I had a very disturbing conversation with my friend’s tween daughter the other day. Daughter mentioned she was fat. My ears perked up, and my heart tugged. I looked at my friend and said “We cannot raise another generation of women like this.” And so Daughter and I sat down and talked. She indicated she didn’t eat anything yesterday because she is afraid she is fat. Her mother said Daughter has been counting calories.
Daughter bravely admitted that she fears being fat because she’s seen what the popular kids do to bully others. She’s seen them taunt and ostracize others because they’re “fat.” She doesn’t want to be the target of these bullies and their judgments. Who can blame her? She’s at the age where she’s figuring life out and who she wants to be. Words hurt. Being excluded hurts even more. I asked her what the descriptor “fat” means about a person’s heart and soul and insides. She said “I don’t know.”
Normally I don’t accept “I don’t know” as an answer. Because it’s not an answer. But I realized she’s struggling–she truly doesn’t know right now what “fat” means about a person. She wants to believe it doesn’t say anything about a person’s worth as a human being, but she’s torn because she sees that people do in fact treat “fat” people with judgments about his or her character. She sees daily how society treats “fat” as a character defect. So if I tell her that what the bullies do and say doesn’t matter, we both know I’m lying.
Here’s the thing, I won’t even describe to you what Daughter looks like. Because it doesn’t matter. And telling her she’s beautiful or not fat will not help the core issue she’s grappling with now. Because then she’ll get addicted to wanting to hear that she’s pretty or skinny. Which feeds her current fears now and reinforces that external messages matter more than her internal compass. We need to break this cycle so that she understands not to personalize the bullies and what the media/society says about her. We need to teach her how to strengthen her own sense of self so that she understands even if her BMI indicates she is overweight, it doesn’t matter.
It’s a continual process and message that she will have to hear from multiple sources. But reassuring her she’s not fat or that she’s pretty is not an effective tactic. Teaching her who she is inside and to take pride in that is what will eventually break this cycle and allow her to own her self in all her glory.
We talked about how bullies will bully. That if you change the one behavior or thing that the bullies identify, they will move on to another aspect of your personhood in which to make fun of and torment you. We talked about how there will never be an ending to their taunts, and that you will never be enough if you go down this route. We talked about realizing what is important inside of you–your kind heart, your generous nature, your brilliant brain, your courageous soul.
She was unconvinced at the end of the conversation. One discussion cannot erase 12 years of society telling her that skinny has worth, that it’s a coveted status that affords better treatment in life. I understand that, oh boy do I ever understand that. I told her some days I still have moments where I drink this poison punch of Skinny Means You’re Likable. It is one thing to go through years of self-loathing about your body and realize after many wasted years it was all for naught. It’s another thing to step up to the precipice of life as you individuate and believe what society has been telling you all this time isn’t true. That takes faith and strength and courage. When really, all she wants is to be liked.
She and I need to talk about what makes someone likable. She and I need to discuss what’s important in life and in people. She needs to know that her beauty comes from the inside, and I tell you, she is beautiful. So she’s agreed to hang with me every now and then to talk. I think we’ll do it over ice cream.