It had to happen sooner or later.
When we sent our son, Waylon, to school, we knew that eventually some kid would tell him
that it’s sick and wrong
Apparently, some denizen of the playground has taken it upon himself to inform Waylon that he has “fat cheeks.” Now, whenever Waylon looks in the mirror, he sucks in his cheeks like a six-year-old Zoolander. Suddenly he shuns his puffy coat. The other night at dinner, when I told him he needed to eat his chicken for a little protein and fat, he looked at me with panic in his eyes. “I don’t want to be fat!”
I find these developments more than a little disturbing. Before Waylon was born, my wife, Katy, and I made one solemn vow: no fat talk in front of the kid. Whatever our private struggles, we promised to abstain from negative body talk about ourselves, other people, and especially our son.
It may seem strange that we prioritized body-positive parenting before, say, saving for Waylon’s college fund. But it’s all a question of context. To say that our families were fat phobic is a little like saying that Fred Phelps has a problem with gay people. Katy grew up hearing “lose some weight” as the one-size-fits-all response to every dilemma. When she became addicted to speed in the eighties, her mother was initially blinded by her miraculous weight loss. There’s actually a picture of Katy in the family photo album, looking skeletal and vacant, with the breezy caption “a size six!!!!”
My parents’ attitudes toward weight were similarly disordered. They approached dieting with punitive, penitential fervor. At one point, when I was 13, my dad was exercising two hours a day and subsisting entirely on raisins, grapes, and bagels. “You don’t want to be unattractive,” he’d say when he dropped in between workouts to admonish me and my sister for eating junk. “Unattractive” was the code word for fat. Its connotations were lazy, undisciplined, stupid, feminine, and self-indulgent.
These kinds of messages, which mistakenly equate physical attributes with moral qualities, were shaming and insidious. Luckily, I had one natural ally in sniffing out hypocrisy: my metabolism. I have a fairly fast metabolism. Whether I eat a lot or a little, whether I eat healthy food or junk, my weight stays within the same 10-pound range. By the time I reached adulthood, I had realized that the social approbation I received for being thin had nothing to do with self-discipline or moral righteousness. It was just genes and pure, dumb luck.
Thus, when Waylon was born, Katy and I were determined to disrupt old family patterns. As a baby, Waylon demonstrated a marked preference for well-cushioned bodies. This was most apparent when we traveled to France and decided to save money by holding him in our laps for the 11-hour flight. When I held him, Waylon would toss-and-turn, trying to find a comfy way to rest his head against my bony clavicles. Again and again, he’d give up and reach for Katy’s more comfortable belly.
As a toddler, Waylon preferred to rest on Katy’s belly while we read bedtime stories. He could fit his body between the crook of her neck and the cradle of her hips. Before he tottered off to bed, he’d squeeze her and bestow rows of tiny kisses. “Belly, I love you! You are the most comfortable belly in the whole world.”
Of course, raising a fat accepting child turned out to be easier said than done. Although Katy and I had vowed to eschew negative body talk, that didn’t mean that we’d successfully jettisoned all of our negative baggage about our bodies. One summer, when I ventured to the pool in a new two-piece bathing suit, Waylon patted my midsection. “Hey,” he said, in a tone of pleasant surprise, “your belly looks kind of fat in that.” I resisted the urge to shroud myself in a giant beach towel, but I can’t say that my reply, “thanks a lot,” wasn’t shrouded in sarcasm.
When you’ve grown up in a fat phobic family, it’s pretty hard to leave all those old habits behind. I came up listening to my mother bemoan her wide thighs and child-bearing hips. I know I’ve slipped up once or twice and said disparaging things about my own body within earshot of my son. And although we try our best to love the bodies we’ve got, it’s not like we don’t watch what we eat. Katy’s a performer, and she has a target weight that makes her feel more comfortable on stage. When Waylon first realized that she was dieting for an upcoming show, he was absolutely stricken. “Please Mommy,” he begged, “please don’t get rid of your fat.”
It was perhaps the first time in her life that Katy had to assure someone that her diet would not be too successful.
But the most challenging thing about raising a fat accepting child has been helping him make sense of the social stigma attached to fat in our culture. The necessity of introducing some context became clear when Waylon was three and we took him to our favorite pizza place. The waiter came to our table, and Waylon greeted him with a cheerful “Hi Fat!” The young man blushed and avoided my eyes for the rest of the evening, which was excruciating. I wanted to tell him that Waylon’s words weren’t meant to wound, but I doubted my ability to explain our parenting philosophy quickly and convincingly enough to avoid causing the man further mortification.
When I talked to Waylon about that incident, I tried to explain it in children’s terms. Being fat doesn’t make someone bad, but calling someone fat can make that person feel bad. It’s complicated and contradictory, but I think he gets it. Just to make sure, I backed it up with some good, old-fashioned parental guilt: “If I ever hear you call someone fat in a mean way, I will be very, very upset,” I told him.
“I know, I know,” he said, in the impatient voice he uses when I tell him something obvious.
These days, when I see Waylon sucking in his lovely round cheeks, I wonder if we’ve succeeded at all. It’s easy to see his self-consciousness about his appearance as an external manifestation of my inner demons, a reflection of my own not-fully-expurgated fat phobia. I think, if only I hadn’t said that thing about my butt, if only we’d never told him that Katy was dieting…
But part of me recognizes that there’s no way to shelter Waylon from the prejudices in the world around him. And fat is hardly the only issue where there’s a gap between our family worldview and the ideology of the larger culture. The other day, one of his classmates told him it was “strange” that he had two moms. Yes, we had to tell him, kids are going to say that. Not everybody knows gay people. Some families don’t know that it’s okay to be different.
As a parent, I have to trust that Waylon can encounter other people’s assumptions without losing touch with our family’s core values: justice, compassion, and self-acceptance. But today he still doesn’t want to wear his bulky winter coat. Still, yesterday he hugged Katy’s middle and said, “you are the best belly in the whole world.” I hope that, eventually, the same love will extend to his cheeks, his belly, and every other part of his beautiful, perfect body.