The Eye of the Beholder

The East Village Mamele

By Marjorie Ingall

Published May 06, 2009, issue of May 15, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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 mamele@forward.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.