When I was ten or eleven years old my parents sat me down to tell me that I was getting too fat. I don’t remember the details—I know it was summer, I know it was just before bed, I know we were in the family room—but I do remember my intense shame and the way my vision tunneled, as if I were looking through the wrong end of binoculars. I remember that I left the room differently than I entered it, as if my parts were strung together wrong and I didn’t know how to operate my arms and legs.
My parents’ loving intervention did more harm than good. I became more self-conscious and less likely to want to be physical in the world. I was afraid people were secretly judging me. This led to chaotic eating in my teens, when I alternately starved, binged, and exercised my way into a perfect size eight but could never believe what I saw in the mirror. My thinking around food became distorted. I lost my ability to know when I was hungry or when I was full or what I wanted to eat. In my mind, there was food that was good for you and food that tasted good but I didn’t know how to manage either.
In my twenties I met my husband and slowly I put weight on by eating regular meals again while my exercise routine became more realistic. Today I am fat and forty and still struggling (but closer) to finding peace in my own skin.
I revisit those childhood feelings of disequilibrium more often since I became a mother 15 years ago and particularly since I became the mother of a daughter whose pediatrician wanted to put her on a diet at three months old. At that well-baby check-up almost eight years ago it was clear she was growing at the top edges of the standard height and weight charts.
“A lot of parents think it’s easier to stick a bottle in her mouth than attend to their child’s emotional needs,” she told me, while I stood stricken. “But you’re not doing her any favors in the long run.”
I often think about that moment. I think how fortunate it is that my daughter is adopted. It’s easy for me to see her birth mother in her and to accept and value the size and shape of her birth mom’s body. If she had been born to me, I think I would have accepted the doctor’s condemnation without question. I am used to thinking that my body is wrong; if my daughter had been born with a body that mirrored mine, I don’t think I would have had the fortitude to challenge the doctor’s thinking.
As it was, I left the appointment in tears but decided to meticulously track her formula consumption to see if I was indeed using food as a proxy for care. My records proved that I wasn’t. My daughter, who we were feeding on demand, seemed to know exactly how much food she needed. Although the amount she was taking in wasn’t enough, according to the standard nutritional charts, to sustain growth, she kept on growing. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ feeding guidelines recommend two-and-a-half ounces of formula per pound of body weight; my daughter was taking in about a half that.
We changed doctors. My daughter continued on her growth curve, always at the top of the pack, a place she continues to stand today. At age eight, she is strong, confident and healthy. Now, however, I see her—and children like her—facing a new kind of danger. In a social climate where larger bodies are increasingly suspect, kids like my daughter are becoming public targets of disapproval, discrimination, and overt disgust.
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