Note: In this post, I use fat as a descriptive word, not as an insult. This is not incidental; it is intentional. I have been called fat before in an insulting manner (read more here). However, I have chosen to give the word “fat” no more weight than a mere descriptor, and therefore I use it about myself neutrally or positively, like I might talk about my brown hair.
Last night, we went out for Mexican food. It had been a hard day for my husband and me, and it was nice to be able to order our favorite fajitas and enjoy a meal with our kiddos, without the work or cleanup.
The restaurant was pretty empty. One of our kids goes to bed very early, so if we want to eat out, we must eat early, in turn. The hostess showed us to our table and we figured out the best seating configuration for 4 kids under the age of 6 and 2 adults. As we corralled the kiddos into their seats, I took stock of the people sitting around us.
Under the brightly colored lights, there were two other tables with patrons. In the booth behind us, a baby carrier was wedged against the wall and a young grandmother sat on what was left of the bench. A bright cherubic face peeked out from behind a toy. Across the table sat another woman, younger; I assumed she was the mother of the children. In between the mother (grandmother) and daughter (mother) was a highchair sticking out awkwardly into the walkway between the tables, as high chairs are wont to do. In its wooden arms, a little girl of about 18 months sat. The women chatted while taking frequent breaks to satisfy the needs of the toddler in the high chair, who honestly just wanted more attention than she was being given.
Chip. Salsa. Mouth. Chip. Salsa. Mouth. (That’s me, as I continued observing my restaurantive neighbors as unobtrusively as possible, and oh yeah--keeping an eye on the four hoodlums I brought into the restaurant with me.)
In the booth to the right of us, a couple and their young daughter dined. The man took up a goodly portion of his bench, as did his wife. Their little girl took up the tiniest of spaces on the inside of the bench next to her mom, happy to lean her pint-sized body against the cool brick wall. The woman, it registered in my brain, was about my size.
My size is fat, in case you’re new here.
As we put away some chips and salsa, my husband Zachary and I asked each other about our days and listened to our kids speculating about their juvenile counterparts in the booths around us, like children do. Loudly.
“There’s a baby over there. She’s not happy.”
“That little boy is the same size as our little sister.”
“That girl is crying. Why?”
It is sweet, unfettered, unashamed chatter, and I love it. I love seeing the world through their eyes, hearing them observing the world around them, identifying people and objects, elaborating on emotions, making inferences from the information presented to them.
After a bit of this sweet chatter, the kids started getting fidgety. At long last, the fajitas arrived! We feasted with joy, like one should always feast.
We were well into our meal when the fat woman and her family got up and started walking toward the door. My oldest, Lily, noticed the movement and turned her attention to them, speculating rather loudly.
“She’s going to have another baby, Mommy.”
My husband and I glanced at each other. He had heard it, too.
What do we say?
We could say any number of things. We could have said, “It’s not nice to assume people are pregnant.” We could have said, “Don’t talk so loud.” We could have said, “You don’t know that, honey. Just because she’s fat doesn’t mean she is pregnant.” We could have said nothing and have pretended not to hear.
I felt my chest tighten--a sign of fear. What was I afraid of?
My face got a little hot at the memories of people assuming I was pregnant, even though I was just fat, long before I ever had kids. Writing this, I remember the shame and embarrassment I felt when small kids commented on weight around me. At age 15, I showed up to babysit an eight-year-old for the first time, and he cocked his head and said, “I thought you would be thinner.” Or when my kid cousin said, “Fat people can’t play basketball.”
I was afraid of two things. First, I was genuinely concerned for the feelings of my fellow fat lady. As fat people, we hear, read, or see unkind things about our bodies pretty often. We know we are fat. We experience bias because of our size. The second thing I was afraid of was responding poorly and teaching my children that being fat makes you different, in a bad way.
This was a significant moment, because until this point, I really haven’t had to talk with my children about my body as being different from others’--pretty fat. When we talk about bodies, my kids and I usually comment on how awesome bodies are and how fun it is to dress our bodies up and how we eat food because it's yummy and gives our bodies energy.
“She’s going to have another baby, Mommy,” Lily said, indicating the larger woman who had been sitting near us.
I took a deep breath, decided to use myself as a point of reference, and dove right in.
“Why do you think that she is going to have a baby, Lily?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it because she has a big belly like Mommy?”
“Am I pregnant anymore?” I asked, rocking the infant carrier with my foot, hoping to keep littlest sister asleep through the end of dinner.
She shook her head no.
“I have a big belly, right? Just because someone has a big belly, it doesn’t mean that they are going to have a baby. Some people just have big bellies, like me.”
Lily smiled and nodded, picking up her fork and continuing to eat her beans and rice. I smiled back at her and added, “All bodies are good bodies.”
That was the end of it, for the time being.
Maybe you think that this episode at the Mexican restaurant wasn’t a big deal. That’s fine. But I have spent too much time shedding the shame connected to being fat that I learned as a child. I feel a great responsibility to my children to teach them early on, and with great conviction, that all bodies are good bodies.
This is not the message that our culture will give them. Our culture says that bodies that are trim and slim and sculpted and strong are superior. Therefore, bodies that are flabby and sagging and soft and weak are inferior.
Please hear my heart: I am not waging a war against slimness or strength. I am waging a war on rejecting bodies that don’t measure up (or that are too big to measure), and the searing shame that unavoidably gets lodged in our hearts.
All bodies are good bodies. As a Christian, I have to believe this. As a Catholic, too. Each person is knit together by the goodness and kindness of God. Fallen as we are, in need of a rescuer, our bodies are good. We are loved. It may surprise you, but consider that affirming that all bodies are good bodies is a part of a consistent pro-life ethic.
As a Catholic Christian, I am committed to speaking up for the ones our society dismisses as unnecessary or superfluous or unworthy. Because all life is precious, and the way we live this life is in our bodies. Our good bodies.
Kids talk about bodies, and that is a really good thing. We want to encourage that because we want our daughter--and all our kids--to come to us to have conversations about bodies.
So, when the conversation turns to fat people, as it inevitably will, how will you talk with your kids about us?
How to Talk With Your Kids About Fat People
Do not shush your kids when they talk about bodies, their own or others'.
When you do this, you are communicating that it is shameful to talk about--or worse, to be--fat.
Ask questions about the body-focused statements your kids make.
Their answers will tell you what they are actually perceiving and help to identify their assumptions.
Kid: So-and-so is fat.
Parent: Oh? How do you decide if you think someone is fat?
Is it good to be fat? Is it bad?
There is no judgment in these questions; they help you get to what your child is actually talking about instead of you assuming you get the whole picture.
(I’m learning that this strategy is helpful in a lot of other areas…)
Follow up with truthful statements.
“All bodies are good bodies.”
“Bodies come in all different shapes and sizes.”
“Bodies are not one-size-fits-all, and that’s a good thing!”
Maybe as a parent, you’re not so sure that I’m right, that all bodies are good bodies. Maybe you think some bodies are bad. Maybe you have a history of hating your body, criticizing it, and relentlessly demanding that it change. Maybe the standard you demand of yourself has bled into the way you see other people, people you love. I totally get it. I’ve been there, and sometimes I travel back, just to see how awful it is. (I’m kidding--I don’t go there by choice, but I do find myself there occasionally.)
It is easy to say one thing about bodies and find myself believing another. Here are the ways that I keep the truth of my body’s goodness fresh:
I practice cultivating a holy love for my body.
I talk about it (aka...this blog).
I ask questions of myself: why do I feel shame/embarrassment/confusion/joy/delight about my body or the bodies of others?
I remember that Jesus gave and (gives) his body and blood to his people, and that is a good thing for this body of mine.
I have found that these things keep me in a better place to be able to speak truth and lean into it when those conversations pop up with the people around me, especially my children.
I hope this gives some food for thought and conversation. Please read, comment, and share this--it is a really important message to spread.
Other articles of interest from FatinChurch.com
To All the Fat Girls ** Fat Hospitality ** Cultivating a Holy Love for Your Body
The Morality of Fatness ** Is It a Sin to be Fat? ** What Your Fat Friend Needs from You
Are You Biased Against Fat People? ** Making Room for Fat Christians
Fitting Back Into My Body After Pregnancy (for the 4th time) ** The Luxury of Weight Loss Dating and Anti-Fat Bias in the Church ** Thanksgiving: Let’s Start With Our Bodies