Fresh off the treadmill after dragging 250 pounds on a 4-mile torture sesh, I walked into the family locker room to splash cold water on my face. A little girl and her mama sat on the bench near the lockers, chatting about butterflies and getting ready to hit the pool.
As I walked past them, the little girl's voice trailed off and her gaze followed me as I hovered over the sink. As I walked toward the towel dispenser, I realized the girl was still staring. I could feel her tiny little eyeballs. Totally mute. Just looking.
For a moment, I was hopeful she just loved my leggings or thought I had great hair, but deep down, I knew better.
I knew what was coming next. The second I returned her gaze, she stared straight at me and said, "Your tummy is so fat...why are you so fat? My mommy isn't fat like you at all."
I watched the poor mom just wither, shushing the little girl, and angrily saying, "Sweetheart, we don't SAY those things to people. That's not nice."
But you could see it on the girl's face—she legitimately did not understand why.
At the time, I wasn't exactly comfortable with my big belly, so I definitely felt like I was going to throw up. It is one thing to be able to put up some shame-resilience when you are dealing with other adults, but man, kids are just a whole other level, because kids tell the truth.
That's just what they do.
And so I was standing, face to face, with the truth about my body, and it looked like an unrelenting 6-year-old in pigtails wearing a Dora the Explorer swimsuit, observing what was obvious to anyone with eyes.
Her mommy was not, in fact, fat like me at all.
So I looked at the mom, mouthed, "It's okay," exiting as quickly as my fat tummy would allow.
As I was leaving, I heard the mom lay into the little girl, appalled that her child could say something so insensitive. The last thing I heard her say was, "Sweetheart, if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. Fat isn't nice."
As the door closed behind me, I heard that little girl tell her mama the truth when she said, "But mommy, that doesn't make any sense. She IS fat."
And on a different day—one where I believed that being fat had nothing to do with being worthy of love—I might have turned around, walked back into that locker room, and high-fived that little girl, replying: "Preach, little one. We need your truth."
Wait, what? Why is a fat-bodied woman advocating for this little girl who, if unchecked, might spend the rest of her life hurling insults at strangers? I'll tell you why. Because she was telling the truth. She wasn't being mean. She was only following the formula likely demonstrated by every adult in her life.
Unfamiliar with the formula? It goes something like this:
Observation followed by critique finished with unsolicited verbal feedback.
Here are a couple of IRL examples:
Walking down the street, you pass an old friend, and say, "Ann! You look incredible. How much weight have you lost? Amazing! How did you do it?"
Staring in the mirror, getting ready for an evening out, you mutter, "I just can't wear this dress. It shows every single roll and lump. It's disgusting."
See? Observation, critique, unsolicited verbal feedback. Over and over and over.
That little girl was trained to observe bodies and talk about them. And she didn't know that fat deviated from the formula because at its core, it doesn't. She was doing what she had been trained to do in every compliment and critique that had been modeled for her.
So, what then? Am I suggesting the solution is to just avoid talking about bodies altogether? Well, in an ideal world, maybe, but I'm a pragmatist at heart, so I'd like to propose a pragmatic solution:
Talk about bodies. All the time. All the kinds. The fat-tummied and the brown-skinned and the wheelchair-bound. And proclaim them all good.
All bodies are good bodies.
That one sentence. Over and over.
And once you've talked about them once, talk about them again because once isn't enough to counteract the cacophony of voices shouting critiques to the contrary.
If you do this, I can't promise there won't be another moment when your kid says something that just turns you inside out. I can't even promise they won't tell another woman she is fat.
But I can promise you will have words to use if it happens.
Words that might actually help heal the person who was wounded in the first place.
Words that might actually help heal the world, one fat-tummied or brown-bodied or wheelchair-bound person at a time.