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The F Word

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Eliza and I are in a skipping contest coming out of her schoolyard when suddenly she stops short.

"Daddy," she says.

I stop. "What is it, sweetie?"

"That's Tilley," she says, pointing across the street. "Isn't she fat?"

I am stopped dead in my tracks. It's like I've just walked into a wall. But Eliza continues to skip ahead, oblivious to my reaction. I call to her to come back to me. I have to think fast. But I don't have the slightest idea what the hell I'm going to say. She said the F word. About another kid. She's in kindergarten, for God's sake; can't "baby fat" stay innocent for a little while longer? At least till first grade? That being said, little Tilley, cherish her, really ain't so little. There's no way around the fact that Tilley's round. Okay, I'll say it: she is fat. If they had a contest to pick the poster child for childhood obesity, she'd win. Or at least place. And this kid sports a perpetual fluorescent orange mustache from the "barbecue-flavored" snacks she's always shoveling into her mouth.

I know. I sound a little mean. Maybe because Tilley is mean. She's the class bully. And it's no wonder. They say kids who bully are often protecting themselves from being teased. I certainly don't want Eliza to play any part in teasing another little kid by calling her fat. Tilley could stand to learn a few things about compassion and kindness and the dearth of nutrition in a bag of nacho-flavored Doritos, true, but girls have enough of a challenge growing up with a positive body image.

I look down at Eliza on the sidewalk. I think to myself, Time to break the cycle, man! This is your chance!

I open my mouth, but what the hell am I going to say? What exactly is the correct message? I'm in a tight spot. The simple truth? Tilley is fat. Perhaps the lesson is about how kids come in all shapes and sizes. Or maybe I need to say that no kid wants to be overweight. I can use this as an opportunity to tell my precious, impressionable daughter that we don't point out particular physical traits about a person because we don't know how that would make them feel. Yes. This seems like the way to go. It's been only a few seconds and yet I'm drowning in uncertainty. I suddenly feel hungry. I need a snack. A bowl of cereal, perhaps. Or a plate of pad Thai. No! A giant black-and-white cookie. Stuff the feelings. That's right. Stuff them right up.

This is my one shot to teach my kid about acceptance and body image and compassion and the importance of good nutrition all at the same time. But no pressure. I simply want the next thing I say to be firm and clear and carry weight, so to speak. Eliza's looking up at me. My stalling is clearly making her anxious. Finally, I squat down and look her squarely in the eyes.

"Eliza, sweetie, let's not ever use the word 'fat' to talk about another person. Okay?"

"Why, Daddy?"

"Well. Different kids process food differently..." She looks at me blankly. "Do you know what that means?" She shakes her head.

"It's what happens -- I mean, once food gets inside your body, it does stuff --"

"You mean when it turns to poop?" she asks, holding back a laugh.

"Uh, yes. Sort of. When food gets inside your tummy, all the good stuff helps make you healthy and strong. And all the extra stuff we don't need turns into poop. Or it gets stored as fat on your body."

"Oh," she says. I think she's getting it.

"Some kids are small and others are big. But what makes us look different on the outside doesn't mean we're different on the inside. You know?"

She nods. Now she starts looking around. She's bored. But I'm not done.

"Many kids don't like the fact that they're heavy but they struggle with it and being called 'fat' could hurt their feelings. We don't want to hurt Tilley's feelings."

Eliza looks away. She's such a compassionate soul, I can tell she feels bad. But then she says, "But Tilley is fat. Right, Daddy?" Her eyes are as round and wide as -- as a chocolate bundt cake. Oh yeah. That's what would be really good right now. A moist, chocolate bundt cake with a lot of frosting.

I'm not going to lie to my daughter -- or make her think she's got vision problems.

"Yes, Eliza. Tilley's a little . . . heavy. Let's use that word, but only when we're talking in private, okay?" I hate the word "heavy" and would die if someone used it to describe me. Or "hefty" or "husky"! Eww. But for Eliza's sake, this is going to work.

I continue, "What's way more important is that Tilley is a nice person and you like her."

"Tilley's not that nice," she says. "She's a bully."

"Right. And maybe she is a bully because she doesn't like what people say to her. So... let's not ever talk about what Tilley looks like in front of any other kids -- and especially not Tilley. Because she punches. Okay?" Eliza nods. I'm relieved. It was probably more than I needed to say, but I never seem to learn moderation. Less is more. Less talk. Less worry. Less chocolate bundt cake.

I look down at Eliza and she's clearly had enough. All right. Moving on. We head toward the car. Eliza is quiet for only a beat.

"What if I like her dress? Can I tell her?" Oh my God. I've completely confused her. I should've kept my fat -- oops, I mean heavy -- mouth shut; told her not to call Tilley "fat" and kept right on walking. By making it a whole thing -- trying to tell her how serious it is that we not hurt Tilley's feelings -- I've taken a highlighter to the whole "fat" issue in her head and stressed her the fuck out. I look at her tiny, confused face.

"Yes, lovey, of course. You can always say something nice to your friends. That would make her feel good." Eliza smiles. We keep on walking.

"But being fat is super bad, right, Daddy?" I close my eyes and die a little bit. Why do I talk? What's wrong with just walking? I don't want Eliza thinking that "fat" is the worst adjective to describe a person either. Even if I, since early in my life, was led to believe otherwise.

*****

I've never been overweight. But in my house growing up, fat was the worst thing you could be. And while my father and mother and sister struggled, I managed to stay a consistent weight for most of my life. But I felt pressure all the time not to let it happen to me. And by pressure I mean a death grip.

In my life, food has always had power, both when I've wanted it and when I've wished I hadn't had it. It's always been both reward and punishment. You don't eat, you're good. You eat, you're bad. And once you're already bad, you may as well have a second helping. Or a third. You can be good tomorrow. It's a great system if you are looking to cement a lifetime of inner struggle. But wait, there's more! Food, I learned, is an excellent weapon of manipulation as well. That's right, if you order right now, you can project all your own food neurotica onto a friend or loved one absolutely free!

My mom didn't like it when my dad gained weight. And he, in turn, didn't like it when she told him how to eat. She'd buy tempting foods, either consciously or not, perhaps to test his resolve. Or was it a way of testing how much he loved her? But he'd always resent the test, naturally, and eat. She'd glare at him and he'd eat some more, using food to exert his power and control. I could read the thought bubble over his head: Watch this, lady, I'm having a third ice cream sundae 'cause nobody tells me what to do!

They also had a little system when my mother thought my father was eating too fast. She would tug on her ear. It was supposed to be a subtle, clandestine signal she'd give him when he didn't realize he was shoveling his food. But there was one problem. His face was always down during a scarf-fest, so he couldn't see her give him the signal. So it evolved into a loud banging with her elbow to get his attention, along with a loud, sharp "Julio!" He'd look up, startled, and she'd tug on her ear. It was about as subtle as Lady Gaga in a bikini with her hair on fire during a halftime show.

Given the attention and power food had when I was growing up, it's no surprise I've been able to pick up a few pointers on how to play the same fucked-up game with myself. I'll have what I want and then kick myself for having it. What? Chocolate hazelnut donuts? And they're gluten-free? I'll take two! And then: No wonder you just tore through the seat of your "skinny" jeans, Fatty, Fatty Bo Batty!

But after this wonderful sidewalk lesson I've given Eliza, she'd probably tell me not to call myself "Fatty" if I don't want to hurt my own feelings. I'd explain how it's different when I'm the one saying it. And she'd probably want to know why: Do you want to hurt your own feelings, Daddy? Hmm. If it would make me lose five pounds, yes.

I know my relationship with food needs to change. We need to maybe take a break from each other. See other people.

When Don and I were expecting Eliza, we talked about our struggles with food and the power it seemed to have over our lives. How we both longed to rid ourselves of these demons, if not for ourselves, for the sake of our kids.

"Let's make sure we never make them feel like some foods are 'good' and some foods are 'bad.'" That was a popular theory. And an admirable goal. But guess what? Some foods are bad. And some good. So what kind of bullshit parenting is it when you treat a carrot stick the same as a Nutter Butter? There is only one thing in a carrot -- carrot! A fucking Nutter Butter has at least a dozen ingredients, most of which are either sugar, oil, or some other ingredient made up of sugar and oil. "Let's not make dessert a reward for eating the rest of the meal," Don said at one point. Okay. Good one. But any parent will tell you that kids only want dessert and if they don't have to eat their broccoli, they won't. So pretty soon, dinners would be made up of popsicles, pudding, and marshmallow treats.

"Let's not go overboard with all that 'organic' bullshit," we would both agree. It is beyond obnoxious when a parent removes an organic radish, goat's milk yogurt, and a tofu square from a BHP-free plastic container and yells, "Snack time!" Without fail, a bunch of scrappy-looking kids with matted hair and premature body odor appear as if from nowhere, like woodland creatures scurrying out of hollowed tree trunks and mossy knolls. Eagerly they skip with ignorance-is-blissful speed, failing to bat an eye when Mommy whips out her sagging workhorse of a breast, offering a liquid refreshment to her six-, seven- and eight-year-olds. Why? Kids get used to what they know. That is, until one of them gets a whiff of a real Devil Dog or Hostess SnoBall. Then all bets are off: Put that tit away, Mom, unless you're willing to wrap it in chocolate and marshmallow and fill it with cream!

On the other hand, why should there be more than twenty-five ingredients in a jar of peanut butter? And why partially hydrogenate oil and infuse it into every food a kid eats? If you have to do it, do it all the way! Fully hydrogenate that oil. Commit to it. Don't hold back. All or nothing, baby!

Suffice it to say, food has taken up a huge part of my psyche over the past forty years, and even more so since I've become a parent. The stress of my kids' nutrition and my own has taken a toll on me -- ironically, in the form of ten extra pounds.

I can't imagine how I'm not passing these food issues and body shame to my kids. They'll pick up on it even if I don't say it out loud. Because -- I gotta say this -- I don't want them to be fat! Sorry. I have to be honest. I also want them to have a healthy relationship to food without feeling guilt or shame or paralyzed by whether a food is good or bad. And while the road to weight gain is so easy for a kid -- the daily exposure to candy, cupcakes, pizza, and french fries at every turn--the battle for a healthy body image and self-esteem is among the toughest.

We were at the local pool and I overheard a parent noticing a heavyish eight-year-old wearing a bikini. Her mother brushed it off with "What can I do? She loves that bathing suit."

The other mother smiled and nodded reassuringly. "Good for her," she said. "Good for her!"

But really? What exactly is so good about it?

Something that still bothers me today is the image of a particular girl, Marcy, at a summer camp I went to. Marcy was overweight and wore bikinis. Her belly stuck out between the two pieces of fabric like marshmallow squeezing out of the s'mores she'd stuff in her face after polishing off the Good Humor ice cream bar that melted into her belly button. I was disgusted by that girl -- angered by her. How dare she let herself go like that! But it was a crazy reaction to one little girl from an eight-year-old boy. Okay, maybe a little less crazy from a little gay boy, but still. Who cares? She was a kid! I was wrong to have that reaction. Just as I'm wrong to have it now, as a grown-up, trying to rid myself of these weight-obsessed demons.

Eliza got her first bikini at her last birthday party. It was more of a tankini. But wow, did she love it. I had mixed feelings about a six-year-old wearing a two-piece. It's panties and a bra, no matter how many seahorses they paint on it. What's next? Little baby thongs and Carter's brand garters? I don't like it. But Eliza wore her tankini to bed, she loved it so much. And she has a fantastically adorable, beautifully perfect tummy and, thank God, has no issue with people seeing it. Her daddy could learn a thing or two about that.

I come down to breakfast a few days after Tilley-gate in a new pair of jeans I'm breaking in. They're a little tight, I admit, but nothing a few deep knee bends won't fix. Eliza bolts down the stairs and looks at me. She doesn't say anything for a few seconds.

"What is it, sweetie?" I ask her.

"Those pants, Daddy."

"Yeah. They're new. You like them?"

She is very deliberate when she says, "You look like you're a little . . . heavy."

Now I'm still a gay man and the words hit me like a bullet. It's the kind of bullet that explodes inside and sprays shame and self-hate throughout my body. Eliza smiles at me, proud that she didn't use the F word. But I'm afraid that's not good enough.

"You know what, coconut? When you're talking about Daddy, you shouldn't use the word 'heavy' either."

"What word can I use?" she genuinely wants to know. I take a few seconds and then it comes to me: "Thin!"

From DOES THIS BABY MAKE ME LOOK STRAIGHT? by Dan Bucatinsky. Copyright © 2012 by Myrio, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.