I have mentioned that I live in Teenage Boytown. This whole summer my house feels like the Island of Lost Boys because in addition to my two, we've had at least two or three more who seem like they are always there. It's pretty fun, but I admit that means that my sense of humor is at the level of a teenage boy (fart jokes! woo hoo!) and my feminine sensibilities are brushed to the wayside most of the time.
Happily I have been blessed with two nieces I loves to pieces! Lorelei is 9 and Audrey is 6 and they live about an hour away, so I don't see them all that often. BUT when I DO, it's such a treat. It's princesses, pink & purple, squealing over kittens, singing along to Adele, spontaneous dance parties, tea parties, jewellery making and all kinds of grade school gossip which I just eat up with a spoon. Sometimes they roll their eyes at "Crazy Auntie Awa", but if I don't make them laugh or if I'm not scandalizing them a little, I'm not doing my job.
Recently my sister told me a very sad story - my brother-in-law went to tuck the girls in and Audrey - the SIX YEAR OLD - was slapping her belly and saying, "I hate it! I hate it! I hate it!" and George asked, "Hey, what's going on?" and Audrey said, "Daddy, I'm fat and ugly and I hate my fat belly!"
Exhibit A -- neither "fat" nor ugly!
George told her that what she was saying was completely untrue and that she was a lovely girl and then went to my sister because he didn't know what to do with this, because he wasn't expecting to hear this kind of talk SO SOON.
My sister Amy then went to Audrey to ask her why she felt this way and Audrey told her that she was playing with one of her friends and her friend poked her stomach and said, "You are FAT!" and that's all it took.
It absolutely breaks my heart that this sweet funny little girl isn't thinking about mud pies, Barbies, Dora, or coloring, but about her "fat" belly.
It got me thinking about when it was that I first started feeling ashamed of my body. I know I wasn't 6. I think it might have been around age 10 or 11. I developed a little early and was probably one of the only girls in 4th grade with a bra. I used to steal my little brother's undershirts and wear them to squash my little breasts to make my chest flat like my friends' chests. My mother was looking at my skinny friends and then looking at me and then decided that I was "going to get fat if I didn't be careful", that I would "end up fat like my father" if she didn't control what I ate. Thus began a pretty horrible battle between my mother and I for years. She would give my brother and sister chocolate pudding for dessert, she would give me fruit cocktail. I wasn't allowed to have seconds. She bought granola bars for me to snack on while my brother could have Yodels. I was singled out. The sad thing is if I look at pictures of myself around this time, I was not a fat kid.
Here I am all the way on the left at 13. Not fat, right? I totally thought I was HUGE. It didn't help that my brother and sister were peanuts. My brother is 11 in this picture and I'm a beast next to him. I pretty much reached my full height at 13.
It almost feels like hating my body and feeling "all wrong" has been a full-time job since I was about 11 or 12. I went through periods of starving myself which would end up with me totally binging out of desperate hunger only to make myself starve again during the week. I know my eating has been disordered in almost every imaginable configuration since about 7th grade when all the girls started talking about not wanting to be fat.
OOOOH!! FAT!! THE DEVIL!!! FAT! But really?
I understand that it's not the healthiest for our bodies. However, there has been so much bull$hizz attached to the word "fat" - so much WEIGHT. Fat has become some kind of accusation. Fat is something to abhor, and if we are called "fat" then we are somehow abhorrent. And really, we just have extra adipose tissue. Being fat does not mean we are somehow bad, lazy, ugly, wrong, stupid losers. The world wants us to think so, but it is patently untrue. Stupid comes in every size. So does beautiful.
I would call myself a fat acceptance activist, except I *WANT* to lose weight. (Some fat acceptance activists don't like that, which makes me sad) My primary reason is to avoid diabetes and get my PCOS under control. My secondary reason is to FINALLY get this HORRIBLE MONKEY off my back. And sure, it would be nice if I were complimented for my hard work and my looks and people would take one look at me and assume I was smart and awesome and productive and wouldn't throw those other awful stereotypes at me because of the size of my a$$. But I am not trying to become "worth" something by being thinner. I'm already worth something. We all are. I'm not trying to earn my place in society, I'm already here! And frankly, I'm pretty awesome, and that has nothing to do with what I look like.
How can I explain this to my sweet little niece? How can I tell her that fat isn't a bad word when it was said to her in a tone of voice meant to make her feel bad? How can I help her navigate a world that will see her little six-year-old round belly and make judgments about her without talking to her? How can I show her that being strong and kind is more important than being "pretty" or "skinny" when she is inundated with messages from all directions that girls are supposed to like pink and take care of things and be pretty instead of being solidly built and building things and getting dirty?
How can I help her when I am still battling those things in my own head, too!?
My sister handled it well. She explained to Audrey that God made us all different. Tall, short, skinny, bigger, white, black, disabled, able, glasses, no glasses - all different color eyes and hair, freckles, no freckles. She then told Audrey all the special things about the way she looks -- her gray-green eyes, the beauty mark on her cheekbone, her great smile and her shiny hair. She said that God made her just the way she is and that she's so very loved by her family and has many friends that are CLAMORING for play dates (which is true!) and that the most important thing about her is her good heart and her big hugs and her funny laugh. She also called Audrey's friend's mother to tell her what happened, and Audrey's friend called her the next day to say she was sorry that she hurt her feelings. Audrey has been a little more upbeat since then, but Amy still catches her squeezing her belly. I saw Audrey a day or two after this incident and her first words to me were, "Auntie Awa! I have a beauty mark!!!" I said, "Your whole face is a beauty mark!" which made her laugh.
All I know is that I wouldn't wish this food/body image stuff on my worst enemy, and now this little light of my life is heading down that road.
Gandhi said we have to be the change we want to see in the world. I have a big responsibility then. I'm going to have to love myself here and now, not doubt my worth for a second, show my nieces that my extra weight doesn't mean anything except that I have some extra weight and that I am taking care of myself by eating well and dancing as much as possible. I'm going to have to make sure I never say anything negative about my body in front of them -- or heck, how about ever again? How about my life becomes about who I am, not what I look like, but my strength, kindness, my beauty mark, my silly laugh.
I still want to wear a tiara, though. Princesses come in all sizes, too.