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Part 2: Fat-Shaming is NOT Motivating

OK, quick recap of last night’s post.

Me: former fat kid who has struggled with weight her entire life. Worked my way through the weight loss fad diets and felt the sting of judgmental comments from family, friends, and even my (ex) husband until finally deciding to have gastric bypass in 2014. Lost 120 pounds, felt sexy AF, divorced, and have put back on a solid 40. All the while, trying to raise two little minions who won’t grow up to have the same body image issues I do.

That’s about the jist of it.

So that brings us to the now. Here I am, in a steady relationship, with two mostly well-adjusted children, and mentally the healthiest I’ve probably ever been. But recently, I’ve been working through the challenges of tackling body weight and image with my two kiddos.

This is Avery. She’s tall, gangly, lanky, and stands at just over four-feet and weighs in at 75 pounds. While I thoroughly enjoy her cuddles, she’s as bony as a white fish pre-plating. When she sits on me, it’s painful. She bruises easily and doesn’t have much padding. Her brother mostly affectionately beats on her, from a love/hate standpoint, and it almost always leads to a scream fest because she actually gets hurt. I’m usually telling her to toughen up.

This is Christian. At nine and a half, he’s also about four feet. But he is everything his sister is not. He would be my mini-me. At roughly 125 pounds, he’s as solid as a tantruming, dead-weight toddler you’re trying to carry out of a store. If he doesn’t want to be moved, he ain’t moving. This year he started Pop Warner football and played on the offensive line. Don’t ask me for the official position, I just know he was to the right of the center. Kid is a rock. He’s got a bit of a belly and cheeks and a boot to boot.

Poor kid got my genes while his sister was blessed with her father’s side. When they were younger, I anticipated and hoped for as much. Because when it comes to societal expectations and approval, I knew it would be far easier for my son to grow up in a world where having a dad bod was celebrated, while my daughter would have been crucified for being on the thicker side. So in some regards, I’m thankful the genetic pool divided itself the way it did across the two of them.

Now, Christian is far more active than Avery. He has always played sports, from the time he was 3. First and always participating in soccer, then a quick foray into basketball, then flag football, before he debuted in tackle last year. When he’s not on an official field, he’s kicking/throwing/punting some form of a ball across the yard, at a window, or over the neighbor’s fence. For most of his birthdays, he asks for sports-related gear: a new football, catching gloves, a toddler golf set one year, a soccer ball that returns to you, a net, roller blades, a bike. When summer hits, he’s usually in the pool from 11 a.m. until I drag his pruney, shriveled butt from it around dinner time.

Point is: he’s more active than almost everyone I know. But he’s putting on weight. Over the last year, he’s remained at roughly the same height, but his waistline continues to expand. I know this pattern all too well - he grows out, then eventually up. And as long as he stays active and fit, he’ll slim out and be alright.

Having grown up with some unhealthy eating habits, I’ve tried very hard to encourage my kiddos to eat a variety of healthy, nutrient-rich, energy-filled foods. Our fridge is usually stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables (all available to them in the additional snack drawer of our snazzy Samsung - a feature I knew I wanted when designing our new kitchen). If I have them five nights that week, I try to cook at least 3-4 of those, depending on what our schedules call for. We make chicken, steak, fish, always accompanied by a vegetable and sometimes bread (we are Portuguese, after all). Most nights I allow them a small dessert, but only if they’ve eaten enough of their plate. And usually after waiting at least 20 minutes for their stomachs to settle (I always want them to make sure they’re not over-stuffed and have the room for it). We take family walks with our 18-month old mini labradoodle Sadie whenever the weather allows. And on the weekends, we often take short family hikes or they can be found free and feral roaming our friends’ backyards on an all-day playdate, no technology in site.

During the summer, when I’m home, we are nomads and gypsies - we spend all day outside, bouncing between friends’ houses, borrowing pools. We take road trips, visit museums, frequent playgrounds, beaches, and parks, returning home only to collapse into our beds covered in dirt and sweat around nine.

Do I keep only organic food in the house? Fuck no. I still have Quaker Chewy Granola Bars and Smartfood Popcorn and Oreos. But we also have fruit cups and raisins and applesauce and Be Kind Bars and a huge bowl of cotton candy grapes sitting on the counter. Having grown up a fat kid, I understand what it’s like to dig yourself into such a hole, that climbing out feels damn near impossible. So I’ve always stressed particular messages to my two: fuel your body with healthy foods that give you energy and make you strong; you can enjoy unhealthy foods, but in moderation; you can always have as many fruits and vegetables as you’d like.

I’ve prioritized these messages so that they develop healthy relationships with food. I’ve tried to avoid making food a reward, punishment, or coping strategy (Think: You can’t have dessert until you eat all of your brussel sprouts! Or You had a hard day? Let’s get some ice cream.) And when it came to discussing their bodies and how they compared to others, I’ve always focused on strength, abilities, and health over weight and appearance. I praise my son for nailing a play that he had been confused on previously on the field. Or I pump up my daughter for popping cherry tomatoes over cookies when she’s hungry. I try to encourage healthy habits overall.

They are both at an age now where their appearance is starting to play more into their daily lives. And I know I’m not the only parent trying to teeter between marketing healthy and positive messages and not completely obliterating their self-esteem. I’m constantly afraid I’m going to do permanent damage. Because let’s be honest, most of us, well-established and in our 30s/40s/50s even, are still reeling from toxic comments and emotional trauma we sustained in our formative years regarding our bodies.

My ex-husband told me once that his negative, weight-based comments were meant to “motivate” me. And now he’s trying that tactic out on our son. They never motivated me and if anything, they pushed me further into a food-centric depression and now they’re doing the same to our son.

“You’re a 120-pound almost fifth grader, you’re going to be a 220-pound 8th grader” or “You’re growing out, but not up - you better hope you hit a growth spurt soon” or “These pants are a 14/16 - meant for 14 year-olds, not a 9 year-old” are said to help him focus on healthy eating habits. But all they do is sting and leave our impressionable 9 year-old a crying heap in my lap.

I understand His frustration and even His perspective - He doesn’t want His kid to be the fat kid, either. The kid who gets picked on for standing out on the playground. The kid picked last for sports because he’s too slow or uncoordinated. He doesn’t want His child to grow up obese or with a slew of medical conditions like diabetes. And I can get behind those feelings and fears. I can.

But shaming children can’t be the answer. I’m not a nutritionist or psychologist, so take this as what you will - advice from a former fat kid still processing the damage done to my fragile youth and adult psyche. As parents, we have to find a way to promote and model healthy habits and behaviors without commenting on our kids’ bodies. We can show them what it means to be healthy without making them feel badly about who they are. We can show love and concern without shaming them and thereby making our love feel conditional. And at the end of the day, if I’ve done everything I can do as a parent to promote a healthy lifestyle, then I have to be OK with that. If they’re still overweight, who gives a damn? I’m far more concerned with whether or not they’re kind, loyal, trustworthy, helpful, protective, generous, inclusive, strong, loving than whether or not they’re a size two.

Then there’s the flip side of this coin - my daughter. While I’m trying to build one kid up and make sure he’s accepting of his body exactly as it is, I have to carefully ensure I don’t call too much attention to how slim Avery is. There have been times she’s been picked on (by boys on the playground at recess, by family members who mean well) for being too thin. They tell her she’s too small, too weak, too fragile, that she needs to put some meat on her bones. As much as I work with Christian on accepting his body as is, I’m spreading the same love to Avery and her thinner frame.

Both sides of this two-faced devil are difficult. Which is why I’ve resolved to just praising exactly who they are, exclusive of their physical traits. In our house, we look at our inner beauty: our intelligence, our wisdom, our intuitiveness, our empathy, our kindness, our helpful natures, our mental fortitude and strength. Fuck our squishy parts, our bony appendages, or that God damned number on the scale.

If you’ve dealt with weight or body image issues, either personally or as a parent, weigh in (no pun intended). How do you quiet the inner demons? As a parent, how do you help your kiddos love their bodies in an as-is condition? How do you balance love and acceptance with criticism and critiques? How do you deal with comments from peers and family members? I’m curious and desperate for strategies and advice. Hit me!

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