On not being the "right" size.
Bedtimes are quiet vulnerable moments, more so if you're little. The secrets, no longer able to roil in tiny tummies, make themselves heard. Two nights ago, after lullabies and stories were done, Shyama mentions that exercise causes weight loss; I agree, groaning inwardly at the thought of her asking me to lose weight. I ask her what made her think of it. She says she wants to start exercising and lose weight. I ask her again why she’d like to do that. Because the kids in class call me fat, she says.
Now, I never know if I am parenting correctly. There’s almost never a counterpoint to my method and behavior as a parent and I almost always wing it, erasing doubts on the run nice and gentle, quite like an avalanche demolishing pines on a slope. Because there’s no time to consider when you’re parenting little kids, and especially if you’re the only one who parents regularly. They demand and you better show up, or miss the moment and scar them for life. But at this moment, all my anxieties came rushing back and collided pretty hard with my parenting.
Growing up, I was an average-sized kid, not fat, but definitely not skinny. And much like Shyama, I was surrounded by kids who were the latter. Teenage brought with it some weight, sure. So while I don’t remember being teased by kids around me about being fat (although, in class nine, a teacher burnt me for life by calling me “fatty”. You’d think an adult would know better) I do know that not being the size everyone else was made me feel infinitely less. It didn’t help that people close to me started pointing out that I was fat, even though I think back now and I know I wasn’t. I grew up thinking I was fat. I think about the girl I was and I think of all the things I stopped myself from doing because I wasn’t the right size, and I wish I had known better. I was excruciatingly shy and felt foolish every time I uttered a word. And I blamed it all on the size I was. Nothing has been more shackling to me than feeling fat.
At 35, I am a lot more comfortable with my body but my anxieties haven’t left me. Sure, I wear whatever I want and am comfortable enough to look at my unclothed body in the mirror without hating it, sometimes I even like it. But I also cover up a lot. When I meet new people, when I want to make a certain kind of joke, when the situation is more intimate and demands a certain physical vulnerability, I freeze up. I am so little of myself. I wonder if I look ugly to the other person and I hope my flaws will be taken care of by my dazzling company. I kid, of course. But, jokes apart, this is one of the two things from my childhood that I haven’t been able to overcome. And to hear Shyama might begin on that hellish, corrosive journey paralyses me. Especially since she isn’t a fat kid. Just like I wasn’t. But I didn’t believe that of myself. And I am hoping she will be different and believe it when I tell her she isn’t fat.
At that moment, with anxiety rioting inside me, distress at the future of this lovely child suffering at the hands of the insanity of an ideal size, I didn’t have any solutions. Anger was foremost. I told her she was just right and shouldn’t listen to teasing. Next I asked her who it was in particular that teased her. “Everyone except K,” she says, mentioning the one girl as tall as her. Shyama and this girl are the tallest kids in class at 4’4”. I am glad she said that because I used that to tell her that maybe the rest just wanted to be tall like her and because K was already tall enough, she didn’t feel the need to tease Shyama. That seemed to satisfy her a bit. I tried not to preach but I did tell her that she was getting *plenty* exercise in school and that she was healthy, happy and running around, and had a bright bright soul; that’s all that mattered. I then told her to go to sleep and that we would talk about this in more detail tomorrow.
As soon as she was asleep, I reached out to two friends, both parents. I had no idea how to deal with this. While it wasn’t bullying and Shyama is no shrinking violet, my concern was negative body image issues. One friend instantly put me at ease by telling me of her own experience. She said something so wonderfully, sweetly vulnerable and true. All the time, I was cool inside but didn’t feel it outside because I wasn’t the right size, she said. And it rung true. Another friend suggested I tone down the import of it by not giving it too much attention so Shyama gets the message that size isn’t important.
But tomorrow morning came bright and early and before she had brushed her teeth, Shyama said, Amma, you said we’d talk about something in the morning. I hadn’t forgotten, I told her. We bathed, breakfasted and buzzed off to the bus stop. Only this time, I had Shyama sit in the front next to me. I know she felt special; she stuck her tongue out her brother in the back. I asked her again, this time calmer, what her concerns were. She said I feel bad when I am called fat. We went over the ‘you’re not fat, you’re healthy’ routine, once more. Then I asked her if she believed she was fat. “Sometimes. But mostly I have great muscles,” she said. I then told her if she feels the need for a comeback, in a situation that she can’t handle, she can always be kind and yet be teasing of her friends. “Go give them a shoulder hug and say ‘Hi Shorty!’” She giggled and said, “I’d never do that! It’d make them feel bad, amma.” The next best thing I could come up with took a while because I was too busy clearing the painful lump in my throat. If she wouldn’t turn it on them, I decided to let her risk being a bit haughty and say, “I am not fat, I am perfect.” Nothing gets people’s goat than someone thinking well of themselves. She gives me a big, heart-shatteringly innocent grin and says, “YES! I am perfect.”
I still have no solutions; I hope we will find our way together, she and I. I hope she won't let this nonsense that kids come up with affect her as searingly as it did me. Speaking of, how are these kids at *seven* years of age picking this shit up? What kind of conversations happen at home for fat to be an issue when all you should be worried about this spending all your time at play? I will admit to cartoons ALL ganging up on fat people and making them figures of ridicule. But I would think steadying influences at home would teach kids that's not done.
There are three things that guide me when I deal with this.
1. I want her to genuinely know size, not just hers, anyone's doesn't matter.
2. That there are loads of other things apart from body and size that she can and needs to spend time wondering about.
3. That she is healthy is the most important thing. After my initial confusion cleared, I decided to write her a story that will subtly talk about size without talking down to her. I have no idea what the story is going to be but it is what she loves more than anything else in the world, so maybe it will speak to her. Two friends suggested I show her achievers, just sort of slip it in, who are different in size so that she knows it doesn't need to hold her back, in case she ever comes to a point where she starts to believe her size needs to stop her. But the best advice came in the form of this: http://idiva.com/opinion-iparenting/dont-call-me-fatty/24222
Shyama came back from school yesterday and told me not many people teased her. And that she thought about it and didn’t want to tell them she was perfect. She wanted to tell them, “I am perfect the way I am and you are also perfect.”
Maybe I don’t have to worry after all.