On “Fat” and Loving Our Bodies

Barbie proportions drawn on the beautiful body of a "plus sized" model.

As you all know, Project Fitness has been in full swing in our house. Collectively, Robert and I have lost 64 pounds over the last several months. As much as possible, we have emphasized strength and health over scale and waistline, particularly when speaking in front of our kids. Especially our girls. We know the stats, and the risks when it comes to eating disorders and self-punishing behaviors. We are well aware of our culture’s dysfunction when it comes to weight and ideals of beauty. And we hope beyond hope that we’re framing this weight-loss journey in a nourishing and positive way for our kids. We don’t restrict what they eat. But we talk about good choices. We’re reducing dessert size and frequency and are doing a lot of biking, hiking and other stuff as a family.

But I find it all very confusing. I have had lots of people tell me I look “amazing.” I appreciate it and understand that they are affirming my hard work. But sometimes the gushing gets to be a little much. I’m not doing this to look awesome. I’m doing this to be awesome. And strong. And 40 and fabulous and all that Oprah stuff. I’m doing it to be marathon-ready, because even if I never run a marathon, a long life is a marathon all its own.

So part of me responds to all this affirmation by thinking, My God, did I look terrible before? And if I did, why didn’t anyone tell me?

A friend of mine posted this great article to Facebook, called ‘Mom, I’m Fat’: One Mother’s Response to Her 7 Year Old. I applaud this mother’s persistence in not letting the moment go. And I loved the novel way she handled this particular encounter. But before she gets to the big Woman Power Moment, one bit stood out to me:

[My daughter] tells me on two different occasions friends have called her “kind of fat” when they were talking about bodies this summer in their bathing suits.  And she felt sad.  But she also felt good because finally she confirmed that what she thought about her body was “mostly true”.

The thrust of the mother’s approach seems to be to try to erase the word “fat” from her daughter’s self-concept. Now, I have no idea whether her daughter is, in fact, fat. But let’s just assume for the sake of argument that she is heavier than average, and that when her friends called her ‘kind of fat,’ that her daughter recognized something true about herself. That’s possible, isn’t it? Isn’t it possible that our kids, especially young kids, view fat and thin as relatively objective, non-loaded descriptors of different body types? Isn’t it possible that our kids have not yet accumulated all of the baggage that we have? (Pun intended.) And isn’t it further possible that our unwillingness to use the F word actually contributes to a negative self-image and dysfunctional attitudes about our bodies because it suggests that fat is shameful?

You’d have to suss all that out as a parent, of course: how much is your child picking up ridiculous Barbie ideals and how much is she simply looking at reality in the mirror? But if you’re dealing with a child who is, in fact, heavy, doesn’t it seem more honest, and in the long run, healthier not to try to convince her that really, her tummy is as flat as anyone else’s? Doesn’t it seem healthier to say that yes, she IS heavier than average, AND [not BUT] she is strong and normal and beautiful?

I don’t remember having a lot of conversations with my parents about my body when I was a kid. But I was well aware of being chunkier than most of my friends. I was pretty strong, too, though not all that athletic. And that’s OK. I did a lot of other things well and was talented in other areas. So now I’m just imagining myself in the same situation as the article, asking my mother whether my tummy was big. (It was.) I know what she would have said, out of absolute unconditional love—the same thing the mother in the article said, which is “Honey, you’re perfect.” And a child might hear that and think, I know I am. But that’s not what I was asking.

Here is what I’m saying. “Fat” has become such a dirty word that we’ve become unwilling to use it at all. I’m not advocating calling people names, of couse, least of all our children. I’m saying it’s time to reclaim “Fat,” to use the word again and strip it of its shameful subtext. Because until we do that, we are not empowering the girls and women who are overweight and who know it.

Again, I’m not talking about slim girls suffering from a distorted picture of themselves. I’m saying, let’s describe reality for one another AND love ourselves at the same time.

So… maybe I was a little fat before Project Fitness. So what? I gave birth to three children, for Pete’s sake. I nursed them, carried them around on my hip and my back and my shoulders. I fed them, leaned over changing tables and bathtubs and high chairs, hoisted strollers and diaper pails. Meanwhile I served two congregations and wrote a book.

And I climbed the mountain.

Blessed be.

16 thoughts on “On “Fat” and Loving Our Bodies

  1. Rachel Heslin

    Sounds a little like my frustration with the word “diet,” as if it doesn’t describe *everything* one eats.

    As far as being taken aback by people telling you how great you look, my boss is going through something similar. Yes, she’s lost weight, but it’s not just that. She’s also standing straighter and has a vitality about her that is more than just “being thin.” She really does look amazing, and I’m sure you do as well.

    1. MaryAnn

      Thanks J.

      Was chatting with a friend about this, but this all reminds me of what a lot of liberal parents do about race, which is to avoid talking about it at all in an attempt to convey that race isn’t a big deal. But refusing to talk about it makes it a big deal.

  2. Monica

    Hmm. Thought-provoking for sure. One of our daughters is much pudgier (see? I can’t even type it) than the other…already wondering how this will play out in their relationship.

    The other thought that comes to mind is how cultural this is. I’ve spent some time in Spanish-speaking places and cultures, and “fat” is just a description, like “blonde.” Very matter-of-fact, without all the drama and weight (ha! that was unintentional) of our (North American) reaction.


  3. Erica

    Amen. Every once in awhile, I look at my body and think, “Give the poor thing a break. It pushed out a couple of babies. Pretty magnificent, that.” And, lately, I’m trying to be more wowed by how far the body is running than by how it looks. Zora called me a runner the other day and I just about died with pride!

  4. marciglass

    I was a chunky kid too. And was called and felt fat. And we also never had conversations in my family about it. But what I wished I would have come to terms with earlier than I did is that body shapes and sizes are different. (Duh.) No matter how much I dieted, I was never going to reduce the size of my rib cage to be a size 5. Never. And so to hold up the “skinny” girls as my ideal of beauty, I always felt fat in high school. And to look at pictures of me when I was in high school, I was a twig.

    So I don’t know that “fat” is the word to reclaim. I think comfort with your own shape and bone structure is worth learning.

    In terms of looking amazing, you do. But I have long suspected that I don’t stay at my goal weight for long because I am really uncomfortable with that level of attention from men. (And that’s a whole other story for another day.)

    That said, I would love to be able to run again. Off to PT this morning. Hopefully can work around my injury and get healthy again.

  5. MaryAnn

    Right. So bringing together Marci and Monica’s comments, I think about the fact that our reluctance to talk about weight has coincided with a sharp increase in obesity rates, especially childhood obesity.

    There are many factors at play in that, and I know that correlation does not equal causation. But certainly that is a correlation worth pondering.

  6. the local md

    Wonderful! Especially the way you relate fitness to health. “I am not doing this to look awesome. I am doing this to be awesome.” In years of talking to patients about health, I can say that many never made the connection between eating and exercising and their health. They just want to fit into a size 6. (which for most was not healthy) The ones who came back and told me “I feel so much better” seemed to continue with the healthier lifestyle reguardless of weight lost. And Keith, boys respond very well to talk of healthy living and they are under just as much pressure as the girls to look a certain way, however since boys are often more involved in activities that require performance and stamina, it may be even easier to show them the benifits.

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