It’s a commonly accepted fact that my dad was not a big fan of school. Who knows why? Probably something to do with the fact that he is the true embodiment of a kinesthetic learner, and the nuns didn’t exactly cater to that learning type in 1950’s Catholic elementary school. By college his desk was famously filled with empty peanut shells, instead of the tools of learning. His hand always looks a little funny when gripping a pen. It belongs on a kid’s shoulder, a steering wheel, or a ball of some variety. Nonetheless, he usually was in charge of board-related teaching for us kids. We had one of those magnetic letter sets, and he’d sit us down and go through phonetics, all of the versions of the -at family, etc. Similarly, he’d write up sample math problems for us to solve on a big chalkboard, back when writing on a big chalkboard was, in and of itself, fun.
Naturally, then, when I came home at the beginning of fourth grade panicking over having forgotten long division, he stepped up to the plate. He drew out a long division problem on the chalkboard, carefully cased the problem in the standard upside-down-L shaped bracket, and proceeded to confuse me with an explanation of long division that was completely foreign. I had no idea what the man was talking about. And as he tried variations of the same explanatory model that he learned back in the day, I grew increasingly furious. I wasn’t usually the kid who got mad about homework. I never really needed much help, either, I just enlisted them in order to push me over the top, from the A zone to the A+ zone. But that night, as we lay on the rust-colored family room carpet and sweated it out, I was flummoxed. I tried to capture an elusive memory of how we began to learn long division the previous spring, and I couldn’t. Because he kept blathering on about some other version of long division that made Absolutely. No. Sense.
You might think this memory made me sympathetic to the tears that were shed the other morning over my own fourth grader’s long division homework. As a series of upside-down-L-bracketed problems stared up at us from the sheet of paper, the tension mounted. You see, she used new words for long division, words that I ignored when the parent sheet came home the other night. Words like “area model” and “standard algorithm.” I ignored my own parent homework at my peril, and I paid the price. Fortunately for me, I am a parent during the time of explanatory YouTube videos, so we eventually hashed it out. But the homework paper bore the telltale scars of angry eraser slashes and tear splotches.
I won’t go into the typical lament about how “new math” is “bad.” I don’t think it’s bad–it’s just different. And trying to talk about math using a different set of words and concepts? Not going to work. Just ask my dad. He didn’t have YouTube, and I’m fairly certain that my tear-splattered chalkboard wound up cracked over his head, Anne Shirley like, a sacrifice at the altar of that cruel goddess, fourth grade long division.
So, as I’ve mentioned, I love me somebarre class. Amusingly, one barre teacher, Mary, uses the word “crotch” an awful lot. As in “tighten up through your crotch, ladies!” To be fair, it’s really the best way to describe the wide-ranging muscle recruitment needed to complete some of the more esoteric moves. I haven’t heard anyone invoke the word “crotch” so much since shopping for school clothes with my mother. It got me to reminiscing about the site of those invocations: the fitting room.
Those of us of a certain age all have been in those rooms, back in the day when things like “leggings” and “lycra” and “pants other than corduries” did not exist. School clothes shopping involved wedging oneself into one stiff, bunchy, pair of pants after another. And then, mom grabbily assessed the fit of the pants through the crotch. Length was a secondary consideration only–those legs could be rolled up. But crotch fit? There was no sneaking around it. You just don’t mess with the fit through the crotch. Once I was older mom afforded me the privacy of a closed dressing room door, and instead loudly whispered, “How does it fit through the crotch?” at regular intervals while I checked for myself. By that point it was the late 80’s to early 90’s, and all of the crotches were the same: high and tight.
The other day the tables were turned. I got to take my mom shopping for a dress to wear to her homecoming dance. St. Mary’s School put on a homecoming gala which involved voting for candidates for homecoming king and queen with money. Thanks to a social media push from her kids, two of whom were her students, former students and friends donated in droves. She had a real chance of taking home the crown (oh yes, there was a tiara). That sent her into a panic, because the possibility of a tiara meant that she’d have to dress the part.
I couldn’t believe that she asked me so off-handedly, like it was no big thing! This was as passing of the torch, a generational seismic shift. I recall mom taking grandma shopping for special occasion dresses as she got older, and and now she was asking me to do the same thing! As far as I can recall, my maternal grandmother rarely shopped by herself, needing a wingman to settle on even the most basic of items. Every wedding, every anniversary, every first communion, grandma needed one of her daughters to accompany her to the Elder-Beerman. Had it all become too overwhelming? Had she simply lost interest? Had her body become so foreign that she no longer knew what to do with it? And now, was mom starting to feel the same way?
I wasn’t daunted by the task. Mom just needed to play up her best features (her legs) and shop somewhere other than the paltry department store offerings in Janesville. I lured her to Milwaukee, selected a store, and shoved her in a fitting room. Then I fed her a steady stream of dresses that that she would have never chosen for herself, and we quickly identified several that would have been great, eventually settling on one that she wrinkled her nose at while it was on the hanger. But, just as the sales associates said, I am an excellent stylist for other people. The final decision was easy. And made in under an hour. Boom.
She looked good on the night. The dress looked nice with the sash, and I really like the scarf that we chose to brighten things up near her face. Her legs look great, and she appears happy and comfortable. That’s all great, but I do have one lingering question.
So after all that unpacking and introspection, what are we left with? What are we as parents supposed to do? We are reminded constantly of the obesity epidemic in this country, the causes of which are beyond any one individual’s control. But we want to prevent our kids from being victims. And knowledge is power, right? If their weights are creeping up the percentile chart, they need to know about it, right? What are we supposed to tell them to inoculate them from weight and body image misery?
It sounds astonishing, but it’s true. Stop talking about weight and diet and appearance AT ALL. A 2016 guideline from the American Academy of Pediatrics is clear on this point–your conversations with your kids in regards to their relationship with food and exercise and the body that they have? Should not be about their weights. Shockingly, even well-meaning attempts to comment on a child’s weight can increase their risk of both obesity AND disordered eating! I’d love it if schools stopped sending home those stupid weight report cards. They’ve never been shown to do any good. And definitely don’t tease about weight. Even if a lighthearted comment innocently comes from a place of love? It very well may echo through a kid’s life until they are writing about Special K commercials when they are 40.
Talk about what your kids’ bodies ARE able to do, what they’d like them to be able to do, and make a plan to get there. Not a plan to get to a certain size or a certain appearance. Eat nourishing meals as a family. Short of a true medical indication, don’t prescribe separate diets for separate people in the house. Everyone should share in the rewards of nutritional sanity. Fill your house with a healthy media environment. Include images of people of all sorts succeeding at life.
And physician, heal thyself. Speak kindly of your own body. Think kindly of your own body. Nourish your body. Move around in ways that bring you joy rather than punish you. Work on your anxiety. Go to therapy. Buy cute clothes for the size that you are. Dare to look at an image of a fat person as something other than a before. Fight the patriarchy.
And what if, despite all of your best efforts, you find yourself in the car with your nine year old, who is bewailing the misery of her fat body and subsequent worthlessness? It stinks. It stinks that you can’t shield these precious beings from the slings and arrows of reality. It is hard to quell the natural fight or flight reaction to such a situation. I wanted both to run away in order to protect myself. I also wanted to literally stomp those words out of existence with all the rage my maternal instinct could muster.
Here’s what I’ve learned is the right thing to do. I had it about half right that evening. I’ll be even better the next time, because there surely will be a next time. You sit with them as they work through this spasm of grief. You act as a sink for their pain, letting it drain away so that their scars may not run deep. You don’t try to correct their assertions, no matter how ugly or ridiculous they are. Correcting them would make the child wrong, in addition to whatever insults they are already piling on themselves. Sit there and let them work through it. It will kill you a little bit. It will make them a little bit stronger. A.K.A., being a parent.
Afterward, you double your resolve to fight the patriarchy in your little world. You share your thoughts with others to remind us all that most experiences are universal, and that shame withers in the light of day.
And finally, you find a better word. It really stinks that seemingly every word for “fat” is, well, heavy with negative connotations. Fat, obese, chunky, plump, rubenesque, stout, heavy. They all practically reek of judgment. I’m not nearly mentally strong enough to shoulder any of these adjectives, let alone blithely suggest them to my daughter.
Guess who gave me a better word? My poor mother who trudged through these entries even though it was hard. We officially call dibs on Zaftig. Please don’t tell me that it has any bad connotations, because as of now, I’m a little bit enamored.
adjective, from the Yiddish
1. (of a woman) having a full, rounded figure; plump. (Merriam Webster)
2. Deliciously plump, or carrying your extra weight very well. (Urban Dictionary)
It was around high school or college that I determined that my happiness and success was most likely tied to the way my body looked. I frantically dieted and exercised the summer before starting college, in order to take advantage of the opportunity to start over and reinvent myself. It’s not so easy to escape one’s neuroses, though. I silently joined the throngs of women lurching between Out of Control Eating and In Control eating. It was either black or white—I was either mindless numbing my feelings with food, or I was on some sort of a diet. I discovered the equally-effective anxiety numbing effects of extreme dieting.
While dieting, I continued to use food as a way to deal with anxiety, but just in a new and improved way! Instead of numbing my feelings with the actual consumption of food, I could use mental recitations of calorie counts as a mantra to ward off stress. During those times of dieting, at any given moment I could rattle off what I had eaten that day, and what I had left to eat before bed. I weighed myself daily, if not multiple times per day. The number dictated my mood for the day. On official weigh-in days, I carefully got up first thing, stripped naked, peed out as much as possible, and obtained a number that I recorded on whatever tracking system I was using.
Because restrictive dieting worked, I received a lot of positive reinforcement. Indeed, I succeeded according to the tenets of whatever diet I was on at the time—cabbage soup diet, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Slim Fast. I was a model participant, and I always lost weight. People would comment, and I’d smile serenely and cite diet and exercise, racking up the positive accolades and frantically waiting to drop another dress size. When I was heavier, the scale controlled me in that I was afraid to go near it. When I was dieting (only occasionally to the point of what would be considered thin), the scale controlled me in a far different way. It consumed my every waking thought.
And that’s the thing. For any number of physiological reasons, even the most extreme diets resulted in what would be defined as the thinner end of normal weight. I was never remarkably thin. And that’s the only thing that separated these times of hyper-focus on food from a stereotypical eating disorder. I was just as obsessed, just as preoccupied, just as miserable. I just never was adequately gaunt to draw negative attention. Instead, I received waves of positive attention. My anxiety-driven obsession with food and dieting was seen as a good thing. Indeed, some people reading this will probably think that I should go back to that way of being.
And I wanted to. Oh, how I wanted to go back. But after having kids, I wasn’t able to devote adequate mental energy to obsessing about my food intake. For me to succeed, according to standard criteria, I needed to eat no more than about 1100 calories a day. Did I forget to mention that? At the times that I was deemed “doing well” by the appearance-judging outside world, I was eating, at the very most, 1100 calories a day. Every day. With no room for error.
And I should mention at this point, that I married a man who never even seemed to notice what was going on with my weight! If he did, he never made any mention of it good or bad. Never. The only things I remember him saying were that I always seem to be happier when I’m exercising (true), and he’d go to the gym with me or get up early to do P90X if I wanted. I just wanted to give Jimmy his due accolades.
So. Eventually, I couldn’t succeed at dieting, so I actually sought out help at an eating disorders clinic. And there I met my wonderful therapist. I hoped that she would be able to help me fix my overeating, so that I could successfully get back to fastidious dieting. After a lot of work that remains ongoing, I started to see that eating and food and what I thought about my body at given moment had more to do with how I was managing my anxiety and feelings than anything else. Guys, it was a lot of work. Years and years and lots of crying and writing and breaking up with medicine. A lot of work.
In addition to my work in therapy, I had a life changing moment when I first heard Lindy West reading from her book, Shrill. There are a handful of moments in life that I remember specifically, and I remember the first time I heard an interview with her. It was around the time that I was working intensely with my therapist to unpack all of the reasons that I was misusing food. It was fall, I was walking on the Oak Leaf trail near our home, and I was listening to an interview with Lindy West on Fresh Air. She discussed the audacious concept of being OK with a fat body just as it is, and not owing the rest of the world an explanation or an apology about it. I replayed that interview three times and walked about six miles. I was in a glorious, revelatory trance. I want quote from her book, but honestly the whole thing is quotable, and you just need to go read it.
OK, fine, here’s a quote taken from an online essay she wrote in response to a piece about being concerned about the obesity epidemic. It was later reprinted in her book:
Fat people already are ashamed. It’s taken care of. No further manpower needed on the shame front, thx. I am not concerned with whether or not fat people can change their bodies through self-discipline and “choices.” Pretty much all of them have tried already. A couple of them have succeeded. Whatever. My question is, what if they try and try and try and still fail? What if they are still fat? What if they are fat forever? What do you do with them then? Do you really want millions of teenage girls to feel like they’re trapped in unsightly lard prisons that are ruining their lives, and on top of that it’s because of their own moral failure, and on top of that they are ruining America with the terribly expensive diabetes that they don’t even have yet? You know what’s shameful? A complete lack of empathy. (Lindy West. “Hello, I Am Fat,” The Slog, 11 Feb, 2011.)
Lindy’s interview and, later, the book honestly changed my life. For one thing, she helped me realize that I deserve to wear cute clothes at whatever size I happen to be; I don’t have to wait until I lose x number of pounds before I can dare to present myself to the world in a way that is anything other than shrouded in shame. I started standing up for my body being OK as is. I challenged the weight-shaming statements that my mom and her sisters punished themselves with. I shopped in Lane Bryant—openly! One day, when a thinner friend asked me where I got a top I was wearing, I had to tell her the Eloquii doesn’t carry her size. I was open about it. It’s weird and it’s hard, but I’m done with offering apologies for myself, or reassurances that I’m working on my body in order to make its existence acceptable.
So here’s what I do now. I try not to use food to manage my feelings. That’s my diet plan. I try not to hide my eating, as that usually means it’s anxiety-eating. This means definitely avoiding eating from drive-throughs. I try to do other things to manage my anxiety. I’m on medications. I check in with my therapist and my friends. I write. I don’t do punishment-style exercise anymore either. I don’t enjoy feeling like a wrung-out rag, maybe you do, but not me. I much prefer brisk walks with the dog. I discovered Barre, which makes my body feel like a wrung out rag, but in an enjoyable way. I try hard not to compare myself to others in the mirror. I usually fail, but I have to try. Am I perfect? Absolutely no way. Not even close. But if I expect my girls to be able to see themselves as beautiful and worthy no matter how they stack up to the person next to them, I have to try and give myself the same break.