Editors’ note: We frequently get emails and blog comments in which readers ask for advice. The questions range from “how do I learn to love myself” through niceties of interpersonal and office politics. We’d been saying for a while that we should start a regular advice column feature to address our readers’ needs, but the below question was so poignant and universal that it finally got us off our fat asses. And so we present the first installment of “Ask Aunt Fattie.”
If you’ve got your own questions on fat, fatphobia, fatshion, and fatiquette, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Aunt Fattie,
I am in dire, dire need of help. Before I start, I’ve been reading FA blogs for about a year now, practicing HAES, exercising more, elevating self esteem, etc. I thought I was finally happy…
…until just now, when I had a bath. My mum was there, showing me where the candles and bubble bath was, when she asked me to weigh myself. I stepped on the scales; it was 99.3 kilos [219 pounds]. I’m 14 and 167cm [about 5’5”].
She said “oh, you’ve put on a bit” – from 96 at the end of last year. I don’t really remember what happened next, but she launched into a lecture, which I was crying all the way through.
I really don’t know what to do. She’s been on my case for years and years. The lecture can be translated as “You will have health problems unless you lose weight. I want you to because I love you.” She thought I was crying not because of her torrent of abuse, but because I never thought I could lose weight and that made me desperate. She rattled off a list of friends and family who were trying to lost weight. She even said “Every five kilos you lose you can do something really fun, like a reward.”
Now that you know my situation, I need help. Any way – comforting words, studies I could show my mother, just help. And the scariest thing is that it’s fucking tempting to give in and try and lose weight. Acceptance! Rewards! No more fights! There’s even a kid at my school who constantly calls me fat, and even said he could catch diabetes off me because I’m a “bit overweight”. I wouldn’t miss that.
But I don’t want to lose myself in losing weight. I’m between a rock and a hard place here.
– Non-Dieting Daughter
Aunt Fattie’s response below the fold…
When you’re a parent, there are basically only two options: either you ultimately want what’s best for your kids, or you’re a sociopath. You’d know if you were dealing with the latter, and from your letter I think it’s clear that you aren’t. So the question becomes: why does your mom think that losing weight is what’s best for you, and how can you let her know that she’s doing more harm than good?
When you think about it, her attitude is pretty easy to understand. In fact, you said it yourself – in a fatphobic culture, there are a lot of reasons to want to lose weight. Your mom thinks weight loss will make you healthier, and why wouldn’t she? Unless you’re actively seeking out study results without spin, “fat is unhealthy” is the only message you’re going to get; your mom probably has no idea that it’s not as simple as all that. She also thinks losing weight will make you happier, and again, you can see where that’s coming from. In real life, if you were skinny, you’d have other troubles, because you’re 14 and it’s a turbulent and difficult time, but that’s not how she’s seeing it right now. Instead, she thinks – and not without reason! – that life is tough on a fat kid, and she wants your life to be as easy and happy and idyllic as possible, because she’s your mom.
Basically, your mom has the Fantasy of Being Thin by proxy. Just as you sometimes find yourself thinking that everything would be simple and beautiful if you could only lose weight, your mom – who, remember, is getting the full impact of the Obesity Panic without any of the mitigating messages like Health At Every Size – fantasizes about you losing weight and thus being able to stride through life without pain or obstacles or anxiety. Of course it doesn’t work that way – that’s why it’s a fantasy. But you can understand where she’s coming from.
So, what do you do? Well, the best approach would be to talk to your mom, starting from the perspective that she’s trying to help you, not persecute you. (Even better if you guys can be out having tea or lunch at the time, rather than talking to her while she’s trying to read or cook.) The conversation would go kind of like this: “Mom, I understand that you have my best interests at heart, but trying to lose weight won’t make me happy. It won’t even make me thinner, or at least not for very long. It’ll just make me miserable and malnourished. I know that you’re just trying to protect me, but I don’t want to be protected from my body – I just want to be protected from having to hate, starve, or punish it. How would you feel about helping me be happy by liking myself, instead of by changing myself?” You can even say “if you are worried about my health, I’d love to take walks/swims/yoga classes with you, but only if we don’t make it about weight loss.” If you guys don’t have the kind of relationship where a face-to-face discussion is easy, you might even write her a letter.
If you have to break out the big guns, you may want to show your mom this press release about how teasing and anxiety about weight makes teenage girls more likely to have eating disorders (but not more likely to be thin). Make sure she understands that eating disorders, while they are mental illnesses and not simply extreme diets, can be triggered by dieting behavior, and that girls your age are very susceptible. I don’t recommend framing this as a threat, of course! But it’s important for your mom to understand that you’re actually taking a very mature, reasonable approach to your own health, and that includes looking out for your mental health as well.
Finally, along those lines: give her reason to believe that you are keeping yourself healthy. She may feel skeptical about Health at Every Size, so do everything you can to show her that your health is as important to you as it is to her. That means not smoking, not getting involved in drugs and other risky behaviors, trying to get enough sleep, being active when you can, and not bellyaching too much about regular medical checkups. It might even mean taking the lead on things like reminding her that it’s time for your dentist appointment. Did you ever try to convince your parents that you could take care of a dog? Think of it like that – you’re demonstrating extra responsibility, to show that she can entrust you with stewardship of your body. This seems weird, because of course you’re fundamentally in charge of your own body – but your mom thinks of you as a kid and probably will until you’re 50, so she may need extra encouragement.
And if you don’t do regular exercise, this is a great time to start – not for weight loss, and not just for showing that you care about your health, but because finding physical activities that are fun for you will help you learn what your body’s capable of, and love it even more. If it’s financially feasible in your family, ask your mom to show her support of your physical and mental health (NOT your weight loss) by helping you find some classes to try out. This is a perfect time to explore your interests and abilities – if you turn out to fall in love with ice skating or rugby or cycling or bowling, just imagine how good you’ll be at it by the time you’re Aunt Fattie’s age!