Damaged Goods

My students read a book called Fat-Talk Nation in one of my classes. The basic gist of it is that our society’s obsession with weight has led to everyone – regardless of size – hating their bodies.

Another important part is how just a single comment can fuck up a kid’s body image.

Growing up, I was a fat kid. I think I remember first making an effort at weight loss in preschool, walking around the neighborhood with my mom with the promise of getting a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt that I recall liking when we briefly lived in Oregon.

Or I might not have really been fat then. I don’t know.

I grew up with disordered eating and developed binge eating disorder that I still struggle with.

I do recall being at the pediatrician and him sharing the food pyramid with my mom and me.

My mind has blocked out the period of transition between being in kids sizes then going into women’s sizes. I don’t remember ever wearing junior size clothes. I do remember my mom taking me to K-Mart after church one day to get a bra and deodorant – I guess I was overzealous during a kid’s activity? I started wearing a sports bra in the 3rd grade, I think. I remember the acolyte robes being altered to fit my body since I was larger.

It’s not like I didn’t know I was fat or large or different.

This has been a point of contention, I think, my entire life between my grandmother and me.

I love my grandmother and know that she did her best, especially when she had to “compete” against my sisters and my relationship with my Grandma. Our relationship with Grandma was closer (for better or worse). My grandmother has always been supportive of my academic and career endeavors. She wants what is best for me.

She has good intentions.

People, when making comments about size or weight, tend to do so with the best intentions. They do it out of concern. They want to make sure you know they notice you and that they care about you and your health.

But ultimately, I think they say something because it makes them feel like they’ve done something or they are doing something. It’s like the worst sort of bystander intervention, especially because oftentimes it does not help.

There was a big row between my mom and grandmother in 2000 about a trip to Switzerland. We all got passports. The entire family was supposed to go, from my understanding, and it ended up that only part of the family went. My mom said she thought it was because my grandmother was ashamed of my immediate family because we are (for the most part) all fat. I don’t know whether that was true or was just a part of my mom’s self-professed craziness. It sort of sucked, though.

Another incident that comes to mind happened about 10 years ago. I had asked my grandmother what she wanted for Christmas. She said that if she could have any wish, it would be that I lose weight.

Before I went to Africa, my grandmother said she would pay for the trip if I lost weight. I took out student loans instead. She sent me to Africa with two freezer-size bags of my favorite cookies – her pecan sandies.

After I got back from Africa, I started to take up running. I discussed this new passion with her at dinner and she asked me how fast I was running. It might have been an innocent comment, but it took the wind right out of my sails. I still ran. She supported me in that, funding my trip for my first half marathon.

I know that she has my best interests at heart and that she loves me. I know she was just showing concern or, in the last example, trying to be supportive.

But my overall point is this: just don’t. Don’t. It’s that simple.

Comments about a person’s size, including trying to persuade them to lose weight, do more harm than good. Even positive comments can be harmful. Many people get a high out of the positive body comments and experience a damaging fall when those comments dry up or turn negative.

When around your loved ones this holiday season, I’d encourage you to not engage in body-talk, especially fat-talk. I know it will be tempting since new year’s brings out fitness resolutions and new diets. I know it will be difficult since people like to discuss how they shouldn’t eat “bad” foods or how they’ve overindulged.

But talk about something else. And watch what you say because, even the best intended advice or prods can result in damaged people and damaged relationships.