“My body, my fat body, is a billboard that lets everyone know I was sexually abused.” My client looks at me through their tears. “This is the wound that won’t heal,” they tell me, ‘this’ referring to their weight, and not the sexual abuse. The words hang in the air between us. I measure my breathing until it syncs with theirs–a small way to bridge the distance between us. We sit in silence a few minutes, both with tears in our eyes. My own system is hard at work trying to metabolize the idea that fat is a wound that won’t heal.
After a while, I offer what little perspective I have to my client–a human being I dearly love. “I have felt that way,” I say. “That my body is a billboard advertising my trauma history. But now, when I look in the mirror what I see is my body, a body that will not be controlled.’”
* * *
I ran face first into my own internalized fat-phobia earlier this year, when the mother of one of my daughter’s friends called my daughter fat. Until that happened, I hadn’t realized how much my own internalized body shame was harming my girl. This mom didn’t come right out and use the word fat. She said, “Did they change the rule about snacks for your daughter because she is…” The mom trailed off but then put her hands way out in front of her own stomach, then around to her sides, indicating a larger than life belly. She left her arms rounded out around her belly and shook them, puffed up her cheeks, gave me a nod and said, “You know?” As if to say, I’m not actually going to say the shameful word, but we both know that the word is fat.
The weeks leading up to this conversation should have given me an inkling that the situation would end here, on the sidelines of a soccer game, with the mother of my daughter’s friend calling her fat and telling me that if our kids were teenagers, my kid may well have driven hers to suicide by now. Our kids were both six years old. Instead of paying attention to my sense of foreboding, I went into our conversations in good faith, not understanding that this mom had already decided that my daughter was a bad seed, and through that lense, every action she took as a normal six-year-old was simply more evidence to stack against her.
It all started with snacks. There are two rules about snacks at my kid’s school. The first is a rule for the parents: Don’t pack sugary snacks for your child. The second is for the kids: Don’t share your snacks. This is for allergy reasons. The complaint this mom had, which was a valid one, was that my kid would ask hers, every day, if she could have a cookie. The mom said, “My daughter doesn’t know how to say no. She doesn’t want to share her snack, she knows it’s against the rules, but she doesn’t want to say no.” I told the mom that I was sorry, that I appreciated her telling me this, and that I would talk to my daughter. That was true–I was glad she told me. I understood that my daughter was having trouble following a rule, that she was overwhelming her friend, and that it was my job to help her with that. But neither the other mom, nor I mentioned the fact that she was breaking the first rule–the no sugary snacks rule. This is the first time I failed my kid.
In a fat phobic world, a world where women are considered failures when our bodies are not “in control,” it is a profound mistake to be seen longing for a cookie, let alone asking for one. My own embarrassment at my daughter’s magnetic draw toward sugar, at her clarity about her cravings, prevented me from asking or even acknowledging to this mom that she was also breaking a rule. By being fat, I already broke the first and the most important rule anyway–the size of my body leads many people to assume I have no control over my life. By not mentioning that this mom broke the no sugar rule, I silently agreed to put all the blame for the kids’ dynamic on my six year old, because of the shame I had about the size of my own body, which puts my own longings on display to the public every time I leave the house.
In a world that mandates women have our needs under control at all times, the girl who has trouble saying “no” will always be rewarded over the girl who asks for more. The girl who asks for more will get in trouble, even though the girl who can’t say “no” might be in need of more help or intervention. It is still seen as virtuous for little girls not to have boundaries, longings or needs. It is seen as virtuous, even as those same little girls might have to learn to lie, cheat and bully behind the scenes to make up for their lack of an audible no. Because “no” always finds some way. But still, wanting, let alone asking for more, is not the correct way to perform the gender role of ‘girl.
So many other longings are acceptable, because they don’t show on the outside the way fat does. A member of the well-populated “Mommy needs her wine” Club can be tipsy at home every night and, as long as her body is of an acceptable size, she is given the benefit of the doubt that she is a good parent. And she very well may be a good parent. But if a fat mom also drinks, she is a shameful drunk and a horrible parent.
For the next few weeks, after I reminded my daughter about the no sharing snacks rule at school, she came home every few days in tears. “I asked F for a cookie again today. It just popped out of my mouth, and I tried to take it back and say I made a mistake, but she was already mad, and she told on me. Why am I so stupid?” We went through this over and over again. We talked about why there is a no sharing rule, and why it might be hard to say no to a friend. I told her that there is nothing wrong with wanting a cookie, and that in most cases, it’s even okay to ask for a cookie, as long as you’re prepared to get no for an answer. I told her it is okay to make mistakes and to try again tomorrow.
This is where I failed my girl a second time. In this case, with this mom and her daughter, further mistakes were not okay. Every mistake was just more evidence that my girl was bad, out of control, and deserved to be in trouble. My daughter felt this, and articulated it to me clearly over and over again. She said, “It’s not okay. What’s wrong with me. Why am I so stupid?” I just kept saying, “It is okay to make mistakes,” directly contradicting her actual experience.
By the time the conversation on the soccer field rolled around, I was confused and overwhelmed. What I witnessed between the girls didn’t match with what the mom was saying. Their teacher’s account of what was going on didn’t match the mom’s account either. The details are less important than the fact that I let my daughter down a third time when I didn’t go in on that mom as she held her arms in front of her stomach and puffed her cheeks out to indicate my daughter is fat. I should have said, “time out, what is it that you’re trying to say? And why do you think it’s okay to call my daughter fat? It has nothing to do with her actual body–she happens not to be fat. Is it because of my body? Would you bully the kid of a skinny mom? Would you say a kid who was begging for carrots was fat? And who do you think you are? And why don’t you look at your own behavior, and your child’s behavior, and get that clear before you poke your nose so far into my kid’s behavior?”
But I didn’t do any of that, because of my own shame. And, to be honest, partly out of shock that a mom was actually behaving this way. The deeply ashamed, fat-phobic part of me, tucked away in my own blind spot so far that it took me months to see clearly, agreed my girl was the bad girl because she was caught with her hand out, asking for a cookie. Speaking up to that mom might have made me even more of a pariah to that group of parents than I already am, but my daughter would have known that I had her back.
* * *
I had dinner with a friend the other day. A lovely friend who is the embodiment of kindness and empathy. I was telling her about the eating plan that I’m on that has helped with my arthritis, that I felt happy because my body feels great, and all my blood tests look good. I said, “The clinician I work with was so excited about my test results, she said, ‘Congratulations! You’re the healthiest fat person I know!” When I said this, laughing, I noticed my friend’s face falling. “That’s horrible,” she said, her eyes fierce, defending my honor. “No,” I said, “She wasn’t insulting me. She was simply saying something true.” “No,” my friend said. “That’s not nice at all. You’re not fat.”
I didn’t have the energy in that moment to break down for her how much I love this particular clinician. That it is such a relief when she uses the correct words for my actual body, and not the words for some imaginary, more acceptable body. I spend so much of my life walking around like I’m the emperor in my new clothes, surrounded by well-meaning women who put on their fierce face and tell me that I’m not fat. I know that they are just projecting–defending themselves from the onslaught of body judgement we’ve all been drowning in our whole lives, but it’s not useful. It’s not useful because it’s a lie. And all it does is make me wonder what else they might be lying to me or to themselves about.
Here’s the truth. I am fat. I’m actually obese. And had you asked me a couple of months ago, the clinical term for my body would have been morbidly obese.
Also, Voldemort. Say the words.
In my own life, saying what is simply true has saved me from my own crushing depression more than once. In my professional life, I am often the first person who has used the real words to describe the trauma my clients have been through. I say, “what you just described to me is called rape,” “your father killed your cat in front of you,” “your best friend was murdered,” “your daughter was trafficked for sex.” I say these things out loud, so my clients can hear another voice, either breaking the silence or joining with their own, saying “this happened and it was not okay.” Is it painful to hear the truth out loud? Maybe, but not usually to trauma survivors. On the other hand, going through life never hearing the truth acknowledged or spoken out loud, causes much more damage.
Words carry immense healing power. Simple, true words. Words validate reality after it’s been twisted by perpetrators then turned back around on victims. Saying what’s true puts the blame back in the right place. There is a reason why freedom of speech is the most essential freedom to establish for a democracy to thrive. There is a reason why dictators abolish freedom of speech and freedom of the press first–once they control the words, they control the people. When we can no longer speak the truth, we no longer have any power.
We live in a time when people are more and more afraid to say what’s true out of fear that the truth will make things uncomfortable, and the situation unmanageable. We conflate being uncomfortable with not being safe. But I know this: the main thing that makes trauma unmanageable, that keeps us in danger of repeating our own violent family histories, is trying to hide the truth, either with words or actions. It doesn’t work. Silence simply perpetuates trauma down through yet another generation.
Every time my clinician uses the word fat, I laugh and my belly unclenches. I almost peed myself the first time she called me obese. I’ve been called obese by doctors before, in both patronizing and shaming ways, but this woman–with her matter of fact, compassionate shrug–everyone should get the chance to be called obese by her. It is transformative.
* * *
My daughter recently had a birthday party, and I watched, annoyed and exhausted, while a group of five moms standing in a cluster all turned down slices of cake when they were offered. In the next five minutes, I saw every last one of them sneak over and grab a piece of cake. At least three of them looked apologetically at the others. “I don’t need this cake, but it smells so good.” And, “I’ll go on a run later…” the bargaining stage of the loss of control. The other two gobbled their cake down away from the crowd and wandered back with sheepish grins, as though they had just been out back smoking.
I watched while these women–smart and rational women–performed gender in front of my daughter and their own daughters. I wanted to scream and shove cake in all their faces. I wanted to yell, “Take the cake or don’t, but don’t perform it as a fucking gender play. We are the ones who are perpetuating this bullshit. We can stop it. Take the cake or don’t. Don’t sneak it. Don’t apologize for eating it, or call the cake or yourself bad.”
Be seen deep in your own longing and don’t apologize. Love yourself in your struggles while you fight for your best health and well-being. Let your body be a billboard for the kind of love that is rooted in the certainty of truth. Look in the mirror and say, “This is my body. It will not be controlled.”