Growing up as a fat child can be a harrowing experience. How do fat parents see their child?
When I think of my experience as a fat child, I remember the insults hurled at me from other fat kids, and I remember the degradation heaped on me by my own family. I reflect upon the time that I sat in the back of my father's parked pickup truck, paralyzed as kids road their bikes back and forth, shouting "Fatty, fatty two-by-four, can't get through the kitchen door." I think about going to the dietician to be put on my first diet when I was seven, and at nine, my pediatrician telling me to take off all my clothes, stand up and touch my toes so he could see how fat I was. I re-experience the anger that I felt when my parents wiped out my savings account so they could send me to diet camp, and I remember my mother telling me, "Boys only want fat girls for one thing," and my father telling me that his parents kicked him out of the house when he was 16 because he was fat. I recall the dread I felt upon waiting every morning, not knowing if my mother would choose this day for a pre-school weigh-in, or worse, if she would grab a fold of my flesh and say in a loathing voice, "I can't believe how fat you're getting."
I remember the humiliation and longing associated with not being able to eat what my friends ate, and the squad of food police (my parents, my sisters, my friends parents, my teachers). I remember the shame I felt in my attempts to sneak food, and the fear of being discovered. I vividly recall that my mother would buy my sisters Ho-Hos (a snack cake) which were wrapped in foil, and that I would sneak them out, one that a time, and wad up the foil wrapper and throw it behind the upright freezer that was in our garage. After years of doing this, my parents sold our house. I literally stayed awake at night worrying about what would happen when we moved and they moved the freezer, and the wall of wadded up foil would come tumbling down as evidence of my gluttony. As it turned out, the people who bought our house made an eleventh hour decision to buy the freezer as well, so I was never found out. But I can feel the fear as though it was yesterday.
Many of these same feelings were triggered two and a half years ago, when I learned that I was pregnant. At the time, I was sure I was going to have a girl, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the possibility that she would grow up to be fat. Although the baby's father is average size, from what I'd read I knew that there was a 40% chance that she would be fat.
I did a lot of soul-searching about what I would think, feel, and do if I had a fat daughter. There was certainly a part of me that really didn't want my child to be fat. I did not want to subject my baby to the same traumas that I experienced. And as difficult as my childhood was at times, I'm very aware that my experiences as a fat kid were mild compared with the horrific childhoods of many other fat people. And as difficult as our childhoods were, it seems as though things are even worse for fat kids today. The stigma that fat children face can lead them to desperate acts. In 1994, Brian Head, a 15-year-old high school sophomore from Woodstock, Georgia, pulled out a gun and shot himself in the temple, saying "I'm tired of it." Head was tired of the taunting remarks he received from other students because of his weight. According to the Atlanta Journal, a classmate of Head's said, "People made fun of him all the time; you could tell it hurt. But he never said anything. He got beat up a lot."
In August 1994, 12-year-old Samuel Graham hanged himself rather than start at a Florida middle school, where he was afraid kids would make fun of him. At five feet, four inches and 174 pounds, Graham had been exposed to teasing because of his weight, and according to a neighbor, "He was just big for a 12-year-old boy. And the kids used to make fun of him."
In October of this year, 13-year-old Kelly Yeomans overdosed on painkillers to escape the taunts and cruelty of other youngsters, who were said to have hurled eggs, flour, stones, and even a dead fish at their home in England. According to news reports, Kelly's sister Sarah said, "It got to the stage where she was frightened to go out of the house because she got called 'fatty'. My Mum had a go at them, but it didn't do any good."
I realize now that many of my reflections about my fat daughter were really about me, and that there was a part of me that wanted a fat daughter so that I could re-experience my own childhood through my baby, but have a different outcome.
Then came the next bit of news, which was that I wasn't having a girl after all, but rather a son. In regard to my child's eventual size, that news brought up a whole other set of feelings. I also uncovered one of my biases, when I found myself wondering if, as adorable as I think fat little girls are, I would feel that way about fat little boys. That gave me cause for some serious reflection on my own sizism, and gave me the opportunity to work through a bias I wasn't aware I had.
My son, whose name is Morgan, will be two years old in January. For the time being, he's a big kid, though not particularly fat. Who knows what size he will eventually be? Having given birth to Morgan and cared for him for almost two years, I realize that my theorizing about his eventual size was purely academic. I love him fiercely, and that love won't waver one iota no matter whether he's fat, thin, or somewhere in between.
While Morgan can be secure in my acceptance, love, and--okay--adoration of him, that doesn't mean that I've resolved all of my weight-related issues. It's been a wonderful educational experience to watch Morgan's relationship with food. It's become crystal clear that a child who is not interfered with does follow his body's cues when it comes to eating. Morgan will eat sparingly for a few days or a week, then eat everything in sight for a week or two. Sometimes he's hungry at "mealtimes" and sometimes his hunger doesn't follow a regular schedule. There are times when all he wants is carrots, times when all he wants is goldfish crackers, and times when he wants a couple of bites of every item in the house.
One of the issues leftover from my childhood that I'm dealing with now is trying to prevent myself from being the food police. If he wants to eat a dozen "kee-o's" (Morgan-speak for "cookies") for dinner, should I let him and trust that he'll eventually ask for carrots? Or do I make him wait until after dinner? Right now, I give him his dinner, and save the cookies until he indicates that he's done. But I continue to ask myself if I'm in the process of creating food issues for Morgan that I don't want to create.
As a mom, my own size has come up as an issue for me. I've gone through several phases, particularly when Morgan was younger, where I thought I was a terrible mom for being fat, because I couldn't do the things with him that average-size parents do. My friend and colleague Bettye Travis, who is a fat mom, helped me work through those feelings by pointing out that the important thing is not that I go down the slide with Morgan, but that Morgan gets to go down the slide with someone. So Morgan has people in his life with a variety of talents and abilities that his mom doesn't have, including the ability to go down a slide.
I'm also in the process of coming to terms with the effect that my size will have on Morgan. He goes to a daycare center and preschool while I'm at work, and already I've had encounters with other children about my size. During his first couple of months at the school, I had several children ask me things like, "Do you have a baby in your tummy?" or say things like, "You have a fat tummy." I chalked that up to kids' natural curiosity about their world and saw it as very non-judgmental. Then a few months ago, a little girl and I had a more disturbing interaction. The girl was probably four, and our conversation went something like this:
"You're a big fat lady!"
"Yes, I am a big fat lady."
"My mommy's not a fat lady."
"Some mommies are fat and some mommies are not fat."
"My mommy's not a fat lady; my mommy's a nice lady."
"Fat ladies are nice, too."
It really hit home that little kids learn about fat prejudice really early, and reinforced some of the research that I'd heard Dr. Michael Loewy present at a NAAFA convention a couple of years ago. In his talk, Dr. Loewy said, "Given the opportunity to play with fat or thin dolls, all children, even those who could correctly identify that the fat dolls looked more like them, preferred to play with thin dolls. Given pictures of children who were in a wheelchair, missing a limb, on crutches, facially disfigured, or obese, most children said they would least like to play with the fat child.
"By elementary school, children are describing fat children as lazy, sloppy, dirty, stupid, and ugly. Fat children are less likely than other children to receive "best friend" ratings from their classmates. When shown silhouettes of fat and thin males and females, nine-year-old children rated the fat figures as having significantly fewer friends, as less liked by their parents, as doing less well at school, as being less content with their appearance, and as wanting to be thinner. A group of six to ten-year-old boys rated fat children as most likely to be teased.
"By adolescence, the subjective importance of physical appearance is particularly great among girls. A longitudinal study of 1,000 high school students revealed that more than 50% of girls wanted smaller hips, thighs, and/or waists. Sixty-three percent of ninth grade and 70% of tenth and 12th-grade girls wanted to lose weight."
I've spent a lot of time thinking about the ways in which I will protect Morgan, should he become a fat kid, from the discrimination and social stigma that fat kids face. I've thought ahead about how I will make presentations to his teachers, his classmates, and the advocacy I will do on his behalf with health care providers and others who could cause him harm. I've thought about the ways in which I will love him and show him that his worth as a person is not dependent upon the size of his body. I've surrounded him with other fat people who love him and who are positive role models for him. And I've thought about how to get him fashionable clothes so he will fit in with his peers.
But I haven't quite figured out how to protect him from having a fat mommy. It sickens me to think of the taunts he will face because of my body size. I fervently hope that by teaching him that all prejudice and bigotry is wrong, and by teaching him what it means to value and respect all living things, he will have the tools he needs to live in a fat-hating world, and to become an ally to those who are disenfranchised. ß