The Chubbiest Baby on the Block
My child’s size delighted everyone – except her pediatrician.
by Madeline Holler
August 13, 2009
What you first notice about my daughter Frances is her size. She’s big. Some might call her fat. She’s definitely heavy.
At four years old, her stomach still sticks out, her cheeks are full, her butt is soft and round, and, since it looks exactly like mine, promises to more than fill out every pair of jeans she’ll ever wear. She’s on the taller side; her head is enormous. Next to other kids her age, you’d swear that either they are malnourished or you’re looking at Frances through a magnifying glass.
My daughter’s size – even before gender – was the first thing I knew about her.
“You’re almost done,” my husband said, right after a series of contractions and hard pushes squeezed out the head of what appeared to be a three month old.
“Actually, this could take awhile,” I heard my midwife say. “That’s a really big baby.”
And she was. Ten pounds fourteen ounces her first time on the scale. She has gained steadily ever since – twenty-four pounds at six months, thirty-three pounds at one year. She registers big, big numbers for a girl only in preschool.
Since birth, Frances’s size was a conversation opener everywhere we went. At the post office, a clerk asked me how many bottles she consumed in a day.
“Zero?” I answered.
He paused, thinking, and then yelled at my chest, “That’s some damn rich milk you got!” Heads in the lobby nodded in agreement.
“Can I hold her?” strangers asked. “Oh my God, she’s bigger than my toddler!” they screamed. My baby girl’s body was alternately a celebration and a circus act.
Women presumed a concern that, at the time, wasn’t there. “I looked just like her,” a skinny mom at Whole Foods stopped to tell me. She held her arms out like wings and turned a full circle. “Now look at me.”
My older daughter’s elderly dance teacher stuck out her leg, still toned from years as a Vegas showgirl. “I was a fatter baby than that,” she said, fondling one of Frances’s three chins. “You’d never know now, would you.”
Everyone loved my fat baby – everyone but the pediatrician.
“Have you considered cutting back on nursing?” Frances was six months old. It was our first appointment with this doctor, who came highly recommended by a friend of a friend. When the doctor plotted her weight and height on a pink-checkered chart, two identical lines shot from the corner of the page, rode above the mess of numbered percentiles, and came to rest in a blank space known as “off the charts.”
Had I heard correctly: my baby needed a diet?
“It’s just we want to catch diabetes when they’re young, stop any problems before they start,” the doctor said.
“Diabetes! Are there signs?” I asked. “She’s just a baby!”
“We can take another look when she’s a year old.”
At Frances’s nine-month check up, her height and weight lines followed the shape of the proscribed curve, but still hovered way above the 99th percentile. Same thing at a year old. And at two.
“We’d really like to see her down in this range,” the doctor reminded me. She moved her finger around the deep innards of what I had begun to think of as an angry pink chart. “Let’s work on that.” I agreed, but had no plan. The only thing that changed after our doctor appointments was how much I quietly obsessed about my daughter’s size.
Now I cringed when strangers called my toddler “chubby,” which, I realized after we adopted a skinny Chihuahua mix, Frances used interchangeably with “cute.”
At Frances’s three-year check up, I wanted to keep conversation with the doctor in code – happy, positive, good-body code. No frowns. No scolding. No shame. In my own earliest memories – four years old – I already knew that I was fat and that this was not a good thing. Never mind that I was also adorable, smart and really funny. I was fat first and foremost. This was reconfirmed throughout childhood by mean kids, the bathroom scale, and whenever my mother suggested “tummy exercises” while we hunted for pants that fit. I thought my daughter should be granted at least few years of obliviousness to the negativity that was already attaching itself to her big body.
Plus, I had no idea what Frances understood at these check-ups. Did she hear the doctor call her skinny sister “perfect” while saying, with regard to Frances, we’d “keep working on her”?
Despite my concerns, I was feeling cocky at this time. While Frances hadn’t turned into a twig between her second and third year as so many people, unbidden, told me would happen, I saw that her body was changing. Still robust, she sported fewer rolls and a round but not flabby belly. The doctor would most certainly approve.
“Where are we in the percentiles?” I asked, sticking to code.
“When they’re three, we don’t worry about percentiles,” she said. My hardened game-face turned into a smile. Good riddance oppressive percentiles! Maybe now, instead of a stern talking-to, she’d ask what we ate for dinner, whether Frances liked the park, how tall my husband was. Maybe now we’d look at the whole child.
Frances could never beat the BMI. I twisted my neck to get a better look at the gray sheet of numbers our doctor had pulled from a file. “At three years,” she looked me in the eyes, “we calculate BMI.”
Frances could never beat the BMI. I switched doctors.
Of course I was as concerned about childhood obesity as much as any surgeon general. I saw super-heavy little kids all over the place. I’m well aware of the obesity rates in the U.S. and I knew switching doctors wouldn’t slim Frances down. But I was not convinced that Frances was supposed to be any other size. After all, she looked much like I did at her age and my physical health is excellent. I have straddled the BMI’s normal/overweight line my whole life, the result of which wasn’t high cholesterol or an alarming blood pressure but the nagging, ever-present feeling that of all the exciting life goals I could set for myself, a smaller size should be somewhere near the top of the list. I didn’t want Frances wasting her time like that on the losing battle of weight. My little girl was bigger than the sum of her sizable parts.
Anyway, there was only so much I could do. Cues to eat are everywhere, especially for children, and not just on TV. Built-in trays on strollers, cupholders in carseats, even Exersaucers have a holder for Cheerios and a sippy. Playgroups and preschools serve meal-size snacks, soccer practice (practice!) ends with Go-gurts and Cheez-its. Free sundaes with kids meal purchase! Treat bags on Valentine’s Day! Brownies just because. Frances’s world practically demands that she eat too much. Of course, she doesn’t understand that and is more than willing to oblige.
I tried arguing with the doctor about the demerits of BMI as a determinant of good health. Shouldn’t my kid get some leeway for her broad shoulders, dense muscles and huge, huge head? Instead, I wound up sounding like a defensive fat chick and an emotional mother in denial.
A friend of mine faces the opposite situation: everyone says her kids are too skinny since they plot at the bottom of the percentile charts. So she totes around whole milk and sleeves of buttery Ritz crackers. She stops for Slurpees and ice cream, serves fried chicken, packs chips in lunches. She smothers everything in cheese.
I think her concern is ridiculous (and, truthfully, enviable) and laugh at her caloric excess. I tell her she shouldn’t worry and that those charts don’t mean anything. I still half believe that.