A few months into virtual pandemic schooling, my 8-year-old daughter snuggled up next to me, “Mom, I’m glad I’m not in a classroom this year. Now I don’t have to see *insert name of bully.* He always makes fun of you for being fat, and this way I don’t have to hear him say it.”
It wasn’t really news to me. I am fat, after all. I’ve never shied away from the word because it’s not really a bad one. Certain views on what’s acceptable as beautiful or desirable have led us to believe that “fat” is an insult, that we have to convince our friends “they’re not fat, they’re beautiful,” as though those two words were mutually exclusive. I’m not a body-positive activist, but I’ve also never let my children hear me say derogatory things about my body. I’m fat—I know it, they know it, big whoop. I’m a lot of other things, too!
What I’d forgotten was that the rest of the world doesn’t really see things that way, not yet anyway, and especially not 8-year-old bullies. I hugged my precious girl, “You never told me he teased you about that.”
“Yeah, he’s done it a lot. A bunch of other kids say things, too.”
My throat caught a sob that tried to erupt suddenly from somewhere deep inside me. I was playing it cool, but barely.
“Why haven’t you told me before? I’m so sorry they do that. Does it embarrass you? Do I embarrass you?”
As soon as I’d asked the last question, I wished I hadn’t. Not only did I not want to put her in the unfair position of having to weigh out how she was going to answer it, but I was terrified of hearing the answer.
I talk a big game. I take up a lot of space and can’t help but make an entrance, so I’ve learned to hide my insecurity. I can’t hide anything else about me, so I pretend to own every pound I carry.
I walk into a cafeteria and know the kids notice. I sit down at the band concert and know I stand out. I circle the largest size when ordering school event shirts, avoid eating snacks during class parties, and volunteer to stay back and watch everyone’s bags during rides of any kind. I’m fat, and it’s obvious. And for the most part, it seemed like everyone just avoided acknowledging the elephant in the room. To my own face, anyway. I hadn’t accounted for 8-year-old bullies.
“Of course I’m not embarrassed by you! You’re the best momma in the world!”
“Even though I’m fat and people make fun of me?”
“That doesn’t have anything to do with how good a momma you are.”
I know, it wasn’t fair for me to seek validation from my 8-year-old. If she is embarrassed by me, she’s allowed to be. I remember being humiliated by my own mother and what she’d wear when she came to my school. It’s a right of passage as a parent, really, not any kind of social commentary on beauty standards.
But when you’re fat, people do think they’re allowed a constant commentary on your beauty standards. You have to fight to be heard because people will only see.
I feel the constant need to justify my existence and explain my health records. The insecurities are paralyzing, and the damage done by others’ words and actions is quite significant and life-altering.
But I can’t let my kids know that.
I can’t let them know I’m worried they’re embarrassed of me, that I can visualize the lunch table flipping up under my weight, that I fear the day we attend a play with seats I can’t fit into. I can’t let them know I don’t swing with them because the chains dig painfully into my skin. I can’t let them know I put on fake eyelashes and paint my nails before any school event so I’ll have something going for me.
I can’t let them know I’m embarrassed of me, too.
They have to be able to feel whatever they feel without any added guilt or pity. They have to hear my speeches about how there are much worse things a person can be than fat. But they also, unfairly, have to deal with the tauntings and teasings of their classmates, the people who do think that fat is the worst thing someone can be, the kids who don’t care how manicured my nails are or how fluffy my lashes are.
So no matter how empowered I pretend to be or how pulled together I take hours to look, along with the extra pounds I carry the guilt of what my kids must feel, what they endure, because of me. Our inside jokes, cuddles, moments in the hospital, favorite recipes, game nights, or memories can’t be seen when I walk into a room. No one sees what a good mom I am when I enter, only that I’m fat, and when I leave my kids are left to juggle the snickers and snide remarks.
I’m so sorry for how embarrassed they must be. But most of all I’m embarrassed of myself.