“Katie, you’re fat.”
The four-year-old peered up at me and said with a look of mischief in her eyes. Ten years ago, this statement would have broken me. It would have caused a small anxiety attack followed by a midnight binge of ice cream and oatmeal cookies in my bedroom. As someone who has worked with children of all ages for over ten years, I was always nervous for the time a child might mention my size. I never knew how to respond. I just tried to cover myself up enough to avoid the statement altogether.
Here I am ten years later and able to respond to her statement, saying, “that’s a descriptor word, but yes I have a large body and yours is small.” Like this little girl, we grow up being taught that the word “fat” is meant to hurt and shame others. I was first called fat when I was six. Even then, I knew that the word was meant to hurt me.
When it comes down to it, the word “fat” is a descriptor. The definition of the word is to have a large amount of flesh. I do have a large amount of flesh. Compared to this little girl, I am fat. But I am not the version of the word “fat” that is bad or shameful.
Now I feel like I come out to people as fat in the same way that someone would come out as gay (though not to the same degree whatsoever). I describe myself as fat because I do fit the description of the word. I call myself fat to take away its power so that others won’t use it to hurt me. When I first started coming to terms with my identity as fat, I called myself “large bodied.” Now I use opportunities such as talking to this little girl to take away the shame. Fat is such a small word that used to hold so much power over me, and it no longer hurts.
As women and men, we are told that certain bodies are acceptable and that others are not. These norms are instilled in us at a young age. The parents of this little girl are not bad parents. Like the rest of society, these parents are either unaware or unsympathetic of the struggle that many people face concerning body image.
How do we change this? What if we taught our children that body size was not good or bad? What if we taught children to notice differences in body size but not to shame those differences? It would mean fewer eating disorders, fewer diets, less bullying on playgrounds. If we taught our children that there is no shame in body size there would be room for more joy, more friendships, and more connection.
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Katie is a recent transplant to north county, San Diego. She is currently getting her masters in social work at CSU San Marcos. Katie is working though disordered eating and mental illness and desires to use her vulnerability and experiences to help other women feel that they are not alone. Katie enjoys hiking surfing and being with her family.