My father has an illness that may one day require an organ transplant. I was, one afternoon, passionately assuring him that if it happened, I would be willing to donate. “As long as you don’t pork up like so-and-so,” he warned, naming a close relative. I blinked at him. Not because I was a size eight at the time, either. But because I couldn’t believe he’d answer my offer for organ donation with a jab at our relative’s size.
I’m not naming the relative. I won’t be naming any of the relatives in this piece, because I’m not going to perpetuate my dad’s nastiness or embarrass them — though they have nothing to be embarrassed about. He does.
It got so bad that when I brought my then-9-month-old son to visit, my dad used body shaming as a major part of a diatribe against one of our relatives. It wasn’t just that she was big in his mind (she really wasn’t and isn’t that big); it was that her size seemed to make her wholly unattractive and symbolize a kind of moral and spiritual degeneration.
Because I was brought up to be supremely respectful (read: tolerate — preferably, believe — any and all bullshit spouted by this man), I had to sit and listen. I had to add conversational backchanneling, mm-hmm’ing and uh-huh’ing and nodding along, because anything else would be met with accusations of disrespect.
It took an acrimonious divorce, raging alcoholism, and a total lack of concern for my kids on his part for me to be able to stand up and say: no more. I’m done with this man and his bullshit. I talked to one of my relatives and realized the damage his body shaming had done to her. As she spoke, I heard all the voices from my body positive Facebook group speaking. All the fears that their relatives would see them and comment on their weight. All the baggage about being harangued for their size, all the pain over the casual jibes and jokes. All the hurt of being called a porker, the shame of being judged for eating one more serving, for daring to have dessert. All the bafflement and damage of yo-yo dieting, because, over the long term and for the most part, dieting doesn’t work.
And I remembered.
I remembered being a child and hearing his words: hearing him calling people who I loved fat, calling them heifers, saying they needed to stop eating, saying they needed to diet before they “porked up” even more. And I remembered my twin feelings of smugness and terror: smugness because I was a little twig of a thing, and terror because what if one day I suddenly wasn’t?
When my anxiety and depression came to a head in high school, it manifested in lots of ugly ways. I don’t think, now, that it’s a coincidence one of them was a flirtation with eating disorders. At 100 lbs, I became convinced I was fat. I obsessed over my non-existent tummy. I exercised obsessively and ate jello packets as two-meal substitutes. I threw up dinner in the shower. I lived in terror of the scale. But most of all, I lived in terror of judgment. I had to prove something. What, my sixteen-year-old self wasn’t sure, couldn’t articulate. But something, something big, something important. I had to be worthy, and to be worthy, I had to be skinny.
I’m getting off that fucking carousel. And I’m taking my babies with me.
Because most importantly, I refuse to have my sons exposed to it. My father’s comments aren’t always vitriolic rants about so-and-so and her inability to stop snarfing bacon (which signifies a lack of self-control, which signifies that food is more important to her than finding a man); there is a fundamental inability to see beauty in any woman beyond a certain size. Once a woman’s body reaches a certain weight, she becomes decoupled from all sexual attraction. She becomes not only repellent, but lazy, negligent. She’s let herself go. If she’s married, she’s committing some kind of sin against her husband.
My father’s genes have made him skinny. One close relative is a cop, and she’s cut from marble. I got sick of hearing her praised for simply looking the way she looked. I got sick of knowing that I inherited genes from my other side of the family: the one with the thyroid problems, the ones who grow slowly over time. The ones who probably will never see a single digit size this side of death. That’s because of the way we’re made. So many women are made this way, and we can accept genetics or make ourselves miserable battling them down to a size 6.
But it’s also because we love food. When my mother visited, we made nutroll together: our sacred family dish, a hellishly complicated pastry I hadn’t had the luck to eat in years. We laughed. Flour covered my kitchen table, my shirt, my kids, who kept running in to draw in the white dust and snatch pieces of dough. We spent two hours of concentrated, wonderful, tied-to-tradition-and-food-and-love mother-daughter time. I felt closer to my mom than I have in years. It was high-calorie, nut-filled pastry that brought us together. Fuck the fat. Fuck the worry that we might gain an infinitesimal amount of weight. I’ll take my mom any day. Food brings people together. That’s what food’s for — and we shouldn’t be shamed for it.
I realized my dad would body shame me for eating four slices of nutroll for breakfast, because I’ve gained some weight lately. He would most certainly have judgmental feelings about this. I told that inner voice to shut the hell up.
People are going to use the “blood is thicker than water” argument. They’re going to claim I need to start speaking to my dad again: either confront him — and he’s a yeller who terrorized me all through childhood — or smooth over the issue and ignore it. But body shaming is a serious issue. It shows an attitude towards people — a mean, negative attitude — that sees them as a function of their looks, not as the sum of their character and personalities. It reduces beauty to a narrow standard that, frankly, isn’t relevant to me or to my sons, and more than not relevant, it’s toxic. But most of all, body shaming shows an ugly attitude toward people in general. There’s a callousness there, an inability to see other people’s pain. Or a dismissal of other people’s pain, which is far worse — and who could doubt that someone would find being called “fat” (code: lazy, ugly, morally bereft) something hurtful?
Then he tries to make me complicit in it. When I never know if it will turn on me. And it will, one day. I don’t know if, even now, he’s saying to someone, “Wow, she’s turned into a heifer since she had those kids.” I wouldn’t be surprised, and I will not live with that uncertainty. I will not live with that anxiety, that fear, that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach — the way so many women live with and tolerate toxic men in their family. Moreover, I will not stand for the way he treats the people I love. I don’t want my kids to hear him treat the people they love that way, either. So, I’m ghosting him.
I don’t need something else to dread, to fret over. So ghosting. I’m ghosting my dad over his body shaming.
And I’m okay with that.