Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Fat": A Lifelong Label

The school sent home their BMI reports last week. These reports inform parents of their child’s weight, height, and body mass index. They also let us know where our kids fall on the scale of underweight to obese. I’m assuming they also share this information with the government and that’s how states track their childhood obesity rates.

When I was a kid, schools did something similar although BMI had not been created. They did make us line up in the nurse’s office to be measured and then checked our spines to make sure they were straight. I hated this day. Well, actually that day never registered on my radar until after third grade. Third grade was the year the doctor informed me that I was fat. It was the year my mother started watching what I ate. It was the year that food became an obsession. Prior to that, I didn’t have any real memory of what I ate or whether it mattered.

When I look back on my childhood pictures, I did start to look a little chubby around third grade. But I wonder now, if that isn’t normal. Kids seem to begin to grow wider faster than they grow taller in the years before puberty. I have to wonder whether my doctor did me a disservice by labeling me. I wonder if I had been allowed to continue on my course, if my weight wouldn’t have just leveled out on its own.

Instead, his pronouncement set me on course for a life time of dieting and obsessive exercising, interspersed with periods of weight gain in which I would throw in the towel and remind myself that I’ve always been fat. More than that it gave me a new picture of myself: I was fat and therefore according to our culture I was unattractive. That fact colored my adolescence and undermined my confidence. These days my weight falls in the top of the healthy weight on the BMI index, but that number does nothing for my mental and emotional assumptions. I still feel fat. I think I probably always will.

My three children’s BMI reports are all over the map. One landed where he always does, just under the average weight for his height. The next continues to ride the line between underweight and normal. And the third was pushed over the top line for the first time. He was labeled obese. Now, I look at this child and he looks big to me. Not fat, just big. He has always been solid. He’s the kind of guy that makes men smack him on the back and say, “You’d make a great football player!”

This child does eat a lot, but it’s mostly healthy food. I did not share the BMI report with him, but at his last doctor’s visit, his doctor gently told him that he needed to be careful because his weight was growing faster than his height. I think the doc did a good job of telling my son that he was in no way fat, but he needed to be careful so he didn’t become fat. No matter, the only thing my child heard was “fat”. And it hasn’t been only the doctor who's told my child his weight is a problem. Apparently his peers and the media have also weighed in.

Long before this doctor’s visit, or the BMI report, my child came to me in tears. I held him and asked what was the matter. Did someone hurt his feelings? Did something happen? No, he said. I don’t want to say it. Please, say it, I begged. I want to help. “I’m fat,” he said and erupted in to fresh tears.

At that moment the memories came rushing back. I remembered that pain so acutely that my own tears began to mingle with his. I struggled with the right words, but I knew there weren’t any. If I said I would help him eat healthier and get more exercise, then I was confirming his fears. If I said, No, you’re not fat, would I be doing him more harm than good?  I finally settled on telling him that many people feel that they are fat. And if he wanted to be a lower weight, I could help him figure out what to eat and how to exercise to make that happen. And I told him that I thought he was perfect. Because he is.

To the bottom of my soul, I wish I could take this pain away from him. I wish diet and food and weight did not color our society so heavily. I wish our media and marketplace didn’t make it so easy for people to overeat. I know that when spring comes and he can get outside and exercise and fresh fruit and vegetables are more readily available, he will lose some of that weight. I also know that he has not begun puberty yet, and he has the genes to be over six feet tall. My son knows how to eat healthy and he loves to play sports. I am confident that my son will not be fat. I wish I could be as confident that he won’t always feel fat.

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