During the Q&A a woman said that she'd been in a preschool classroom recently when a child pointed out that a character in a book the teacher read during story time was fat. The teacher paused the story to tell the children that, while it was acceptable to read the word "fat" if it's written in a book, it's never, ever OK to use it to describe a person. The woman wanted to know what Lindy West, an outspoken fat advocate and activist for fat acceptance, thought of this moment that she'd witnessed in the preschool.
West explained that the fact that the teacher said anything about the word "fat" being hurtful was progress against the fat-shaming that permeates our culture but that the abolition of a word that might well apply to some of the children in the class one day was a mistake that could lead to their eventual self-abnegation. The word is a word, and it describes what it describes. What we need to battle is not the word itself, but the false application of morality or lack of value to the word and those to whom it applies.
Then West turned the question back around to the audience and asked, well, how DO you teach young kids how to navigate a culture in which fat is synonymous with bad and the word "fat," therefore, can be considered in need of abolition? And that's where we come in to talk about This Thing We're Doing in teaching our kids about bodies, acceptance, health, and self-love.
So, Shannon, let's have a Q&A of our own here: What do you do in your home with your boys when it comes to body talk? What are your body acceptance practices and strategies that are working for you?
SB: Let me start here: My body image is by no means 100% positive. I am not completely accepting of my body. I want to be, but I’m a former ballet dancer and a child of the heroin chic age… body hatred was just part of my upbringing. I know firsthand the havoc that can wreak on a young mind, so I’m working REALLY HARD on my own body image and to make sure that body hatred is not ingrained in my Smartlings. It is not easy. It takes work and forethought and will power. But it’s worth it.
First, I try to speak in exclusively positive terms about my own body. When my youngest refers to my belly as “soft and round” or “big and poufy,” I try to say, “Yes it is. What’s your belly like?” Because, yeah. It is soft and round after two babies (and kind of was before babies, but whatever). He’s describing me. In the same way that Lindy West talks about the world “fat” as a descriptor, we need to avoid stigmatizing bodies that are soft or round or skinny or what have you. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes and colors. Describing words are describing words, and if we can strip them of their negative connotations, we can do a lot of good for our kids.
And health is important, sure. So what I *do* try to do is talk about healthy bodies. I talk about eating healthy foods. I talk about moving my body. I talk about what my body is capable of. When my 5 year old talks about my soft, round belly, I talk to him about how that belly grew and carried two people. My body can grow people, you guys! And I try to point out when I’m feeling strong. When we we came home from the grocery store today and my son asked if we should get the dolly to carry the 6 bags of groceries up to our apartment, I said, “Nope! Mommy’s strong. I can carry all of this!” And then I did. And my son was proud of me and what this body and its strong muscles and soft belly can do.
How about you? How do you talk about bodies with your Smartlings?
CML: This is strange to answer, but I guess I kind of don't talk bodies with them? At least, I have never talked body image. I have referred to my big, squishy belly when they lay their heads on it because, well, FACTS. But I don't long for a thinner, taut belly in front of them. When The Daughters see me get dressed, they see me get dressed. Period. They don't see me evaluate, judge, or criticize. When they see me weigh myself, they see me look at a number, after which they exclaim at how big I'm getting and we all high five joyously. They don't see me sigh or frown or otherwise react to that number. In this house, so far, numbers are numbers and bodies are bodies.
We talk about how tall and angular our older Smartling is getting, and we talk about how very (oh, God, VERY) strong our younger Smartling is. And sometimes they talk about how soft my body is or how powerful (and stinky) it is when I come home sweaty from a run. And they talk about how Daddy is shorter than most other daddies and that his whiskers are prickly. Adjectives all, moral judgment none.
I grew up firm in the knowledge that my body was fat (it wasn't, necessarily), and that fat was unacceptable (it's not, necessarily). Having the family nickname "Fat Girl" will do that to you. And I linked this erroneous knowledge of my fatness with ugliness. Being designated "the smart one" as opposed to my cousin's "the pretty one," (a dichotomy through which we both lost, says the default uggo in sympathy with her presumed dummy counterpart) will do that for you. I will not have any part of any of that nonsensical, judgmental garbage for my daughters.
If they do wind up with fat bodies as they grow older, I hope to maintain, at least within this family and this household, that that adjective holds no moral judgment. When I think about the years, YEARS, I've spent wishing, hoping, and struggling to change my body shape, size, and texture, I weep at the lost time. I have worked so hard to have so many better, more important adjectives to describe me other than "small," or "thin," and it is horrifying to quantify the time I've spent in pursuit of those two, lesser descriptors.
I don't want that wasted time for my Smartlings - my girls. So we don't assign value to body descriptors, we focus on eating well, and we praise getting strong and using our bodies. I have ceased subscribing to "women's" magazines to try to halt some of the unrealistic representation of women coming into the house, and we mostly are able to avoid advertising on TV thanks to the miracle of DVR recordings and the fast-forward button. I'm trying to make this home a haven against the onslaught of body policing my girls are destined to experience. But this is just one highly permeable boundary in a larger culture intent on diminishing my girls' value to the size and shape of their bodies. And I hope like hell it's enough. And I know that it's not.
But I'm halfway through Shrill right now, and it's going on the shelf right above our kids' literature for the girls to find when they're older. You know, right next to the Mindy Kaling, Samantha Irby, Lena Dunham, and, once it's in bookstores, Amy Schumer books. We'll call it "The Middle School Collection," and it will horrify the Smartner when the books go missing only to wind up on nightstands next to the girls' twin beds. Because it's great that the girls have me, and my Smartner, and this home to convince them of their acceptability regardless of their bodies - nay, BECAUSE of their bodies. But they need more. They need allies and Aunties to reinforce the message. And they'll have Auntie Shannon and Auntie Danica, sure, yes, of course. But how wonderful that they'll also have Auntie Lindy and her crew on a shelf to help them navigate the complexities of being women in the world, too.
SB: And while my Smartlings—boys—may have different body standards to contend with, it’s still there. I want to work against society’s idea of what is beautiful and attractive and “good” in any body. I grew up thinking that my body was too chubby. That I shouldn’t wear clothes that were too tight or swimsuits that showed my round, 9 year old belly. And I grew up thinking that I should change my body to fit what others said was the right kind of body to have. I don’t want my Smartlings growing up feeling that way.
Regardless of what they grow up to look like, regardless of who they grow up to find attractive, I want them to see the value and the beauty in all bodies. Tall bodies, short bodies, skinny bodies, fat bodies, abled bodies, disabled bodies, typical bodies, atypical bodies, bodies with specified genders, bodies with unspecified genders, smooth bodies, scarred bodies, uneven bodies, bodies of all colors and textures and appearances. I don’t want my sons to discount or reduce any bodies. And I want them to be prepared to accept the changes in their bodies as they grow older. Because bodies change. As we get older, our bodies change. As life happens, bodies change. Sometimes we choose to change our bodies. And all of this is okay… it just needs to come from a place of love and self-acceptance.
Weirdly, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more accepting of my body. I think I’ve finally—at 36—realized that spending all that time and energy on criticizing my self is fruitless. I wear bikinis, even though society criticizes my cellulite and spider veins and soft, round curves. I wear tight dresses when I want to and I talk in positive ways about my big butt. It’s so much easier and enjoyable to just enjoy my body. Hell… sometimes it’s fun! It feels good to feel good in your skin. And I want my kids to enjoy their bodies WELL before the age of 36. It’s hard enough being a human. I can *at least* give them as many tools as I can to be comfortable in their own wonderful skins.
So. We’ll talk about how we find all kinds of different bodies wonderful and beautiful and powerful and amazing. We’ll work to give them positive examples of bodies that look like theirs. And we’ll work to ingrain self-love in our kids. We’ll work against the terrible messages they’ll get—and they’ll get them no matter what—out in the world. Because they’re exactly right just as they are. And so am I. And so are you.
CML: Damn straight, sistersmarty. Damn straight.
Our bodies are exactly right, even when our bodies make faces like this because we're excited to hear Lindy West speak. Yes, even then.