“What’s that?” asked my youngest daughter, pointing at the bottom half of my oldest son’s belly.
He quickly slipped his shirt on over his middle, tucking it into his pants.
“They’re stretch marks,” he said.
“From what?” asked his inquiring sister.
She took the answer and thoughtfully mulled it around a moment before bounding off to play. But I was left behind wondering: Should I talk to my son about his weight … again?
We’ve talked about his weight a lot over the past few years. At least, you know, as much as you can talk about something without trying to make it “a thing.”
Concerned about his expanding belly and lack of interest in any activity that requires movement, I’ve tried just about every sort of conversation possible that would have the least amount of shame attached to it. We’ve had heart-to-heart chats over healthy restaurant dining and have looked at healthy eating guides together. I’ve tried to mention healthy eating when he’s eating, tried to mention healthy eating when he’s not eating. Tried to take matters into my hands, tried to help him take matters into his own.
It’s not like we’re afraid to talk about things like this. I’ve made communication a priority with my kids, so when we need to talk about stuff, we do. Sex, condoms, porn, smoking, drugs, religion, bingeing, purging, bullying … no conversation is off limits in our house. We’ve chatted marijuana legalization while driving to IKEA, have debated the existence of Buddha and Christ while walking to get snow cones from the corner store. But, for some reason, talking to your kids about weight is hard.
Being fat has become more than a topic of health; it’s now connected to body love. We’ve told our teens that it doesn’t matter what they look like; turned out Top 10 hits that sing “boys like a little more booty to hold at night” and celebrate the “boom boom” of a big girl’s butt. In an effort to become anti-Twiggy, we’ve surrounded poor eating habits with celebration. Approaching the topic of “being fat” with your kid is no longer a casual conversation about how to be healthy. It’s become a taboo topic that, if talked about, could tell your kid that they’re obesely broken. That they need to be fixed. That they’re not “perfect” as they are. What an absurd thing to teach our children. As if being “perfect” is even a thing. Perhaps it’s time we reclaim the all-too-often forgotten lesson for our children — that no one is perfect. Embracing imperfection while staying open to growth is markedly different from sticking a gold star and tiara on unhealthy habits.
I’ve been told that in many other cultures, a mother or grandmother can remark, “My! You’ve gotten fat!” and the conversation can be laughed off and let go of. It’s simply a statement of observation — a statement of fact. But tell your American teen that you need to talk about their weight, wonder about their stretch marks, mention the need for a — gasp! — healthy, balanced diet and you’ve got a big, shamed kid on your hands. And so you let the topic go and go. Always finding ways to not say what you really want to say:
“You’re fat. You know it, and I know it. It can’t feel good. I’m sad when I see you wear shirts at the swimming pool. I don’t want you to feel anything but wonderful. I want to help you. How can I help you?”
After the Stretch Mark moment, I knew we needed to talk about his weight again. I’d been watching my incredible son overeat, gain weight, work to hide his bigness for months. And I wanted to know: What did he want me to do?
So I asked him.
On Tuesday of last week, I asked him.
He answered shortly, with a touch of snark. It’s what usually happens when I tried to casually, cautiously broach the subject.
I pushed a bit, “Bud, I’d really like to talk about it. It doesn’t have to be long. I just want you to tell me, like, what do you want from me?”
I tried not to ask leading questions, tried to be straightforward without being insensitive.
“I’m mostly interested in knowing if you want me to just drop it. Because I know you know I love you exactly as you are. But, if you feel like you want help with forming better eating habits, I want to know that, too. I just want to be a resource. And, to be that resource, I need to understand the role you need me in.”
He closed me down, as he often does. Snorted it off. Sent me an email an hour later with eight different memes, most of which were animated GIFs saying, “I’m amazing as I am.”
Frustrated that a kid who could talk to me about porn, masturbation, and marijuana couldn’t talk to me about how he felt about his belly, I decided to just … let it go for now.
Hours later, I’d stuffed all the kids in the car, and we were driving home to make dinner. From the back of the car, my son said simply, “Mom. I’m sorry. I want to talk about it.”
We spent that evening making a plan. Nothing big. Nothing incredible. Just talked through his feelings about food, came up with a few ideas for how he could start making tiny, sustainable changes that would help him get healthy. He didn’t want to talk about his feelings about his own body, but he kept wanting to do something extreme. “Can’t I just try the Master Cleanse Diet? Can’t I just stop eating? Can’t I just … ?”
His mad grasp at quick fixes seemed to me an indication that:
- He’s a kid, not an adult.
- He thinks his weight will one day ”arrive.” (Weight never arrives; it’s a constant balancing act between needs and wants and cravings, but he’ll learn that eventually.)
- He really does want to change the way he looks … fast.
Taking these things into consideration made me realize I needed to:
- Be a teacher, not a fixer.
- Live by example.
- Help him create and maintain a healthy diet that works for him.
My son woke early the next morning and walked into the kitchen. Armed with a paper full of notes from the night before, he started carefully preparing himself a healthy breakfast — a bit of steak, eggs, and a smoothie. He sat across the table from me to eat it and smiled, “Mom, this is really good. I could totally eat it every day for breakfast.”
I felt that ache in my heart, that one you get as a mom when you see your kids trying so hard. And it hurts, because life is hard. But it’s brilliant because life is hard ... and they’re doing it.
I’m not wide-eyed enough to think we’ve arrived. One little conversation won’t fix everything. Food habits, especially those learned in youth, can be hard to change. Even I still struggle with choosing healthy options — even as a “healthy food blogger” and “evolved, educated grown-up.”
I do, however, think we’re doing a better job of understanding how to have the conversation — an open-hearted, open-minded, lovingly honest conversation that, I hope, will last a lifetime.More On