Friday, June 10, 2016

My Daughter Might Call You Fat. Please Remain Calm.

She's three and a half, and really into using adjectives lately. She likes to stop and touch flowers, twigs, rocks, on the side of the street. She tells me they are soft, bumpy, wet, dry, or slippery. She likes to touch my hair, my hands, the mole on my right cheek. They are smooth, rough, shiny.

Then, the other day, she said, while thinking about a good friend of ours, "Mama, Donna* is very fat." Now, I have the reaction that I think most American women have upon hearing these words. The first responses in my head are "Don't say that." "That's not nice." Or "people don't like it when you call them fat, honey." But I don't say any of those things to her. I look at my daughter's face, at its pleasant, relaxed, happy, and curious expression. To my daughter, there is nothing negative, nothing unpleasant, about "fat." In fact, she likely has very positive associations with the word. Other things she describes as fat include but are not limited to: the very hungry caterpillar just before his metamorphosis, her belly after a big meal or when she puts a "pretend baby" inside her dress, her baby brother's cheeks, the dinosaur on page 17 of “Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaurs,” and the fluffy black dog that lives on our street.

Sometimes she uses negative adjectives, like icky, stinky, yucky, scary. When she uses these words, her brow crinkles, and her nose bunches up, her lips turn down at the edges, o
r her eyes widen and water. She makes none of these faces when she uses the word fat.

I hate the power this word has in our culture. I hate how women struggle with the implications of this word for most of our lives. When did it start? When did fat become bad? We weren't born with this idea.

When my daughter was born, my parents were quick to joyously proclaim how fat she was. “Look at her fat thighs!” my mother said. “Look at her fat cheeks and her fat butt!” she cooed. Like in many cultures, a fat baby is a good thing in Chinese culture. These were wholly loving statements. My husband's side of the family was a little taken aback--"never call a lady fat!" they joked.

There's a HuffPost blog post that began circulating when my daughter was a baby. It's titled "How to Talk to Your Daughter About Her Body." I love it. I shared it on Facebook, I circulated it among friends, I forwarded it to my family. The piece begins, “How to talk to your daughter about her body, step one: Don't talk to your daughter about her body, except to teach her how it works.” The piece also says, “don't comment on other women's bodies either... Not a single comment, not a nice one or a mean one. And don't you dare talk about how much you hate your body in front of your daughter.”

My husband and I were on board. For the record, I believe it applies to the way we talk to boys as well as girls. We avoided all talk about bodies. We taught our daughter about bodies and how they work. By two she would talk about her vulva, about how mama has one too, but dada has a penis, her baby brother has a penis too. Penises make her laugh. We all have nipples, but only mama's have milk behind them. Someday, maybe hers will too, if she has a baby. When she was inside mama's belly, she started as a tiny egg, then she grew and grew and grew. Inside her face are bones, and blood, and muscle, and fat.

We were feeling very proud of our little talker and all the words she was learning. It felt good to know that she could identify parts of her body, and it helped tremendously when she hurt herself.

But as she grows, I'm finding that simply "not talking about bodies" is not enough. Not talking about appearances doesn't prevent my daughter from observing people's appearances. Just because I don't say anything about her body, or mine, or others' will not make it so that she will not notice. And especially during a period of time in which she's very interested in describing things, acting as though there are no adjectives that apply to bodies is not helpful.

"My fat belly"
So the other day when she said, "Mama, Donna is very fat," I lost a little breath. It's not something we say so nonchalantly. But my daughter's face held no judgement, no loathing, or hate, or disgust. It held none of the things that we as adults have learned to attach to certain adjectives. Here's the thing: without hate for our bodies, none of these words has any power. Think about that. If I love myself, then the adjectives used to describe me, are just words, just descriptors. Words only mean as much as we feel they mean. And for my daughter, a word like fat has only neutral to positive associations right now.

When I was in the eighth grade, the awkward barrier between boys and girls was tumbling down, and I was memorizing lots of boys' phone numbers. My mother started fielding calls not only from Christine, Jennifer, and Sarah; now she was passing the phone to me after hearing from people named Jon, Nate, Nick, and Marc. I think this must have been a tough time for my mom, watching her first child grow up.

Neither my sister nor my mother remembers saying what I'm about to share, but then it's not the kind of thing that you remember unless it is said to you. My sister told me one day something my mother had said to her in private, I can't remember exactly when it was, but I'd guess it was during the summer between middle and high school: "I don't know why all those boys like Lynnette, she's not even pretty." I'm not sure what inspired my mother to say that, and since she doesn't remember saying it, I don't think I'll ever know. But over the past 20-some years I've been thinking about those words. Before you conclude that this was a terrible thing to say, I want to tell you, these words were one of the greatest gifts to me in my life.

I can still remember how it felt to hear the words. There was a slight sting, and a fogginess around my ears, making me feel like for a moment, I was in my own fuzzy world. The truth was, I didn't really view myself as pretty. I was up to my nose in the awkwardness of my early teens. I wore very thick glasses, my teeth were covered in braces, my skin was experiencing puberty at its finest. My mother's words left me curious, deeply curious. Something in her upbringing, and in her experience of the world, led her to believe that boys liked you if you were pretty. Yet, here I was, unpretty, yet still in the midst of developing exciting friendships and relationships with boys. I was forced to draw a different conclusion from the one my mother drew. Boys like me for something besides being pretty.

Some day later, I received another gift, when a boy told me (bless the honesty of adolescents), "I've got a crush on two girls, you and Susie*, I like Susie because she is hot, and I like you because you have a good personality." How many coming-of-age rom coms would paint that as a burn? "Ouch! That sucks!" But even back in the eighth grade, it taught me something about physical appearances. Maybe they don't matter that much. Maybe people like me because they like the kind of person I am, the way I treat people, and the experience of hanging out with me.

Please don't let me mislead you. I have certainly lost many hours of life stressing about my body and my appearance. Later boys and girls, many of whom I called friends, would describe me with other words, like "bitch," "desperate," "poser," "flat-chested," and "Neanderthal." Yeah, those words stick around in your memory for decades, because they hurt and shock. But those words also lost their sting over time, and even then I think I already believed they had nothing to do with who I am.

Hearing our bodies described as fat only has power over us if we believe that being described as fat has anything to do with who we are, what we can do, and our worth as human beings.  Can we stop believing that?

I am learning something about writing blog posts. I set off to write about one thing and I learn that it's really about something else. I thought I was writing about fat, about not shaming my daughter for the words she uses. But this is about more than that.

Someday my daughter will hear words describing her appearance. They will run the gamut. Someone will tell her she is too fat, too skinny, that she is ugly. It will probably hurt her feelings. I will not be there to say anything, or maybe I will. I hope she will be able to hear these words and know that they have nothing to do with her worth, her person, her capabilities, or her potential. Because that is true. That is true of everyone. The words used to describe our appearance have nothing to do with who we are. Nothing to do with our compassion, or our will. They do not reflect the goodness or badness of our thoughts or inner drives. This is true for all of us. So can we all stop responding like they do?

If my daughter calls you fat, please stay calm. Don't scold her. Don't act offended. Please consider that these words, whether spoken by a three-year-old or an 80-year-old, have nothing to do with who you are.

A lot of our cultures value appearances, some speak it out right, others think it, or imply it. I wish I could change all these cultures, persuade everyone to stop talking about appearances, like that HuffPost blog does.

But it's hard to control other people. I suspect it'll take more than my lifetime and my children's lifetimes for the world to stop talking about physical appearances. So for now, the culture I'm interested in changing is how we receive these words and descriptors. I'm interested in helping my children believe that the words other people use to describe bodies, that the words they use to describe their own bodies, have nothing to do with who they are.

I'm not totally sure how to do this. But I have an instinct that it starts with remaining calm when my daughter calls someone fat. I invite you to do the same.

*the names aren't the real names