dispenser, I realized that the girl was still staring. I could feel her tiny little eyeballs. Totally mute. Just staring.
For a moment, I was hopeful that maybe she just loved my leggings or thought I had great hair, but deep down, I knew better.
I knew what was coming next. The second I returned her gaze, she stared straight at me and said, "Your tummy is so fat... why are you so fat? My mommy isn't fat like you at all."
I watched the poor mom just wither, instantly shushing the little girl, and angrily saying, "Sweetheart, we don't SAY those things to people. That's not nice."
But you could just see it on the girl's face.. she legitimately did not understand why.
At the time, I wasn't exactly occupying the space my body takes up with as much comfort as I do today, so I kinda felt like I was going to throw up. It is one thing to be able to put up some shame resilience when you are dealing with other adults, but man, kids are just a whole other level, because kids TELL THE TRUTH. That's just what they do. And so I was standing, face to face, with the truth about my body - and it looked like an unrelenting six year-old in pigtails wearing a Dora the Explorer swimsuit, observing what was obvious to anyone with eyes. Her mommy was not, in fact, fat like me at all.
Nothing easy about that.
So I looked at the mom, mouthed "it's okay", and exited as quickly as my fat tummy would allow.
As I was leaving, I heard the mom just lay into her, appalled that her child could say something so insensitive (just wait mama... she'll turn 13 and BLOW YOUR MIND with her ability to be insensitive), and the last thing I heard her say was, "Sweetheart, you're only allowed to COMPLIMENT people.. you can tell girls they look thin or pretty, but you never, ever tell them they look fat."
As the door closed behind me, I heard that six year-old tower of truth say, "But mommy, that doesn't make any sense."
And on a different day - one where I believed that being fat had nothing to do with being worthy of love and belonging - I might have turned on my heels, walked back into that locker room, and high-fived that little girl, saying:
Preach, little one. Just preach.
Wait, what? How could I possibly advocate for the resistance this little girl expressed? Don't I know that if you have nothing nice to say, then you ought to say nothing at all? Am I not aware that it isn't nice to call people fat?
Ya, I know all of those things. I am deeply familiar with the pain inflicted by the word "fat".
So, then what's with the altar call? Why should this Dora the Explorer-clad, fat-shaming terror be asked to preach?
Because she's telling the damn truth. It doesn't make any sense.
What I think most parents miss in this moment is that their child is not being mean. They are not even being impolite. They are following a formula that has likely been demonstrated for them thousands of times.
It goes something like this: observation, critique, unsolicited verbal feedback.
Don't see it? Let me show you.
While walking down the street and passing an old friend: "Ann! Oh my god! You look incredible. How much weight have you lost? 60 pounds? That's amazing. How did you do it?"
Sitting in the car on the way home from church: "Jesus, did you see Mary? I heard that the divorce has been really hard on her, but that isn't really a reason to let yourself go like that. She definitely gained back everything she lost two years ago."
Staring in the mirror, getting ready to go out for the evening: "Ugh, I just can't wear this dress. It shows every single roll and lump. It's disgusting."
See? Observation, critique, unsolicited verbal feedback. Over and over and over.
That little girl was following the formula, trained to observe bodies and talk about them. And she didn't know that fat deviated from the formula. And who can blame her really? Not this fat woman. Not even one little bit.
So, what then? Am I condoning children just wandering the street, calling out fat people?
No. That's not it at all.
Am I suggesting the compliments are to blame? Maybe too much praise for old Ann who dropped 60 pounds?
Not that either.
So, then how do we talk about bodies? If not to criticize, nor to compliment, then how?
So glad you asked.
This is how.
All of the bodies are good bodies.
It's that simple. One sentence. Over and over.
Because that one line disrupts the formula.
It interrupts the process.
It drives a wedge between observation and critique, nearly guaranteeing that we never arrive at the dreaded "unsolicited verbal feedback".
And while you are at it, this is also a good time to talk about all of the kinds of bodies. The bodies with big tummies and tiny tummies and brown skin. Feel free to include the bodies that are in wheelchairs and use walkers and don't talk. Including those bodies will stave off the nightmarish "Hey mom, what's WRONG with that kid?" question, proclaimed at a decibel equal to the aforementioned commentary about fat.
And after you're done talking about all of those kinds of bodies, talk about them again. Because once isn't enough. They don't need you to talk about thin bodies and white bodies. They see them everywhere. They need you to talk about all the other kinds. And when you're done talking about them....
Proclaim them good.
All of them.
Every. Single. Body.
If you do this, I can't promise that there won't be another moment when your kid says something that just turns you inside out. I can't even promise that they won't tell another woman that she is fat.
But I can PROMISE you that you will have words to use if it happens.
Words that might actually help heal the person who was wounded in the first place.
Words that might actually help heal the world, one fat-tummied or brown-bodied or differently-abled person at a time.