A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

"I'm Fat?"

Treading lightly through the minefield of discussing weight with girls.

No one told me that eight was the age when my stick-like child would suddenly develop curves. There's nothing obviously adolescent about these changes in her body–it's all about rounding out what has hitherto been muscle and bone–though it's clear that's where we're headed in a few years. But that's the problem: a few years from now is when I was expecting to have to explain puberty. I wasn't ready for the changes now happening to her and many of her girl friends, who suddenly have rounded bottoms and tummies and thighs. And in some ways, these changes are more challenging to explain-–not merely because they're unexpected, but because they can seem unhealthy or unattractive rather than a natural part of growing up; and we all know how society judges chubbiness, especially in girls.

I've been pondering how to talk about her new body shape all summer, as it's been more obvious in the swimsuits and shorts that make up her summer wardrobe. She's also started growing out of clothes in the waist before the legs. We have had many discussions about "growing" in which I studiously avoid the words "fat" and "thin," and talk instead about how she's getting stronger and taller and more muscular, all of which is true. But I suspect she knows there's more to it than that, and I'm not sure how to discuss it with her.

In August we spent a day at the beach in Brooklyn and, as if for the first time, both girls noticed fat people. This launched a discussion in the car on the way home about how it isn't good for one's health to be very overweight. But then, of course, I felt the need to backpedal and say, "Well, it's not good for you to be too skinny either. What you want is to be a happy medium." And without missing a beat, my older daughter piped up from the backseat: "Mommy, I'm a happy medium!"  It was that too-rare thing: a Good Parenting Moment.

But this blissful state of affairs was challenged the other day when a usually well-meaning elderly neighbor pointed to my older daughter as we passed by and said, holding her hands wide apart, "She's getting thick!" I smiled broadly and stammered out "Yes, yes, she's growing up." But the neighbor shook her head, pointed at Calliope's tummy, and said, "No, thick!"

I didn't know what to do or say, and any hope that perhaps my daughter didn't hear or understand her was dashed as she said, somewhat crestfallen, "I'm fat?"

As far as I know, children see fat and thin in a far less judgmental way than adults do, understanding body shape primarily as a factor of difference–much like the way they see race. They are certainly hyper-aware of differences between people, and there's also that human tendency to favor what's most like oneself and to eye the Other with wariness. But it seems important to be aware that most of the judgments beyond that are imposed by adults and by society. To a child, a fat person is simply that: someone fat. They don't bring moral judgment to bear or understand the cultural context of body shape–until we teach it to them. Which is why so many parents I know are struggling with how to speak to their children about issues such as this, whether their body shape or someone else's.

I have heard from many friends and other mothers about young girls who are already asking "Does this make me look fat?" And answering this question, whether it's prompted by a nosy neighbor or a pair of "skinny jeans" for a six-year-old, can feel like a minefield. One wrong answer and you're afraid you're dooming your child to a life of unhappiness. A recent Nightline piece, while somehwat squirm-inducing, does perfectly illustrate parental fears on this topic. 

I'm still struggling with this, and while my instinct is to approach my neighbor and firmly (!) explain why her comment was hurtful, I know that I'll only be addressing the tiniest tip of the iceberg. Even telling my daughter (as I did) that it's no one's business but hers what she looks like doesn't fully address the problem. For all our children–fat or thin, pretty or ugly, boys or girls–will have to negotiate their own ways through a world of judgments and criticism; it's their inner voices that will help them deal with this, and that's what we need to help them develop. That internal confidence that will tell them they're okay...even when someone else tells them they aren't.

So here's my current thought about being an eight-year-old girl who's suddenly growing in new directions. I haven't tried this out on her yet, and I don't know whether I will: I don't want to blow this issue up into something bigger than it is for her. But this made me feel better, just knowing I had an idea of what I could say. Maybe eight-year-old girls are like babies who reach the peak of delicious chubbiness around eight months, when their thigh-rolls threaten to take over the planet, and who thin out almost the exact instant they begin to crawl. Perhaps older children begin to put on weight in different places as they approach pre-adolescence, in preparation for the growth spurts and changes that accompany that stage? Whether or not that's verifiable, it jibes with my deep-seated sense that this is simply another stage in the process of growth and change, and not the first step on a path to obesity or weight struggles.

My daughter is healthy and strong; she runs like the wind and can climb anything; she eats good, fresh food. I know she's fine and, more than anything, I want to make sure she knows it, too.

What I cooked this week:

  • Pasta with Frankies’ Tomato Sauce (The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual)
  • Roast Chicken with Roast Cauliflower (toss florets with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast in a hot over until browned and wilted—the best way I’ve ever made or eaten cauliflower)
  • Pasta with Bell Peppers and Sausage Sauce (Marcella Hazan, The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking)
  • Mrs. Sebastiani's Malfatti (The Essential New York Times Cookbook)
  • Tomato Sauce with Sauteed Vegetables (Marcella Hazan, The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking)
  • Ridiculously Easy Maple Walnut Ice Cream (Melissa Clark, In the Kitchen With A Good Appetite)
  • New Year's Eve (!) Farro with Porcini Mushrooms and Pancetta (New York Times)

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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