My second daughter is overweight. She is not obese, nor is she the type of child who people stare at in the street, unable to hide their disgust. She is very tall for a 9-year-old, and she is beautiful — striking, even. Most importantly, she is a very considerate, loving child with a fantastic sense of humor and an infectious laugh. But she is overweight. Now, why does it seem like I have overridden all of her fantastic character traits with some singlular negative phrasing?
Because this is what happens in real life.
It seems that no matter how talented, beautiful or intelligent someone is, if they are fat, they are deemed to be a failure in some way. Look at Oprah Winfrey, for example. Oprah is one of the most successful women in the world, and yet she finds herself entangled in a constant battle of the bulge. We are bombarded by media bias toward fat people daily. Weight-loss products and programs scream, “Sort yourself out, you big, fat heap, and we guarantee your life will be better.”
Images of svelte women casually strolling on a beach, wind blowing in their hair and toned thighs rippling as their toes sink into the sand, haunt our subconscious as we bite into our sandwiches. We all know that for most of us, holiday moments look nothing like this.
Picture, instead, copious layering of clothing to hide your stretch marks and spare tires, stumbling through sand dunes with mouthfuls of hair and sunscreen as you almost break your ankle trying to negotiate such hostile terrain, and you have a more realistic view of how it actually is for many of us. And that’s OK, because life isn’t an advertisement or a reality TV show. However, what’s not OK is how we have been brainwashed into thinking that this is how it should be.
Back to my daughter.
Like most parents, I struggle to take care of my kids’ emotional needs in order to ensure that they grow up with as much confidence and self-love as possible. The question I am posing, however, is this: Should we continue to lie to our kids and tell them that they look fine, that they’re not putting on weight, that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, when reality is staring them in the face? Are we simply teaching our kids to learn to live with the uncomfortableness and shame surrounding weight gain instead of enabling them to free themselves from the vicious cycle in which most of us can say we’ve been entangled at some point or other?
Firstly, let us ask the other question: Is being overweight all that bad? I have noticed a surge in posts and articles relating to this, with the authors claiming to love themselves no matter what, throwing their proverbial Bridget Jones’s knickers to the world in an attempt to say that they just don’t care what everyone thinks. But how helpful is this attitude? If it wasn’t an issue in the first place, then why feel the need to write about it? It’s because we are bothered.
Being overweight isn’t fun. I know. I’ve been there and probably will be back again. The truth is that I yo-yo. My body also changed after having kids. My appetite changes, as does my interest in exercise. Weight isn’t always a given. You can control it — that, for me, is the secret, and that is precisely what I tell my daughter.
When she came home last week and told me that a boy at school had called her fat, I stalled for a moment. I knew that she wanted me to say that he was wrong, that he was a brat and that I would go straight to his parents and teachers and call him out for bullying. But what good would that do? What do I do the next time she’s called fat, or the next time she cries in the changing room because nothing “looks right” on her?
If I could shield my daughter from the world and protect her from every jibe and insult, I would. I would love to see her enjoy a healthy relationship with food and to indulge her appetite to a degree — but, you see, I can’t. It is affecting how she views herself and those around her. She wants to know what obese people look like as opposed to fat people. She’s already commenting on heavily obese people in the street, and judgementalism is a burden with which I definitely do not want my kids encumbered.
So, I turned around and said, “Yes, sweetheart, you have gained weight.” Her eyes filled with tears for a moment and she felt the weight of the comment land squarely on her 9-year-old shoulders. But I resisted the deadly urge to backtrack. I got down to her level and told her how beautiful and funny she is. I reminded her of how many friends she has (she is extremely popular among her classmates). I told her how she was going to stretch and how all of that extra weight would disappear, as it did with her older sister, and that everyone has different ideas of what “fat” actually is anyway.
But then I told her that her eating choices had been less than healthy of late. She nodded as she recounted the extra cookies that she’d eaten and her snacking between meals. I told her that I like to indulge, too, and that I would make a big effort with her in order to drop a few pounds because it was the “healthy” thing to do, not because of what that boy at school said. I told her that all that sugar was bad for her anyway and that she could have a little bit of anything she liked — everything in moderation. I also told her that she is in control, that “you can lose weight, but you can’t lose ugly,” and that’s most important!
Gradually, her tears stopped and she straightened up, thanked me for telling her the truth, which she knew anyway, and said that she was looking forward to making a change and doing more exercise. She jumped up on her bike with her gorgeous, shiny chestnut hair blowing around her glowing face and cycled off to play with her sisters.
You see, I know from experience how much better I feel when I am happy in my own skin, when I don’t have to deal with layers of excess weight bulging out over my jeans or under my bra straps. I feel lighter when I’m at a healthy weight for my body (of course, it’s different for everybody, based on height and body mass). I don’t believe in clothes sizes, just your own personal “happy” size. I know when I look and feel good and I know when I don’t, and if I don’t, I do something about it, in the age-old, time-tested method of “less in, more out!”
I want my daughter to be in control, too. I would love to be able to honestly say that being overweight doesn’t matter or won’t have any bearing on her happiness, but I know from experience that this isn’t true and I won’t lie to her. What I will do is help her achieve her goals, whatever they may be.
Weight should not define us, and we shouldn’t let it. Unfortunately, this is the case, as is propagated by mainstream media. Being fat is seen as a failing in some regards. I personally don’t see it as a failure but as a moment of flux that can be changed if one so wishes.
I am aware that some people reading this will say that they are very happy and self-assured in their own skin regardless, and I applaud you for your self-assuredness. However, I myself am unable to find contentment in the midst of weight gain. This does not mean that I allowed my children to pick up on my insecurities, either. In fact, one of our favorite things to do together as a family is to eat. I just know from listening to colleagues and from my job working with teenage girls how important one’s figure is to the majority for overall self-confidence. It is also healthier to be a good weight for your height and to ensure that fast foods and processed foods are eaten sparingly.
Of course, health comes first, too. I know of parents who are fitness fanatics and whose children are following suit, running miles daily and getting up at 6 a.m. to do planks before school. That to me is torture of a different kind, and I’d much rather see my child dig into a plate of pasta and go outside afterward to work it off with some unstructured play time.
There’s plenty of time for all of that competitiveness and structure later on. Kids need to be kids while they can. Life is tough enough later on without us adding to it with our own prejudices and projected life goals.
So, in short, I refuse to give in to the new-age movement of refusing to allow my children to feel or experience any negativity in their lives. I am not the parent who is going to shield them from everything in life. I am not going to tell them that they can achieve all their dreams and that the only thing stopping them is themselves. This is total bull, in my opinion.
We all have dreams and goals, but little things — like, oh, I don’t know, money, for example — have a habit of getting in the way of those little chestnuts. I actually find that those new catchphrases with which our social media outlets are bombarded daily do more harm than good, leaving us wondering, “Well, why aren’t I driving that yellow Lamborghini down the highway? I must be a failure. I don’t have enough self-belief to succeed like everyone else!”
The truth is, I might want desperately to be a top athlete, but my back is fecked from having four children, and my size 34DD boobs are constantly in my way as I try to run, leaving my shoulders in excruciating pain. No amount of self-belief will change these physical, concrete facts. What I can do is focus on my individual strengths instead of wasting time dreaming about the impossible.
There are lots of things that I am really good at and can and have succeeded in, as my daughters will, but I won’t allow my daughters to waste their time dreaming about becoming a top model (I really don’t think this is on their to-do lists anyway) when success in modeling is nothing short of a genetic lottery that certainly will not favor this Irish woman’s “child-bearing hips” physique or her offspring, for that matter.
I will focus my kids on their strengths and nourish those instead. My kids know that they can follow their dreams, but within reason! I feel that it’s actually OK to have limits and that it’s precisely those limits that, in some way, define us. I will do anything I can to help them realize their goals, and if telling them the odd harsh truth along the way is necessary, then so be it.
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This post by Bonny Doyle originally appeared on BlogHer.