Sunny Sea Gold with her daughter. Photo courtesy of author
A few months ago, I was walking through the plus-size clothing section of Target with my six-year-old. She was pointing out dresses and tops she thought I should buy, all bright colors and prints, when suddenly she asked, "Mommy, why are you fat?"
I've been an outspoken advocate for size-acceptance for a long time, and over the last couple of years have started using the word “fat” as a descriptor rather than a judgment—an adjective, just like “short” or “purple” or “fuzzy.” In our house, the “f” word isn't off-limits or rude, so my daughter didn’t think twice about saying it. Still, I held my breath for a moment and looked around. Had any other customers heard and been offended? Or worse, hurt? The word “fat” isn’t negative to me but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t wound someone else. There was only one other woman browsing the racks, and she seemed to be in her own little world, so I turned my attention back to my daughter and took a moment to think.
The answer was tougher to come up with than I expected. In the three years since I put on a significant amount of weight, no one has ever asked me that question. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I knew firsthand what a powerful effect a mother’s words can have. My mom was frightened of my bountiful body shape from the day I was born. I looked so different from the tall, lanky people on her side of the family, and she was afraid I’d get fat. To her—a woman who grew up being praised almost exclusively for her good looks and lithe figure—being fat was just about the worst thing that could happen. It meant you wouldn’t be pretty! You wouldn’t be sexy! You wouldn’t be loved. She tried to “save” me from that fate with careful looks at my plate, admonishments against eating too many “fattening” treats and lessons in calorie counting. In her way, she was trying to help. But I’m pretty sure it had the opposite effect.
In that moment in Target, after the initial shock of my daughter’s question wore off, I felt proud. Proud of my daughter’s curiosity and candor. Proud of the fact that, at six years old, she has no idea that “fat” is such a bad word to so many people. I answered her as simply and honestly as I could:
“Well, sometimes Mommy eats when she’s not hungry. And when you do that a lot, and don’t listen to your tummy, your body can get bigger.” I have a history of binge eating disorder and I still emotionally overeat sometimes, especially if I’ve been ignoring self-care and my stress management routine of mindful breathing, 9:30 bedtimes and regular exercise.
I went on: “Do you remember meeting your great-grandma Rose? Do you remember that she was kinda fat?” She nodded, happily. (My daughter’s middle name is Rose, so she has a very special place in her heart for her namesake.)
“Sometimes people in the same family look alike and have the same types of bodies. The way you have green eyes and long hair like me, and your sister has brown hair and long toes like Daddy.”
She processed that for a minute, and then I saw something click. “So will I be fat, too?” she asked. It would’ve broken my heart if I’d seen a flicker of pain, or despair, or worry in her face. But all I saw was judgment-free curiosity.
“Maybe," I replied. "Or maybe not. You might be big like me, or small like Daddy, or somewhere in between. Or you might be different sizes at different times. My body has been bigger at times, and smaller, too.” Suddenly she reached out from her perch in the shopping cart and threw her arms around my waist and squeezed: “No! I don’t want you to be smaller! I like my big Mommy!”
At her age, I had already received the message—loud and clear—that acceptable bodies were thin bodies, and I should do whatever it took to get one. (I still remember the words to the first poem I ever wrote, at age six: “There once was a mouse named ‘Cheesy’ who saw some Limburger cheese. He said, ‘I can’t eat that I’m on a diet. I’d rather have some peas.’”)
My daughter has gotten a different message: That our bodies deserve acceptance and respect, no matter what their size. What feels equally important to me is showing my daughter that part of respecting our bodies is caring for them.
It’s a lesson I hope I’m teaching her daily when we walk to school instead of drive, pile veggies on our plates, or visit the “kids club” at my gym. We do those things not to change the way our bodies look, but to honour them exactly as they are.