Weight and worth

Something has been bothering me since last week, so much that I had to come here and write about it. But first a background to this feeling is necessary.

Growing up in my hometown in Brazil, Saturdays meant that my sister and I would run errands with my mom in the morning. On our way downtown, on foot, we would stop at a pharmacy to weigh ourselves. This routine started when I was young, maybe 9 or 10 years old, and continued into my teenage years. I was always — have always been — the heaviest of the three of us. I remember that if my mom weighed 100g more than the previous Saturday, she would skip meals during the week or go for really long walks to burn extra calories.

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I have always loved food. I don’t remember ever skipping a meal for any reason whatsoever. After our errands in the morning on Saturdays, sometimes we would stop at my grandma’s house on the way to my aunt’s house. If my grandma offered snacks, I would accept them. If my aunt baked her famous and delicious chocolate cake, I would eat it. This made the person closest to me — and the one I looked up to the most — call me some funny names in jest and in fun. The problem is: those words sank deep into my soul, so much that I have always seen myself as overweight.

When I was 10 years old, I was put on a diet. I was allowed to eat rice, beans and tomatoes. Long walks were part of the program. Years later, when I questioned this, I was told that I was the one who asked for it. Nobody explained to me that it is normal to have “baby fat” in those years transitioning from childhood into teenage years. My best friend was overweight and, whenever she visited, I would hear comments about her pretty face, and what a shame that she didn’t lose some of the weight, she would be so beautiful. Parents, the message here was this: my weight was one and the same with my self-worth. And this lie, this putrid, toxic lie, is etched in my spirit, no matter how much I can rationalize around it.

Despite all this, as I said, I have always enjoyed food. I have never portioned my desserts or not eaten something that I wanted because of the amount of calories. I hadn’t weighed myself in years, not even through my pregnancies, until last week. We found a new family doctor who seems genuinely interested in our health, and in my first appointment the nurse asked me to step on the scale. I automatically did what she asked, and the number that appeared in front of my eyes felt like a punch to my gut. Never, in a million years, that number would have been linked to me when I stepped on the scale of my childhood. But there it was. And it was huge, grotesque almost, perverse, unbelievable, scary. And mine. That number was mine.

And so here I am, 33 years old, four children in tow, being haunted by my weight, trying to tell myself that my fourth baby will be only five months old tomorrow, that it’s early for my body to bounce back, that I can do things to bring that number down and bring my self-worth up. For the past week, I have felt no joy in eating and I have been wondering if I really need what I’m putting in my mouth. This is tricky because I’m still breastfeeding and sometimes my hunger is off the charts. I’m sleep-deprived, raising four children (one of whom is a very busy toddler), and now obsessing about food. This is not how it should be.

Now, listen, I don’t want to lay all the blame on my mother because she only did what she was taught to do (to this day, my 86-year-old grandma comments on her own weight). I want to break this cycle of blaming the mother because it’s one of the most powerful tools of patriarchy and we don’t realize it. My point is that this needs to stop.

We need to stop commenting about our children’s and other children’s bodies, especially girls. There is no reason, none, not ever, to make a comment about how much A weighs, how chubby B has become, or how skinny C looks. Our bodies should never be the topic of a conversation, unless weight gain is impacting health. Read the covers of gossip magazines next time you’re waiting in line at the grocery stores and notice the monstrous scrutiny placed on the bodies of women. They either look great after having a baby or changing their hair style, or they’re looking old without makeup and have let themselves go for putting on two pounds.

We need to change the way we refer to our own bodies and halt the negative talk. Women, our stretch marks, our saggy boobs, our thick thighs, our square figure, our “homely” frames, our bony arms are of no interest to our children. None. I would’ve loved my mother in whatever shape she came, but maybe mommy won’t love me anymore unless I fit into the shape that she sees as ideal.

We need to exercise not with an obsession to lose weight and look a certain way — a way that society ingrained in our brain — but to be healthier and stronger. Frame this conversation with your children from this perspective.

This list could go on. You can add steps in your head. I just want to warn my fellow parents out there (especially those with daughters) that, having been a young daughter myself one day, the constant attachment of worth to my weight created some twisted beliefs, such as that fat people can’t be happy, that they don’t deserve to be happy, that they can’t have a joy-filled romantic relationship, that they are second-class to thinner bodies. Because they aren’t worthy. And when I say “they”, I mean me, and when you say “they”, your children might think that you’re referring to them.

Sizeism is real. My two older boys, aged 8 and 6 years, already talk about having a six-pack. For months, “fat” was a dirty word around here, a way of teasing one another. It took me a long time to change this notion, and I’m sure it’ll come back. Until this year, though, they didn’t know what “dieting” meant, and I am proud of that.

What does it matter if a person weighs 170 or 190 pounds? What does it matter if a person wears size 10 or size 12? Or 14? Or 16? Body mass and self-worth are not interchangeable, and our children need to know that.

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