Somewhere around 8 years old, I started to think I was fat. It wasn’t a “light bulb moment” or some startling epiphany that came crashing into my consciousness. It was more like a series of events, each making a subtle impact until they distilled into one giant mantle that I would wrestle with well into adulthood.
First, there was the scale outside the vitamin store at the mall, which could — for only one quarter — tell you amazing things like your body fat percentage and bone mass. But of all that information, the one statistic that stuck out to me was the fact that I was “9 pounds overweight.”
Then there was my mother, who was naturally slim and determined to stay that way. I tagged along to the gym with her, wearing my star-spangled Mary Lou Retton leotard and legwarmers, a front-row witness to the aerobics craze of the ’80s.
At home, we had our VCR and Sweatin’ to the Oldies, where we bounced around daily with Richard Simmons and his pillowy ‘fro. And then there was Deal-A-Meal, his accompanying diet plan, which my mom allowed me to do with her.
Looking back, I’m sure she emphasized for my sake that we were doing this to be healthy. But I was an observant kid, steeping in the culture of stick-thinness, and I could read between the lines: We didn’t want to be fat.
She didn’t want me to be fat, to be teased, to be shamed, to bear the societal shunning and resulting pain that came with such a fate. She had watched her own mother struggle — tearfully, perpetually — with her weight, and her fear of enduring that kind of trauma fueled her motivation.
I know now that my mother was trying to do me a favor, instilling a love of physical fitness and a knowledge of proper diet, and trying to ensure a lifetime of socially acceptable non-fatness and a body that didn’t make me cry.
It didn’t help that my teenage years were spent leafing through glossy magazines that glorified Kate Moss and the waif look — all jutting hip bones and sharp, bony angles — or that I was never petite, but genetically predisposed to be heavy-boned and solid (thanks, Dad). My body image was distorted by my perception of “beautiful,” which was basically the opposite of my rounded cheeks, curvy thighs, and compact muscle.
Trying to live up to your own impossible standards is exhausting. I should know. I’ve been doing it since I was 8. Now that I’m the mother of four sons, people ask me all the time if I’m disappointed I don’t have a girl. And I answer, very truthfully, absolutely not.
Sure, there are things I share with my mother that, once in a while, I wistfully envision being able to do with a daughter of my own. But with only male offspring came a profound relief: I don’t have to worry that they’ll inherit the struggle.
I don’t have to teach them about bodily acceptance when I’ve still not fully grasped the concept myself. I don’t have to worry about them being saddled with a persistent, nagging sense of insecurity. There’s no pressure for boys to have a bikini body, or to “bounce back after baby,” or have a Kim Kardashian ass and Gwen Stefani abs. I don’t have to worry about it, because for boys, this isn’t a thing. Right?
That’s what I thought — until my 8-year-old son came home crying last week.
He’s tall for his age and substantially built. Not overweight by any stretch of the imagination, but given his body type, he’s bigger and heavier than the majority of his friends. And while he was playing with those friends and one of his much smaller brothers, an offhanded comment was made: “You’re fat.”
It was met with a laugh, which prompted more teasing, and led to my normally confident son running home, sobbing in my astonished arms on the couch.
“But, sweetheart, they’re wrong,” I whispered because I couldn’t find my voice, praying I was saying the right thing. “Look at you. You’re strong. You’re fast. You’re healthy.”
Sniffling, he grasped a roll of skin on his stomach with both hands. Skin. “This?” he said dryly, his tearful, soulful eyes swiveling upward to meet mine. “Is fat.”
In that moment, my heart shattered in a way that only a mother’s can. The only thing heavier than its broken pieces was the realization that my son hadn’t escaped the curse. He was living with it. It was suffocating him the way it has suffocated me, and my mother, and her mother.
I recounted in my head all the times recently that I’d lamented out loud about putting on a few pounds, or grabbed a handful of my hip and snorted with disgust. Was this my fault?
I hadn’t protected him, or any of my sons, because I thought I didn’t need to. I thought boys were immune to the pressure to be thin. I have always envied their ability to be who they were, with no expectation of their figure defying age and hormones and the allure of baked goods.
I let my sons prod my squishy belly and answered their questions about why my butt was so jiggly — because I didn’t want them to hold their future partners to the unfair standards of female beauty they’ll see in magazines and on TV. But I didn’t think about teaching them to love and accept their own bodies. I didn’t know it was necessary. Not for boys. Not for men.
I didn’t know.
I like to wrap up most of my articles with a tidy synopsis of what I’ve learned and the action I’m taking, a resolution, or a snippet of advice for the reader. But how can I teach a lesson I’m still struggling with learning? All I know is this: Whatever positive conversation we need to have about body image, whatever example we need to set, is most definitely not gender-specific.
Don’t just worry about your daughters. Your sons are watching, too.