If you only read and heed one parenting tip, let it be mine.
I was in elementary school. After a winning game on a hot day, the softball coach said loudly, in front of all the players and parents of both teams, that I shouldn’t have a celebratory ice cream because I was fat. Not a single parent, including mine, or player defended me.
It’s not easy for me to talk about what people said and did to me because I was a fat kid. When sharing my story with others, I feel the embarrassment all over again. Shame. Sadness. Pain. So why do I talk about it? For your kids. All kids. I want to spare them what I went through. And I don’t want well-meaning parents to be haunted by life-lasting negative consequences after hurting their kids when all they wanted to do was help.
For as long as I can remember, people have bullied and fat-shamed me. School was a torture chamber. Between classes each day – every day – someone would moo or slam their back up against a wall and suck in their stomach, as if I took up every square inch of space as I walked down the hallways. There was the teacher who weighed everyone in class and wrote the weights on the chalkboard, showing just how different I was from everyone else. After a winning game on a hot day, the elementary school softball coach said loudly, in front of all the players and parents of both teams, that I shouldn’t have a celebratory ice cream because I was fat. I could go on. If I were to add two particularly terrifying and cruel moments from high school and college, then this would need a content and trigger warning.
Strangers bullied and fat-shamed me, like the guy who yelled, “You’re disgusting! Have you looked in the mirror lately?” out his car window as he drove by while I was walking into the Emergency Room to say goodbye to a loved one who’d just died. Friends, I use the term loosely, bullied me. And family fat-shamed me, like the uncle who always greeted me with, “Hey, Goodyear Blimp!”
You know what each moment has in common? No one ever made it stop or defended me. Ever. Not even my mother. In fact, my deepest wounds came from words my mother said. The looks she gave me. Her actions.
“When are you going to lose weight, so I don’t have to be ashamed of you?” she asked, time and time again, always while staring at my stomach. She stared at my stomach daily. God, I hated that look. After the first time, I learned to turn my head to keep from seeing the disgust in her eyes.
Hoping to “fix” me, she took me to one doctor after another, demanding bloodwork and a diet that worked.
The worst thing my mom ever said to me? We were watching TV. There was a beach scene with a fat woman. As she took off her cover-up, the camera zoomed in on every roll and every clumpy lump of cellulite. Insert the canned laughter – and then my mom’s laughter as she pointed at the screen and said, “Look at that big ol’ fat thing!”
That’s when I knew: My mother saw me as a thing. Not her child. Not even a human. A thing. When the movie ended, I went to bed, buried my head in my pillow, and cried myself to sleep.
Every day of my life, my mom told me she loved me. She has late-stage Alzheimer’s now. I have her journals. She wrote about how proud of me she was. But her hatred of the fat on my body is what I’ll always remember.
And I’ll remember all the times when she said, “You’d be so pretty – if you just lost weight.”
With every word, every look, every action, my mom’s messages to me were clear: There’s something horribly wrong with me. My beauty and my worth are conditional. If I don’t lose the weight, I’ll never be pretty. I’ll never have value. And I’ll never be lovable or loved.
My mother’s words, looks, and actions when it came to my body and my weight were concrete blocks that formed the foundation of my identity. My self-image. I’ve spent my adult life taking a sledgehammer to each block, chipping away, bit by bit, and clearing away the rubble so I can rebuild my life based on all that is good in me. No matter what my weight, I have intrinsic value and I need to be and deserve to be treated like a valuable human being with great worth. Everyone does.
Parents, when you laugh at a fat person, make a comment about one, or give a disapproving look, you’re telling your child exactly what you think about their fat body. And you’re teaching your child how to treat fat people, including how to treat themselves. Before you do that, pause for a minute. Just a minute. And remember my story. Your kids need you to.
(This is a column I wrote for the Today Show’s parenting section.)