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Fat Is Not a Bad Word

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ERIN DULLEA
Erin Dullea

There was a time when I believed I could adequately prepare myself for all the hard questions my children might ask. And then I became a mother.

I have since learned that nothing can prepare me for some of the shockers that come from the mouths of my babes. Like when my daughter interrupted me during our nighttime reading ritual to share the new "bad word" she learned in school.

I thought maybe she'd say "shit." Or "damn." Maybe even "fart." But, with an almost sheepish grin, she revealed that it was "fat."

I had anticipated that one day we might have a conversation like this. But I was banking on a few more years at least. Not now. Not at age 5.

I wanted to tell her a million things, all at once, at that moment. But instead, I asked her how so. She explained that it would be mean to tell someone that her stomach looked fat. That fat, used in any capacity, actually, is a bad word.

I paused for a moment, weighing my options. And then I did the next thing that popped into my mind. I pulled up my shirt, gathered my rather generous, post-third-baby belly into my hands, and said, "You see this? This is fat. And I happen to love it."

This is not the first lie I've told my daughter when it comes to how I see my body. Even as I silently criticize the dimples on my thighs, I speak kindly about my body in her presence. I've twirled around naked. I smile at my reflection in the mirror. And I refrain from commenting on anyone's body shape, size or weight in her company or, as a general rule, outside of it.

And yet, here we were.

Despite all of my efforts to steer her away from the constant deluge of messages out there that our bodies are flawed and unlovable, my daughter was sitting before me with a secret to share. A secret that, she believed, I'd kept from her.

Fat is bad. Ugly. Shameful.

And while I was telling her it wasn't so, I was also keenly aware of how often she hears that it is. It's not only in the Disney movies that she longs to see, or the impossibly narrow waists of the dolls we pass by, or the commercials on the radio about how to manipulate your body and change your life for the better. It is also, even more powerfully, in the conversations that she hears on the playground and in the market, at family gatherings and during birthday parties.

It is in all of the casual exchanges where we compliment and congratulate each other on being smaller and thinner and taking up less space. It is in the celebration of fitting into an old pair of jeans, as if a mountain had been summited or a treasure revealed.

She hears women she adores and strangers she finds curious passing up delicious foods because of how they might affect waistlines or thighs. Calories are counted, sizes are discussed and shapes are critiqued. Every day.

And as our daughters piece together the secret code of womanhood -- of girlhood -- they derive this: being skinny will make us beautiful and loved and happy.

Except it doesn't. It just makes us skinny.

And sometimes that puffs up our bravado and gives us a false sense of confidence so that we no longer build it in any sustainable way. Or it might convince us that if we're skinny and unhappy, then surely there is something wrong with us. We're simply unlovable.

And, far too often, our quest for skinniness becomes an illness -- and we suffer. And it makes our young daughters, so perfect in their natural beauty, inherit our sickness, too.

We must do better by our daughters. Even if we still have miles to go in our own journeys -- in reclaiming our beauty and power and permission to take up space -- we can start by changing the conversations that we have with each other. We can stop commenting on and assessing and qualifying how we (and those around us) look. And go deeper into what really matters.

In the meantime, I have taken a stand in my own home: "fat" is not a bad word.

I've challenged myself to use it often and in its most neutral form. Like describing pillows and wallets as fat, and referring to the fat on my body in the same light and matter-of-fact tone.

So far, my daughter has challenged me on only one occasion, when she insisted that calling her inchworm "fat" was unkind. I respectfully disagreed.

And just as I was feeling discouraged about the whole thing, she turned to me in the bathtub and said that my stomach did look fat. And then she added, "Yeah, I think it's kind of beautiful, too."

I'll consider that a victory for now.

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