I don’t remember the first time I realized I was a fat kid. My guess: It was the first time I was teased about being a fat kid. I do remember having a fear of open spaces; I stuck to the margins of the playground to avoid being front and center. This, I’m sure, was to minimize my chances of being teased. My body was big; it stuck out. I did what I could so it didn’t.
Sometimes it didn’t work. One summer at Girl Scout camp, I took archery. Out of my entire troop, the instructor picked me — the quiet girl in the back — to shoot the first arrow. She stood behind me, grabbed the bow and said so all the girls overheard: “Some of us gals have to stretch the string a little farther away from our chests.”
I was 10. Puberty (and breast tissue) hadn’t happened yet. I was just fat.
I won't bore you with a litany of all the other times I was teased or mocked or looked at funny because of my body. Just know it was a lot. Too many.
What do you do when this is your child we’re talking about? How do you respond? As a former fat kid, I suggest the following.
First, don’t make your fat child feel like an outsider anymore than she already does. My parents never described me as their “fat” kid or compared me to my (much smaller) younger sister. When we went shopping together, my mom made sure both of her daughters left with something nice no matter how long it took to comb through limited XL options. I wasn’t a fat kid to her. I was just her kid and her kid needed cute clothes.
Second, don’t micromanage food choices. This might be the hardest advice to swallow because we’re wired to think diet is the answer to losing weight (and that losing weight is always the goal). I’ll leave the science for the scientists to debate (and they are). What I know: I’ve rarely felt as vulnerable as I did as a fat kid with a full plate. That plate could be full of “healthy” options or stacked just as high as my thinner neighbor’s — it didn't matter. I was fat; hadn't I had enough to eat already? The point: Adults, don't police what your fat kid eats anymore than you do for a thinner child. Healthy eating is healthy eating regardless of weight.
Third, don’t make it about the bullies (and there will be bullies). They’re dumb, they’re mean, they’ll peak in high school; saying these things makes your fat child the victim rather than the hero of her own story. Instead, tell that fat little girl what makes her great — how good she is at reading, how nice she is to her sister, how beautiful she is.
In talking to my family for this story, I asked for photos of myself as a kid. As my mom combed through our family albums, she recalled how diligently she curated the photos taken of me. She wanted ones that best reflected the happy, bright, pretty girl she knew so that in seeing that representation of myself, I grew to believe it.
And I did. These days I’m not a fat kid, but that doesn’t change the lessons I learned and that we can all practice: Fat is not a disease; I did not miraculously recover from it. People can be superficial; you don’t have to be. Being fat is never shameful; lacking empathy always is.