“I have fat thighs!”
My jaw dropped and I could feel my heart crack open as I heard those words come from the mouth of my six year old daughter strapped into her booster seat on our way home from school. I must have misheard her.
“What was that, baby?”
“My thighs are fat! Look. When I’m sitting down they mush all together. It’s just gross.” I turned in my seat and looked at my beautiful girl staring forlornly at the relaxed muscles of her thighs, sure that it was fat she saw. I wanted to cry.
Right then and there, stopped at the red light I wanted to cry. I almost did but realized that I had to put my emotional reaction away and reach out to my daughter in a meaningful way.
I was a chunky child; there are pictures of me around the age of four or five in a pink ballet leotard and tights, which spawned a lifetime of Miss Piggy jokes.
I liked to read. I did not like to sweat. As I got older I began to appreciate sports more and I grew out of the chunky phase but I was never thin. I could never share clothes with my friends; they were always at least a size smaller than I.
In college when I put on the obligatory freshman 15 I was always told how lucky I was to be tall because people really couldn’t tell when I gained the pounds. Perhaps it was meant to be a compliment, but that chunky child from my past only heard, “You’ve gained weight again.”
It was this child who wanted to cry when I heard those awful words spring from the mouth of my beautiful and otherwise self-confident daughter.
My instant reaction was to tell her that she was most certainly not fat.
In fact, this little girl of mine is, in my opinion, verging on too thin. She is tall for her age and clothing supposedly in her size is either too short in the legs, causing her ankles to poke out, or too baggy around the waist, so she must constantly pull up her pants.
But her statement wasn’t about the reality of her situation or size. It was about perspective. Somehow or other my baby came to believe she was fat and that, I feel, is worse. Far worse.
But from where does this belief emanate? We don’t watch much television in our house, not out of any overarching philosophy about children and television. We simply don’t have cable because cable costs are high and most shows worth watching can be streamed over the internet. I know she didn’t get these ideas from watching television because when we watch, we watch together.
Her friends! My mind latched onto the idea that she must be getting these ideas from her school friends. And, yes, I suppose that is possible, but I think that by placing the blame on the words of other children I would have shifted the focus of the discussion irreparably.
Truth be told, it isn’t the television. It isn’t other children.
This sickness, this obsession with being thin, or more accurately, with not being fat, is an epidemic that permeates nearly every aspect of our society: magazines, TV, movies, toys, everything.
Go to the supermarket and peruse the shelves; there is a non-fat or low-fat version of nearly every product. Calorie counts are on display on restaurant menus. Every magazine on the rack has a dieting tip or and article about how to burn fat. Ten minutes spent on any social media site will inevitably bring a viewer to at least one comment about being fat or how to lose weight.
We have become a nation obsessed with weight. Sadly, we are obsessed with the wrong thing.
This conversation should not be about weight—it should be about health.
So, that’s how I answered her.
We talked about how different people come in different shapes just like they come in different colors and how the shape of a person’s body has no bearing on who they are or how we should receive them.
We talked about the importance of eating foods that are good for us, like the veggies we cultivate in our backyard garden, and how making healthy choices aids our bodies’ ability to create the energy and enthusiasm we want when we play.
We talked about how we should exercise to keep our hearts, minds and bodies functioning at full capacity; how the fact that she loves to run, climb, tumble, and practice Ju Jitsu is not only good for her but also a sign that she is eating well and maintaining her body as it needs to be.
We talked about how there is nothing wrong with eating desserts as long as we find balance and how the word “diet” should be stricken from the language. Food choices are food choices and as soon as we see ourselves imprisoned by the strict regulations of caloric intake we’ve lost the joy in the diversity of flavors available to us.
We talked about how taking care of ourselves and accepting ourselves is what is most important in this life.
Our dialogue has continued in this vein for months now.
She is only seven and may not quite understand it all right now, but we will continue to shift the focus from weight to health and maybe, someday, she will understand and be able to love herself more freely, regardless of body shape.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise
Illustration: Ari Binus