I don’t know why this morning’s meltdown took me so completely off guard. But it was upsetting nonetheless. It’s the second time I’m breaking my “don’t write about my kids” rule because this topic is just so important.
It’s trip day at camp and yesterday, my almost 8 year old brought home the camp t-shirt she needs to wear today. I don’t know if they just handed out random sizes, or if I wrote the wrong size t-shirt on her forms, but this morning she stood crying in front of my mirror because the shirt was too big. And it wasn’t that she was upset that it was too big because it was uncomfortable or the weight of the extra fabric was bulky, but because she “looked fat.”
At first, I laughed, head buried underneath a mound of blanket trying to snooze as my husband did the morning shift. I went to bed at 2:00 a.m. after a long night at work and so I was bleary eyed and sleepy as this 7:30 a.m. tirade unfolded next to me.
I peeked at her and watched as she sneered at her reflection in the mirror, pulling at the extra fabric around her waist. She pulled and pushed, bunched up in little fists and wound the t-shirt around her waist like she was kneading bread. I tried to find a solution and offered to make a knot in her shirt so it would feel snug around her belly and she cried harder. She wanted to change her shirt, she looked fat, and she did not want to go to camp looking that way.
What got to me was not so much that she could ever think a little bulk in a t-shirt could make her look fat when she is tall and healthy. She is well within her BMI and slender, we laugh because we have a hard time finding pants and swimsuit bottoms that fit her. And she is beautiful. I know, I’m biased, but she really is very pretty.
But how she looked at herself in the mirror this morning with such disgust really got to me. That self-loathing at the way she perceived her body looked this morning was so hard to watch, so difficult to comprehend.
For those who are reading this and don’t know me, or haven’t seen me in quite some time, I am fat. I am not chubby or curvy. I am not “a little overweight” or “haven’t lost the baby weight yet.” I am categorically obese. Like, my doctor asked me if I would consider lap band surgery obese.
I have battled with my body weight my entire life. I constantly struggle with the self loathing because of the way my body looks. I’ve battled an eating disorder for more than 20 years and those scars will never fade. I look in the mirror and frequently despise what I see: the stretch marks and cellulite, the thunder thighs and the mounds of flesh packed around what used to be a waist.
But what I have always been extremely careful about is never, ever, complaining about my body in front of my children. Those are closed door conversations that, in moments of weakness, I have with my husband. Those sighs of despair when I look at myself in the mirror moments happen in the quiet of the night, before/after a shower, with the bathroom door closed.
If anything, I celebrate my fatness with my children. When asked about the excess flab around my waist, I remind them that that’s where they used to live – how they grew and swam inside of me and how happy I was when they were in there. When they say: “Mommy, you’re fat!” I say with a smile and a shout “yes, I am!” and “I’m fat, and I’m on the tall side for a “Jewish” woman, and I have blonde hair and green eyes. I’m kind and I’m funny, and I’m smart and I’m loving, etc.” I try to dress well, putting on some make up here or there when the mood strikes me. I smell great – seriously – I own enough Jo Malone to rival the storefronts and the kids are always hugging me and breathing in my scent and remarking how much they love my smell. I work out in front of them – the treadmill in my living room not just an ornament and the large medicine ball is used for crunches and not just for play time.
And she hears my husband tell me ALL the time how beautiful I am, how nice I look, how much he loves me. She sees him put his arms around me and give me hugs, and she observes how he looks at me with real love in his eyes.
But as much as we keep things “fat positive” on the homefront, I can’t shield her from society. I couldn’t stop her friend from looking at her plate at a Shabbat morning Kiddush – empty except for 6 potato chips and a cupcake – and warning her that she would “get fat if she ate ALL of that.” And even though I laughed and told my daughter that there was no way she would get fat by eating what was on her plate, and telling her friend that she was very mistaken about what she was saying, the damage was already done. That fear of becoming fat – as if fat is the most terrible thing one could be – has already been introduced to her and it is festering.
I couldn’t shield her from the well meaning family member who asked me if I planned on losing any weight before my brother-in-law’s wedding this September. (I told her that no, I was not really thinking about that aspect of the wedding). And I couldn’t shield her from the people on the street who used to stop me and remark at how good I looked because I had lost some weight. To her eyes, people only compliment me when Mommy has lost weight. Which, I think, is truly a shame.
We finally managed to convince her that she looked great even in the larger shirt and my husband took her to camp. She was okay once she got there and when he called me from the car, after drop off, I couldn’t stop the tears. I wondered, does she look at herself in the mirror and say:
“I hope I don’t look like my Mom.”
Because if she does, then all of the things my parents, the nasty kids growing up, and society has told me my whole life is really true. That being fat is the most horrible thing you can be in life. That it doesn’t matter how many degrees you have, or how accomplished you are in your career. Whether you are a talented photographer or artist, a gifted writer or a musician. It makes no difference if you are kind, or smart, empathetic or funny. It doesn’t matter if you’ve traveled the world or are a philanthropist. If you open your home to Shabbat guests and cook your heart out to make a restaurant quality meals. If you give charity or adopt a stray pet. If you’re there for your friends in times of need, or are the first person to volunteer to cook for someone after they had a baby or g-d forbid when they lose a loved one. If you take a friend to a movie because dating is so hard, or if you drop everything to take your recently divorced friend out for a drink.
None of that matters, if you are fat.
And statistically, I already know my kids are at a big disadvantage of developing an eating disorder because of my personal struggle with bulimia. I wouldn’t wish that aspect of my life on my worst enemy, let alone my beloved children. How I wish I could explain to them what it’s like to be me, to live in the constant shadow of an eating disorder.
To wake up in the morning and literally fight with myself to put food into my body before Noon. It is actually physically painful to sit down and eat breakfast. I had spent so many years starving myself an entire day until I got to dinner, where I would just binge out of control because I was so hungry. I have to convince myself that it’s okay to eat. That “fat girls don’t eat” is not true – that everyone needs food to survive. I have to remind myself when I have company that I need to also sit down and eat, that it’s okay to eat “in public” and no one is really watching me or judging me (and if they are, screw em!).
And when life gets truly hard and painful – I have to muster up all of my strength to stop myself from binging and purging. To not go through the kitchen like a tornado, eating everything in site, and then getting rid of it all down the toilet.
So here we are, in a place that I prayed as a parent I never would be even though I knew we would get here. And I know just how important my actions in dealing with this morning’s episode will be on my daughter’s future.
On a future where I hope she will grow to love her body – no matter what it looks like – and to just live and love life.