Parenting is one long Jacob-and-the-angel-esque wrestling match with ethical dilemmas. Here’s this week’s bout: Maxine, age 4, was walking home from school with our wonderful babysitter Rita, and they passed a neighbor who often sits on her stoop. Maxine observed, loudly, “That lady is very fat!” Rita desperately hushed her: “Don’t say that!”
When Rita reported this story to me, I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I don’t want Maxine to hurt people’s feelings, of course. But I also don’t want her to grow up thinking “fat” is a dirty word or a terrible insult. Josie, at 7, is much more aware of our culture’s collective disgust about fat. In second grade, “big fat liar” and “fat pig,” are common epithets. She sometimes asks me, “Are you fat?” (I say, “I’m fat and luscious!” or “I’m fat and strong!”) She then asks, “Am I fat?” I tell her, “You’re not fat or skinny; you’re in the middle.” Which is true. But what if it weren’t?
There is no sight sadder than a little girl staring at herself in the mirror, pinching her perfect little-girl belly and frowning. But a recent study found that 42% of first- to third-grade girls want to be thinner.
If I’d been strolling with Maxine that afternoon, how would I have handled her comment? And, after the fact, what should I tell Maxine, if anything, to emphasize the need for politeness without simultaneously demonizing fat people?
Wendy Shanker, self-esteem activist and author of “The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life” (Bloomsbury, 2005) said, “A kid’s curiosity is a good thing, and you want to encourage them to observe the world around them. Negating what a child sees by saying ‘Hush’ or ‘She’s not fat!’ sends a very confusing message. The child wasn’t trying to be cruel, yet you’ve just conveyed that she did something wrong.”
Kiki Schaffer, the director of the Early Childhood Center at the 14th Street Y suggests saying something like, “Some things we say in big loud voices, and other things we say quietly. We don’t always know how other people feel about being fat or tall or short, so we have to be careful with our out-loud comments.”
This is pretty nuanced for a little kid, but I think that’s okay. Eventually, Maxine will become more socially literate. She’ll learn that certain subjects are delicate. Josie now understands that it’s impolite to discuss how much her personal tooth fairy brings her, or to ask about the relative generosity of her friends’ tooth fairies. Being younger, Maxine isn’t developmentally ready for the concept of discretion yet. Here’s proof: Back in November, I explained to her that asking people at the polling place who they were voting for was inappropriate, and she responded by telling everyone there, “We’re voting for Obama but I’m not supposed to talk about it! We can talk about it at home, though!”
Still, I think Kiki’s strategy is the right one. Saying “it’s not polite to comment on other people’s bodies” would be simpler, but too reductive. I do comment on other people’s adorable freckles, fetching curls, new haircuts, nail polish. So why is it okay to talk about hair, but not body size?
Josie, but not Maxine, could understand a parallel: Some people think “gay” is a bad thing to be, but in our family we don’t think that. Sometimes kids use “gay” as an all-purpose diss, but we don’t do that. When kids say “that’s so gay,” their intention is to be mean and insulting, twisting a simple descriptive word, a word that doesn’t have a value judgment attached to it, into something bad. Similarly, “fat” isn’t bad, but it can be used as a verbal slap in a way that isn’t nice. When kids in school use “fat” as an insult, that’s exactly what they’re doing.
But Maxine was simply making an observation. And she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.
What’s more important than anything we say about other people’s bodies is what we say about our own. If we moan that we need to go on a serious diet or that our thighs are disgusting, our kids pick up the message of self-loathing. And for those of us with daughters, especially, this whole subject can be a minefield.
Of course we should encourage all our kids to be physically active and to eat healthy food. It’s worthwhile to point out that real people aren’t built like Barbie. It’s great to provide examples of women in history who were awesome not for their looks, but for their accomplishments: Helen Keller, Amelia Earhart, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Nellie Bly, Hannah Senesh, Frances Blaisdell (the first woman flute soloist with the New York Philharmonic, who died last month), Laura Ingalls Wilder, Miriam in the Passover story. (Alas, I can talk till I’m blue in the face about Esther in the Purim story, and how her heroism derived from her bravery, but all Josie and Max care about is that she was a beauty queen.)
And you know what? It’s also okay to acknowledge that people love beauty. King Ahashverosh did, and we do, too. The trick is to be sure we convey that beauty comes in all sizes, shapes and colors. The princess in the fairy tale is almost always white, slim and blonde. But in the real world, dark and curvy can be fabulous, too.
And let’s say you are white, slim and blonde. Lest anyone get too self-congratulatory about fitting cultural norms, it’s worth remembering that being Jewish itself was once considered unhealthy and distasteful. Not among Jews, of course: According to Sander Gilman’s “Diets and Dieting: A Cultural Encyclopedia” (Routledge, 2007), Maimonides’ 12th century tome, “The Regimen of Health,” didn’t present obesity as a medical or a moral problem, but rather as a health issue to be managed. “It is only in modernity that the Jew’s body comes to represent all of the potential for disease and decay associated with the modern body of the fat boy,” Gilman writes. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, medical authorities discussed the supposed Jewish predisposition to diabetes being caused by the Jewish diet and “the passionate nature of their temperaments,” a reflection of the “corrupt Jewish soul.”
I don’t want Maxine and Josie making similarly hurtful or ill-informed statements. When it comes to talking about fat, there are a lot of thin lines to be wary of crossing.
Write to Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org.