“She’s fat,” my daughter’s 8-year-old friend said in her sweet voice as she hopped into our car. She was referring to another 8-year-old. I peered into the rear-view-mirror to see the friend’s innocent grin. She was only repeating a phrase she’d likely heard countless times in reference to women and girls. But it was as if this cute little girl had unknowingly clasped my throat with her second grade hands. I choked.
I knew I had strong feelings about body image, and I hated the word “fat.” But I didn’t know how those words “she’s fat” could yank me so rapidly and securely back to a painful throb in my thighs, my butt, my boobs, my waste, my cheekbones.
I didn’t know that these words could take me to shame, to messages and images stored as a slightly pudgy 7-year-old, an awkward 10-year-old, a more awkward 13-year-old, an average 18-year-old and eventually a somewhat petite, fat-conscious adult. I didn’t know how quickly I could recall the self-hating talk, the wasted time in front of mirrors, the diets, the diet pills, the feeling of a finger down my throat encouraged by teenage friends who joined in the purging after we’d all eaten too many brownies.
My pediatrician once called me “large boned.” Now the doctor tells me I have small bones. It’s funny— I’m pretty sure that bones don’t change, but people’s perceptions, their words sure can alter lives.
These words “she’s fat” took me back to college where I met girls with real eating disorders— girls who spent hours in bathrooms, who scarred and destroyed their intestines. Girls whose lives centered on food, on thin, on everything but a girl’s soul. These words took me to my roommate just out of college who stole checks from me, who hid food under her bed, who sold my CDs so that she could buy more food to vomit. These words took me back to the beautiful friend who always believed she was too fat, who wrote my name in her suicide note.
I hadn’t realized how many layers of “fat messages” I’d stored in my 47-year-old, 118-pound, 5-foot-4-inch frame. There were so many that I had to exhale quite long and loud to get them out. I was certain of one thing: I couldn’t keep quiet when a little girl was called ‘fat.’
“We don’t say that about people,” I said. “She’s a beautiful girl.”
“What?” said the friend. She was only a little girl herself. She couldn’t be expected to comprehend how her words could strangle dreams, could be stored in a body— permanently. She didn’t realize that she was hurting herself with her statement. After all, she was a girl too.
“We don’t call people fat. We don’t describe girls that way. It hurts them for a long time.”
My words sprayed like shrapnel. Apparently they’d been waiting.
“She’s not fat. She’s just larger,” said my daughter.
“She’s beautiful,” I said again. “And she’s kind.” Then there was silence. A lot of it.
Let me be clear— the little girl discussed was not overweight, by any healthy definition. From what I could tell, the girl was healthy. But I wonder how many girls like her are heading, in yet another generation, for unhealthy? How many girls between age eight and thirty will lose the battle of size versus soul? How many will abandon their interests, their passions, their immeasurable beauty located in every bit of them, while spinning toward a dumb number on a scale, the width of a thigh, the tone of a butt.
I bet we women and girls can (finally) do better for one another. We can prop each other up. We can affirm that we’re more than our latest flat, filtered, cleaned-up selfie; our new workout gimmick; our very best juice cleanse.
Female souls weigh nothing, but when we’re ignited, we can teach and empower like Malala, we can lead armies like Joan of Arc, we can fight for equality like Rosa Parks, we can make poetry like Maya Angelou, and we can make peace like Mother Teresa.
Following are a handful of ideas to inspire the upward lift of every size, shape and color of girl, woman, human—
1) Talk about girls and women— inside. Talk about passion, insight, and interests that you admire in the girls and women you know. Talk about your own point-of-view relating to politics, community, and profession. Try not to spend a lot of time talking about your weight or your looks. Try not to pose.
2) Help girls identify role models. Watch movies, read books, talk about female civil rights leaders, teachers and women in the community who have made an impact on lives. Help girls see the impact of a woman’s mind.
3) Protect girls from too much media. Limit the exposure girls and boys have to images of women in the spotlight presented as sex symbols (think recent politics). Avoid leaving magazines around the house presenting women as sex symbols or plastering weight control messaging across covers.
4) Get rid of the D word (dieting). Talk about caring for the body with science-based nutrition, exercise, relaxation and spirituality rather than with dieting. Start with fingernails, teeth, and places of worship not thighs and tummy and bodies to worship. Talk about nutrition and feeling good inside. If you have faith, talk about it. God loves everybody’s body.
5) Age gracefully. Show girls that being human is gorgeous— so is your body, and so is aging. Post pictures of yourself online only if they actually look like you— not if they’re retouched to look like you 10 years ago.
6) Teach boys how to talk about girls and women. Men can model respect for women by talking about their accomplishments, their intelligence and their compassion over their bodies and their looks. Boys can learn how to treat girls with respect starting at an early age.
7) Stand up for women. Be kind to one another. When you hear a girl or woman criticized or minimized because of her body or her looks or her gender— speak up. Become active in supporting respect for the bodies and minds of girls and women. Here are a few places to get involved:
Click here for a list of books relating to empowering girls.