by Kimberly Dark
It’s weird to have a mom who doesn’t diet. That’s how my son grew up.
He told me that when he was small, he didn’t even know I was fat. I weighed between 280-315 pounds during that time. To him, being fat meant having a big belly and I didn’t have one, so he just didn’t notice that I was… different. And I was active. I was his mom, likely invisible in familiarity. When he commented on this recently, he wondered aloud whether families who tend to be fatter ever speak to their children about the effects of fat stigma in the same way that black families might speak to their children about being safe around the police in a racist culture, for instance. Sure, a fat kid can be an anomaly in a family, but not always. I pondered this and said no, I didn’t think those conversations were common, primarily because a dieting mom is the American norm. Fat stigma is so internalized, an entire family of fatties being radicalized in that way would be unlikely. Sad thought; I hope it’s changing.
Because I gave up dieting in favor of an “eat-what-I-crave, when I’m hungry and until I’m full” philosophy when my son was about two, he never knew a dieting mother. And while my commitment to eating, shame-free, in full view of others was shocking to some, my son reported trusting it. “Sure,” he said, “people saw you eat cake and cookies and sometimes said they ‘worried’ about your health, but what they didn’t see was Dad’s diet-and-binge ways of relating to ice-cream, for instance. Dad stayed fit looking, so no one ever knew his actual relationship to food. I think I got some of those habits from him. From you, I saw more balance.” I was an anomaly – culturally, and in our family. Now that he’s a father, my son is navigating fat stigma with his own son. I don’t know how that looks on a daily basis, but I know he’s aware that stigma affects us all.
When my grandson was two, he and his parents visited me in Hawaii. We spent much of that visit in our bathing suits, in and out of the water. On the first day of that visit, my son’s partner innocently posted a family picture of us on Facebook and of course, she tagged me. I started that Facebook page primarily to communicate with the people who read my essays and see my performances and lectures. Since then, I’ve come to enjoy staying in touch with many of the people I meet in my travels. Still, I have thousands of “friends” I don’t even know.
There had never been a picture of me in a bathing suit that was so available to so many people. If I were younger – part of the selfie generation – I could well be a selfie-fatkini activist, but I’m not. I write and speak about weight stigma, about bodies in culture, about the value of creating new cultural patterns. Why did I ask her to take the picture down? It took a few hours to handle my initial freak-out and then I asked her instead to “untag” me rather than remove such a nice photo entirely. I felt embarrassed by my request. I was shocked that my snap reaction to being seen in a normal, terribly joyful family moment, was to hide my body.
That’s the power of cultural conditioning. And mostly, I’m gentle with myself. I don’t always choose the challenging route. Of course my son and my grandson are seeing all of it: the struggle, the surprise, the gentleness, the humor, the recovery. Maybe that’s not so bad in the sum analysis.
As a parent, my son will pass on messages about the body, about stigma, about size and about food to his own son – both by example and with his words. If I were parenting now, I’d probably be capable of having those talks with him that he fantasizes fat families could have – to prepare their children for social norms and values about fat bodies – to mitigate the harm of fat stigma. For a short period of his childhood, my son was chubby, then soon he added a foot in height and became slender once more. He recalls being comforted by another family member’s simple comment that his boy-fat phase seemed to be ending. He understood that he was not uniquely failing at having the “right” body. He was maturing normally through “a phase.”
At different times in my life, I’ve had different language with which to discuss fat. It was enough, in my early twenties, to give up dieting and become stalwart about my own worth. A lot can be conveyed to children without words. And what he passes on to his son will be complex. His lessons may also include the kind of stories I couldn’t tell. He might actually say words that explore personal pain and social stigma, how they interact with health and kindness and worth.
My son might even be able to ask his own child questions I didn’t think to ask him. Things like, “How do you feel about your own body, and how others view it?” As he grew, we spoke openly about racism and social class, gender identity and ability. I stopped short of talking about fat stigma with him – even though I wrote about it for adult audiences. I hope that he’ll do better at connecting the tough questions about his own body with the tough questions about other people’s bodies. He already has a more complex schema for talking and listening and making meaning to offer his own son than I had to offer him. My grandson’s body will bear this understanding, and hopefully less social stigma as a result of our efforts.