Normalizing Differences

“That lady has a baby in her belly!” Max exclaims, pointing at the building employee walking by.

I’m 14-years-old, volunteering at a camp with my best friend. We are sitting with 4-year-old Max, whose mom is late to pick him up. My friend and I meet eyes and swallow our uncomfortable grins in response to how awkward the situation is. The lady isn’t pregnant, she’s in a larger body.

Shhh, no she doesn’t, Max,” the camp director says. She laughs out of her own discomfort and everyone moves on.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this with regard to many differences we recognize in people. One of my graduate school professors told this story that, to this day, has never left my mind. He was teaching Multicultural Issues, a core class for my degree. He explained how so often, at the grocery store, mall, or other public place, a child will make an observation, and, as many children do, he or she will announce it as loudly as possible: “Mommy, that man is BLACK!!”

And what does the parent usually say in response?

Shhh, don’t say that!” … and then pushes the shopping cart away as quickly as possible to escape the now uncomfortable situation.

“Why do we shush them?” my professor asked us. “What do we teach them by shushing them in response to them noticing a difference?”

I think a light bulb may have literally appeared above my head.

I hadn’t realized how – unfortunately – normal it is to respond in that way to that situation. I hate to admit it, but, prior to this professor’s lecture, I may not have thought twice if I saw someone shushing their child for announcing that someone was black. Or a minority in any other way. Or maybe-pregnant. We as a society struggle to accept differences. I think we have somehow been trained to combat racism by being colorblind AKA not acknowledging differences, when in reality, that is not effective at all.

Shushing a child – or anyone – in a situation like this teaches them that what they observed (because truly, that’s all they did: observe) is shameful. Shhh, skin color is private, so don’t announce it! Shhh, it’s bad to be in a larger body, keep that to yourself! And in addition to that – imagine how it makes the observed person feel! Should they feel bad for the way they look?

Imagine what it would be like to normalize – or celebrate – these difference.

“You’re right, honey, that man is black. People have all kinds of different skin colors!”

“Actually, Max, that woman is not pregnant. People come in all shapes and sizes.”

These responses acknowledge differences in a non-shaming way (especially because shame is not warranted in this situation).

I’ve done a mindfulness activity with some of the kids I see in which I ask them to describe different celebrities using only facts (e.g. his shirt is blue, she has glasses), rather than judgments (e.g. she is pretty, he has a good singing voice). More than once, when describing President Obama, someone has said, “Not to be racist, but he is black.”

But that isn’t racist! It is true! I wish there were more clarity in our society around when something is racist versus when it is a simple observation, an adjective. (This, of course, is not the fault of the kid I am working with. It is a product of this lack of clarity.)

The same summer that I took that Multicultural Issues class, I remember reading to a group of 3 & 4-year-old children at another camp where I worked. The book featured children of different ethnicities. One of the black children in the group sat up really tall, smiled the widest grin I’d ever seen, pointed to the book, and said “Hey! He has black skin and so do I!!”

Some of the other counselors instantly appeared very uncomfortable, unsure of how to manage the situation.

… But nothing needed to be managed! It was the coolest, most progressive thing I have seen among preschoolers. All of the kids got involved. One girl looked at him and pointed to her arm, “I have white skin!” Another: “And mine is brown!” Suddenly the discomfort faded from my co-counselors’ faces. These children were so much more comfortable with differences than many adults!

This can be applied to so many other things – race, physical ability, sexual orientation, the list goes on. At some point in history, people of color have been (and sadly, far too often still are) marginalized and oppressed. The same is true for those with disabilities. And for people of different body sizes.

While going up to someone and calling them ‘fat’ is not necessarily the nicest thing given the way our society views issues of weight, when a child makes a comment about body size, they likely are not saying it with the same judgment that we as adults have developed over time.

I realize that with body image, we as a society are not there yet. Unfortunately, if someone were to say, “That lady is fat!” – even a child – the person they were describing would likely be offended. ‘Fat’ is still a word we use as an insult, in some ways similarly to when we used to use other words that I will not dignify here by listing them (however if you’re reading this and still using those words, please remember that there are so many other words that you can use to express yourself and your feelings). Perhaps someday, as I have written in a previous blog, we will be able to accept that ‘fat’ is just an adjective just like skinny, black, white, tall. It is an adjective that does describe some people, and does not have to be a negative thing.  Truly, the only negative thing about it is the other adjectives (lazy, bad, less than) with which we, unfortunately, have come to associate it. (I could write an entire separate post about this.)

Differences are normal. They make us who we are, and they make us unique. Sometimes, they tell a story. We have the ability to make sure every new generation knows and appreciates that. Let’s embrace differences with the excitement of a child, and not make differences taboo.

Body-Shaming, Age 8+

 

Age 8: “Your mom is fat,” the boys in my second grade class announce to me, giggling to each other in the corner of the playground at recess.

Their laughter haunts me.

I ask my mom not to come to Visitation Day that year. I won’t tell her my reasoning behind that request until I’m 29 years old.

Age 9:  We are climbing the rope in gym class.  My classmates get to the top easily.  I struggle.  My arms can’t hold me up.  I make it halfway and have to come back down. All of my classmates are watching.

My friend Catherine has the same experience.  We decide we must be too fat.  We talk about weight loss and I sneak my mom’s dieting book into school the next day.  Catherine comes over that weekend and we eat oranges for lunch.  “Dieting is silly,” we say after a few hours following our new “plan.”  We start eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with chips and a carton of milk again.

At no point did we consider that as non-athletic third graders, we didn’t have the muscles that activity requires. Less food seemed like the only answer.

Age 10: I am at the movie theater with a friend and her mom, who is fat.  She gets up to use the restroom before the film starts.  When she gets up, her butt grazes the back of the heads of the boys in front of us.  They all point and giggle.  She doesn’t see them, but I do.  I don’t tell my friend; I don’t want her to feel embarrassed.  But I hold back hot tears, angry at the boys for getting a rise out of mocking someone else.

Age 13: I’m at camp, waiting with the other pre-CITs to go swimming.  My friend leans over to me and says, “Look at the girl next to you!”

The girl next to me is a fat 10-year-old girl in her swimsuit.

My friend had headphones on and spoke louder than she meant to.  The little girl hears, and tightly curls her towel around her body.

Age 21: I visit friends who are studying abroad in Spain.  One night, we get street food while waiting for the train.

“You’re a vegetarian?” a friend of a friend asks me.

“Yes! Well, I eat fish. But no other meat.”

“Hm, I wouldn’t have guessed that … I mean, you don’t have the body of a vegetarian .… ”

I am distracted by something else, so I don’t hear what comes next.  My friend gives him a talking to, to which he responds, “I mean, she’s not that fat .… ”


I don’t have any distinct body-shaming memories from ages 14 to 20.  The only way I can make sense of this is by assuming that body-shaming was so rampant in my teenage years that I stopped remembering each exact instance.


Age 24: I start working as a therapist at an eating disorder treatment center.  Body-shaming is everywhere.

The teenagers I work with body-shame themselves constantly.  This is what inspires me to start writing about it.

Sometimes, they body-shame other teenagers.

Often, parents do it too … they say, “I had an eating disorder when I was younger but clearly I’m recovered,” and laugh as they motion toward their round stomach and plump legs.

“Actually, you can’t tell if someone is sick or recovered by looking at them,” I respond, stone-faced serious.

I’m not upset with the kids and their families.  Parents do not create eating disorders.  Body-shaming is simply a product of the culture we live in.  I am no angel; I have put myself down countless times, admired someone’s weight loss, and noticed another’s weight gain. I have also worked on this tremendously once I began to witness, first-hand in my work, the impact it has on mental and physical health.

I realize that my experience is not unique in any way.  I have always been slender, a bit curvy, and in no way can I claim to have been the victim of body-shaming to the same degree that too many others have.  If I’ve experienced body-shaming, I cannot imagine what it is like for those in larger bodies.  It’s as though being thin (or even “not fat”) in a skinny-focused, fat-shaming world has become a new sense of Privilege that we have to keep in check.

I’ve learned a lot working as an eating disorder therapist.  When a kid tells you, “I think I’m fat,” and you respond with “You are not fat,” you are perpetuating the idea that being fat would be the worst thing that could happen.

I learned this best from one of my 16-year-old clients in my first year working in the field.  Like many young people struggling with anorexia, this client was preoccupied with the idea that she was fat, and the fact that part of her treatment plan required steady weight gain as part of recovery did not exactly make her distortions go away.

During a check-in, she told me that her dad, one of her biggest supports, made a comment that she needed to address with him.  They were driving home after a particularly challenging night of treatment, and a fat woman was walking down the street.

“See, it’s not like you look like that!” her dad said.

He was trying to help. He was, as a father, doing his absolute best to help his child see herself based on reality, not based on her distorted thinking. I think any parent in a similar situation would do the same.

She explained to me that all that did was show her that if she were walking down the street, people would be judging her based on her body.  It told her that our society judges fat people and maintains the idea that we “shouldn’t” look a certain way.  And she did a beautiful job explaining this to her father so he could best support her recovery.

Here’s the bottom line: Most 10-year-olds are more afraid of getting fat than getting cancer, the idea of war, or losing both of their parents.  What does that say about the messages we are perpetuating?  You have the power to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  Body-shaming doesn’t end overnight.  Habits take time to make and to break, and even longer to see an impact.  The next time you have a shaming thought, notice it, let yourself think it – you aren’t a bad person for having a thought you’ve been raised to believe is true.  Just be mindful of what you do with it.  Is it necessary to say it out loud?  This is true not only when the shaming thought is about another person, but when it is about yourself.  After a few weeks of simply noticing the thought without 1) announcing it or 2) changing your behavior in response to it, you might start to feel better.  And you just might cause a ripple effect on the people around you.


Note: I used the word “fat” a few times in this post – chances are, you’ve internalized this as a word with a negative connotation – almost a swear word.  I definitely have fallen into that trap, especially as a kid … and adolescent … and 20-something.  Let’s remember that “fat” is just an adjective.  Some people are fat.  Some people have brown hair.  Some people have freckles.  And all of those things are okay.  Check out Jes Baker’s book “Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls,” regardless of what your body looks like, for some of the most empowering reading on body love and acceptance you may ever come across.