Yesterday my not-quite-5-year-old told me that I have a fat stomach. I said 'thank you.'
I said thank you because, judging the look on her face when she said it, I didn't want her to adopt the wide-spread notion that fat is bad. I wanted, even for a moment, for her to consider that this might be a compliment. But she gave me a look that implied she didn't. So we began a conversation. I asked her what she thought about 'fat.' She shrugged her shoulders. I asked her who told her about 'fat,' she said she thought it up herself. I'm thinking not. So we talked about how people come in different sizes (as they do different colors, genders, ages, abilities...a conversation we have had many times). I asked her if she thought I was healthy. She does...because according to her 1. I eat better than daddy and 2. I don't let her eat gummies all the time she wants to (oh the logic of a 4 year old). I asked her which she thought was most important...healthy or fat? She said healthy. OK, so we're on the right track.
But our conversation was interrupted. And now I am left with a question on how to really teach her about size diversity, fat politics, discrimination, healthy bodies (at any size). How do you teach these things when size discrimination is nationally practiced and 'medically condoned'? Under the umbrella of concern for health, our nation's 'top experts' have launched a campaign against fat. But rather than healthy messages we are being bombarded with messages of shame and blame. We are being bullied and harassed. Have you seen the billboard campaign in Atlanta, Georgia?? Here is just one of the most offensive ads...
Granted this ad campaign came under almost immediate attack and I believe are now being pulled ...but the fact that a campaign like this was launched reinforces the notion that fat is bad, ugly, and an automatic equivalent to unhealthy. Not to mention that this particular ad doesn't focus on health but rather on appearance...which is often the focus of our culture. And sadly this isn't the only campaign...the "Healthy Girl Adventure Club" targets 9-13 year olds with plenty of body-shaming language, almost every health insurance plan promotes weight loss programs, there are weight loss centers throughout the country and weight loss products on the shelves of every grocery store, and most recently the CDC-backed Weight of the Nation (read fat-activist Marilyn Wann's assesment) which aired on HBO just this month.
So what are we doing? We have more weight loss programs, products, and campaigns than ever before. Americans spend billions, I think somewhere around $40 billion annually, on weight loss and yet, we are not thinner...and more importantly we are not healthier. The shaming around weight and body size is not only demoralizing but it is unhealthy. Shaming doesn't motivate, it humiliates. And when humiliated I would think folks are less likely to be active, social, or engaged in their communities -- all things that can and do lead to healthier lives...physically and mentally.
In addition to my almost 5 year old I also have a 5 month old, which means I am raising two daughters in this culture. And while I absolutely acknowledge that boys are targeted about weight too, there are well documented studies to show that the impact on girls self-esteem and self-worth are immense. We know that girls are more likely to have eating disorders and disordered eating, are more likely to engage in cutting and self mutilation, and are more likely to view their value in their physical appearance. So this topic will be a BIG & ongoing conversation in our house. I can share with my girls the struggles I had with eating disorders, I can be honest with them when I struggle today about my weight, and I can show them my commitment and effort to be kind to myself, to be healthy in my choices (not the least of which include my mindset about my body), and I can model respect for the differences our culture has in body size as it is a diversity that enriches us. I can question their labeling of 'fat' and encourage them to question it as well. I can do all that, but honestly it feels a bit lonely. I'm sure there will be plenty of folks who mis-interpret what I write as promoting unhealthy lifestyles. Because fat is in many ways the acceptable prejudice in our society. But as I write this, and as a committed activist, I must also put in a call to others...get educated about the 'obesity epidemic' before you buy into the rhetoric, explore the efforts of fat activists like Marilyn Wann, check out the work of Linda Bacon, PhD and the Health at Every Size Movement, have conversations in your family and among your friends about body image and self esteem, and consider what 'healthy' might look like if we got rid of the shaming and the blaming?
As for my daughter? Our conversation will continue. She has started to read, maybe I should give her my copy of Marilyn Wann's Fat!So?: Because you don't have to apologize for your size. Maybe we'll read it together. In the meantime, I'm looking for children's books and resources. Open to suggestions. Please share your resources. I'm not sure what is out there for kids about size diversity. Is there anything even written? Are there children's books out there? If not, maybe we should write one? Maybe a summer project for Molly and I?
Until then, be well, and love yourself.