It was hot in that pre-summer kind of way, when the long winter has made me forget what hot really is and all I can think is, Wow! It’s so HOT. In two months, I’ll rue that thought, deep in the thick of summer. Like the mom of a toddler rues wishing her infant would hurry up and walk, hurry up and talk, hurry up and hurry up. Or like the mom of a teenager rues loathing those easy toddler years.
I suppose it’s always something.
The children’s voices float on the breeze, shouts and laughter, and the occasional shrieks filtering through the screen door and filling the house with a kind of life all its own. It certainly sounded like summer.
“I am not! Shut up!”
Silence and then more laughter. This time mocking and sharp. The kind of sound that raises hackles, that pricks that sixth sense that most mothers seem to have. However this was going to end, it wasn’t going to be pretty.
Feet slapping on pavement. The sound of the screen door slamming followed by sobs, helpless and muffled by his arms and the table.
“What happened? What’s wrong?” I asked in that way that clearly insisted nothing was wrong and nothing happened.
“He called me fat.” The words sounded hollow against the wood of the table. They fell like stones, sinking to the bottom of a pool, each one wrapped tight in a pain that only a 7-year-old can feel.
He called my son fat.
First, there was rage. Who does that? How dare they do that? Who raised this child? Don’t they understand that calling another person fat, under any circumstances, was absolutely not OK?
Then, there was shame. I remember well the childhood taunts that I’d endured: Little Piggy, Pammy Pumpkin Poop. Fatso. I still bear those scars, still struggle with extra weight, body shame and poor self-image. I remember being chosen last for every team sport, hearing the groans when the unlucky team finally figured out the math. I remember being my son’s age and excited about a Cheez Whiz Sandwich, talking about it all morning long, only to plop down at my desk for lunch to realize someone had put my sandwich there first. And it was funny. So funny.
For everyone but me.
Laughter, mocking and sharp, still rings in my ears 30 years later. I walked to the office, bright orange Cheez Whiz dripping down the back of my blue plaid jumper, hot tears of shame and embarrassment dripping down my face and off my nose.
There is rage, again, rising, fierce and animalistic, to choke back the shame. No one would call a child of mine fat. No one would be allowed to make another human being feel such shame and degradation, not on my watch.
But anger never lasted long for me.
I remember the look in a friend’s eyes when I’d put on something that was a little too tight or a little too small. That disappointed, “I’m only thinking of you” tone, as they suggested maybe I should try something else. I remember feeling not good enough. Not skinny enough. Not worthy enough. Never enough. Now my child, my sweet, amazing, so-far-from-fat-it-wasn’t-funny child, was being made to feel that too.
He called my son fat.
“You are not fat—you must know that,” I said clearly and with all conviction. “And it is not right for anyone to say that to another person.”
His head nodded against his arms, buried still, but his sobs had subsided.
Then, for just a moment, something strange rose inside me, beat against my chest like a wounded bird.
He called my son fat—a typical, school-yard taunt, like calling someone four-eyes, or big-nosed, or curly haired. He called my son fat!
A gladness so profound washed over me and threatened to make me giddy. I gripped my son’s shoulder, the curl of his sweat-dampened hair brushing my fingertips. This boy, this beautiful, courageous child had been called fat, and I was happy.
What was wrong with me?
Still, I couldn’t contain it.
I’ve seen parents pull their children tighter as we walk past in the halls, afraid that it might be catching, that their kids might start asking questions and wanting answers. Or worse, that their kid might be transgender too. I’ve heard rumors of kids being yanked from activities that my son was a part of, without explanation or cause.
I’ve scanned the faces of coaches, teachers, administrators, scout leaders and directors for any signs, any signs at all. Signs that they know, signs that they might guess, signs that they might, on some level, discriminate or fear my son. I’ve lived in abject terror of being outed, of outing him myself, of slipping up, of leaping to cover another’s mistake.
I’ve rushed my child to the doctor, again and again and again, with knifing, unbearable, cramping pains, vomiting and loss of appetite. I’ve sat through blood draws, ultrasounds and urine samples. I’ve watched his eyes glaze over as the anesthesia takes hold, so they can scope his stomach.
It’s always for nothing. Everything is normal. The diagnosis is what any parent would want, and yet I didn’t. I wanted something solid, something substantial, something we could treat, attack and defeat. Something that I could point to and say, “Look! This is what is wrong and this is how we fix it.”
I want something common and not at all unusual, like calling a kid fat at the playground. Like picking out any other physical characteristic that you don’t like, don’t have, don’t want, don’t need in another person, and making fun of it. Regardless of the right or wrong of it, regardless of the ethics and political correctness, it is something that humans have done for as long as we’ve called ourselves human.
I’ve lain awake nights—long, endless nights—running through all the names that my son could be called. All the terrible, hurtful names that ignorant people could and probably will call him in his lifetime. I’ve wept at the thought that the day will come when he can’t run out the door, passing for any other boy, to play with the kids down the street. That one day his own body will betray him, will out him, and there’s only so much we can do about it.
I fear for the times when I can’t march out the screen door and demand an apology from the bully who called him fat, because that bully won’t have called him fat. He’ll have called him some terrible, discriminating, transphobic name. And he’ll be surrounded by a mob of angry, ignorant, hateful people who might do something tragic and permanent to my beautiful son.
The names he wasn’t called, that’s what made me want to cry out in joy and happiness. That’s what filled my heart with gladness and my eyes with tears.
He called my son fat, instead.
Soon we would march outside to demand our apology. Soon he would go back to playing with the kids like nothing had happened at all. Soon the sun would set and the fireflies would be out and the day would end as brilliantly as it began.
Soon enough, the names he wasn’t called would come. But not today.