I have put off writing this blog until the last possible moment—a clue as to how difficult the topic is for me. I’ve known for a while that I wanted to write it—should write it—but I haven’t been able to bring myself to do it. That’s how much being called a fat child wreaked havoc on my soul and shaped my image of myself for the rest of my life. The discussion about fat shaming during the presidential campaign pushed me over the line. I can’t remain silent, as little as my opinion counts for anything. Any woman—or man for that matter—who has experienced shame because of weight must speak up and say no more. We won’t do it and we won’t allow it to be done to our children.
My parents put me on my first diet when I was in the fourth grade. I would’ve been about nine years old. They were worried that their daughter was getting fat. We didn’t call it obese in those days. I was the fat daughter. They didn’t understand that girls often go through a period in which they get rounder before they have a growth spurt and get taller. I’m not criticizing them; they did what they thought was best for me. So I began a diet that would stretch through middle school and high school and beyond. I began a lifetime love-hate relationship with food. In high school, I resorted to laxatives and diet aids to try to look like my skinny sisters. I was editor of the school newspaper and then the yearbook, on Student Council, and third in my class, but secretly I was at war with my own body. I stuck a finger down my throat if I felt I had eaten too much. I weighed for my dad so he could see if I was restraining myself properly.
I have gained and lost weight hundreds of times in my fifty-eight years. I will never be thin by society’s standard and stay that way.
Now I have Primary Lateral Sclerosis, a disease in which patients can lose the ability to swallow. With time, they become malnourished because they choke, even on liquids. I already have trouble swallowing meat. So I’ve been told I’m better off weighing more, having a higher BMI, going into this battle. Yet, I cannot bring myself to eat freely. It’s too ingrained in me to worry, to be ashamed of my body if my belly bulges, if my thighs rub, if my butt is too big. I have ovarian cancer. Women who die of this cancer often die of malnutrition because tumors block their intestines and they’re unable to absorb nutrients. Yet, I still cannot bring myself to eat freely.
The last straw that forced me to write this piece was having a mother tell me her daughter’s pediatrician has informed her that her three-year-old is obese, based on her BMI. Like the mother, I’m horrified and angry and disgusted at the doctor’s attitude. This little girl is fortunate to have a mother who sees her for what she is: an active, beautiful, healthy child who eats well—salad, broccoli, apples, green beans, peas—many things that might surprise adults who don’t eat them. She’s tall for her age and has long legs like a frisky colt. This mother wouldn’t dream of putting her daughter on a diet. But she will secretly worry and watch and wander if she is doing the right thing for her daughter.
Instead of focusing on healthy habits, the pediatrician did what this celebrity/model-thin obsessed society does. He marked this little girl with a big red F. Fat. I thought it was surely an aberration. But this mother tells me that she has visited on-line forums for moms in which numerous mothers complain about pediatricians calling their toddlers obese.
I understand that this is a difficult line to walk. Our children are much more sedentary than we were. Obesity is skyrocketing for children and adults. Too much technology, too many video games, too much TV. But parents control all of these things for children. It’s up to us how kids spend their time. We also decide what and when they eat. Our attitude about food and activity sets the example for them.
Surely, we’ve learned not to fall into the “clean your plate” trap. Surely we’ve learned to stop making food a reward. Surely, we’ve learned to drop the phone and the remote and head outdoors for a walk or a game of basketball or a trip to the park. We need the exercise as much as they do. Let’s focus on being healthy, not thin.
Let’s not raise another generation of girls who look in the mirror and cry because they’re ashamed of the way the person in the mirror looks.
Years ago I went to a writing conference at which author Liz Curtis Higgs was the keynote speaker. She reminded us that we are made in God’s image. When he made man and woman, he stopped and said, “It is good.” It was like he said, “ta-da!”
She said when we get up in the morning each day and look in the mirror we should say, “ta-da” and smile because that’s what God does.
So let’s raise a crop of boys and girls who look in the mirror and see themselves the way God does. Ta-da!