Saturday, November 5, 2011

That's What I'm Talking About!

Earlier today, I was telling my 16 year old son about some of the people I ran into during a brief excursion to the local mall. I added, "I don't think you'll remember this person. He wasn't in your grade." My son responded, "Yes I do. He's chubby and he used to go to our Sunday School."

I was reflecting on our conversation later, and I thought about how easily the word "chubby" rolled off his tongue. There was no hesitancy in using the word, and most importantly, there was nothing pejorative or judgmental in the tone of his voice. "Chubby" was merely an accurate description that let me know he knew exactly who I was talking about.

This interaction made me recall a very different experience I had this past spring when I attended a conference on the topic of eating disorders. After the speaker presented her research, I asked her a question about her methods in assessing the relationship between fat children and emotional problems. A woman sitting at my table - who I did not know - leaned over and admonished me for using the "f" word, shocked that I didn't know it was "politically incorrect" to refer to someone as fat! I tried to explain that I was merely using "fat" as a description and that, in fact, in the circles I travel, the words "overweight" and "obese" are often considered "politically incorrect" because they assume pathology. Just as the phrase "black is beautiful" was a way to reclaim a positive connotation of being black in the 1960's, so too are people in the size acceptance movement reclaiming the word "fat" as a legitimate description of body size - and one that they are entitled to feel pride in.

I'm usually good with words, but whatever I said seemed to make things worse. The moment the conference ended, this same woman came up to me and said, "We need to talk." I braced myself - I don't usually argue with people about this sensitive topic, and I was also anxious to get home. But I felt trapped, and thus the conversation began. She told me that she felt that by using the word "fat," I was intentionally humiliating her. This was quite a jolt to me, since I consider myself to be a person who is extremely conscious of not shaming people about body size. I did my best to be present with her, to listen patiently to her concerns, and to reassure her that my use of the word "fat" came from my own beliefs. I explained my point of view: that people naturally come in all shapes and sizes, and that they deserve to feel good in their bodies whether thin, fat or anywhere in between. This time around, I seemed to get through to her. She visibly relaxed and graciously thanked me for the conversation, saying now she understood where I was coming from.

I suppose it's cliche to say that the next generation is our hope. But I sure like knowing that by modeling an attitude of size acceptance within my own family, my son is able to let the word "chubby" roll off his tongue with no more judgment than saying a person is tall or short, has brown hair, or green eyes. After all, it's only when people choose to view body fat as a negative trait - and associate it with judgmental words like lazy, stupid, or overindulgent - that it takes on a pejorative meaning that's peppered with shame, so that the majority of people in our culture consider it taboo to use. Take away the stereotypes, add in the individuality of each person and the uniqueness of every body, and "fat" simply becomes one more word that helps us communicate with each other. Now that's what I'm talking about!

Eat well! Live well! Be well!