Family, Fat, and Duh

I’m glancing through a study (The Stigma of Obesity: A Review and Update) (PDF) that Kate tweeted about this morning. It’s pretty dense in a “lot of good information” way and I’m pretty sure I’ll be going back to it later when I can really focus.  I skim through sections on employment, health care, education, and interpersonal relationships.

This grabs me by the eyeballs:

In a recent study, overweight and obese women (N = 2,449) were surveyed about the most common interpersonal sources of weight stigma in their lives (9). Participants were provided with a list of 22 different individuals and asked how often each individual had stigmatized them because of their weight. Family members were the most frequent source of weight stigma, reported by 72% of participants.

…and I’m thinking, well, duh.  Our culture makes it plain that Good Parents[tm] don’t raise Fat Kids, because Fat Kids are Officially Bad and Unhealthy and Incorrect.  So parents who want to be Good Parents will feel compelled to Do Something About The Fat Kid.

…and I also feel a bit of relief that it’s not just me that got shit from my parents for being fat.

…and I think, from out of nowhere, “Well, no wonder I didn’t have a close relationship with my parents as an adult.   I’ve distanced myself from everyone else who gives me shit for being fat, why wouldn’t I distance myself from my family too?”

…and then I begin to wonder whether anyone who grew up fat has a good relationship with their parents.  In my case, it was partly my mom’s own fat shame and her guilt for “passing it on” that was some of the problem.  But also, my parents were hurt when I declared in my late twenties that I didn’t want to discuss my weight.  My efforts to create boundaries* wounded the relationship too.  In a different family, where boundaries were more common, this might not have been so bad—but in my family it was regarded somewhere between eccentric and secession.


*The biggest “boundary” fight was about my weight, but other boundary fights included   “Call before you come over so I can be there and ready for company” and “Just because Mom said I’d be at Aunt D’s on Saturday doesn’t mean I’ll actually be there, especially when Mom doesn’t deign to tell me until Friday night.”  *headdesk*

29 thoughts on “Family, Fat, and Duh

  1. Oh, yeah, just had a convo with Mom this morning (note: I am 40 YEARS OLD) …

    “How’s your diet going?”
    “Mom, I don’t diet any more.”
    “But you do still watch what you eat?”

    I would have done *headsteeringwheel*, but that would have led to a comment on my driving, which she has been sketchy on for 24 years.

    We have a pretty good relationship. Luckily (?) our boundary fights never really dealt with dieting, more about being an outspoken, crazy-driving, slob (me, that is), but now that I’m up over 300 lbs we may be able to find new boundaries to smash into.

    And, my ex is definitely trying to shame my daughter such that she’ll be having nothing to do with him later. I can see that relationship becoming very chilly.

  2. I’m extremely fortunate that my weight has never been an issue with my parents. The only time they ever showed any concern about my diet or exercise habits were when they felt I wasn’t eating enough or was exercising too much. My mother had a short-lived eating disorder as a teenager that landed her in the hospital with dehydration, and her sister had bulimia, and my father had two fat sisters who were often shamed by their parents for being fat, so weight was never something that my parents made into an issue.

    Our culture makes it plain that Good Parents[tm] don’t raise Fat Kids, because Fat Kids are Officially Bad and Unhealthy and Incorrect. So parents who want to be Good Parents will feel compelled to Do Something About The Fat Kid.

    This is such an important point. As long as people go around judging the parents of fat children and consider having a fat child to be a sign of bad parenting if not outright abuse, then it only makes sense that parents are going to feel like they MUST either keep their children from getting fat or make their children thin. And I can only assume this is going to become more of a problem, as hysteria over “childhood obesity” increases. As long as we assume that kids are only fat if their parents hook them up to a McDonald’s IV while they sit on the couch playing video games all day, then we are creating a climate where parents are going to feel that controlling the size of their child’s body is a central parental duty.

    In all honesty, as much as I know that the concern over fat kids is BS, if my son was fat, I’d worry about what other people thought of me, because I’m sure they’d assume I’m a bad, neglectful mother. Of course, since my son isn’t fat, nobody cares what I feed him or how active he is, or stares at our cart in the grocery store to see what we’re feeding him, or smugly assumes they are a better parent than I am because their child’s body is more socially acceptable than mine. But, if he were fat, that would just be one more pressure piled up on top of all the other ones parents have put on them.

  3. My mother was never horrible about me being plump (although she did sigh a bit about me not being either as active or as girly as my sister). Perhaps because she was military, and regularly exercising to pass the required physicals, and still not thin. (Starving herself sick is obviously not an option; fainting while running would not pass the physical!)

    Dieting has never really come up.

  4. I wasn’t fat as a child, but both of my brothers went through periods in which they were anywhere from slightly pudgy to actively fat. I’m pleased to report that our parents didn’t treat them any differently according to their weight. Who was thin or who was fat at any given moment mattered only insofar as it affected which section of the department store clothes came from.

    Two out of three of us grew up to have excellent relationships with our parents. The one who didn’t started out from a very early age battling our mother for cruelties that nobody else could see. He’s fifty now, and he’s still fighting Mom (who has been dead for almost twenty years now) for things that she never did. I think that’s his own deal that has nothing to do with how his weight fluctuated as a child.

  5. …and then I begin to wonder whether anyone who grew up fat has a good relationship with their parents.

    Me!

    Well, with my dad.

    Fat-hating and fat-shaming helped kill my mom, unfortunately–she had a multi-year undiagnosed case of Cushing’s Syndrome, which her primary care doctor “treated” with a multi-year 500-calorie diet, accompanied by lectures on how she couldn’t possibly be keeping to the diet or she wouldn’t be gaining weight, and I think that that, combined with a heart weakened by childhood scarlet fever, led to her death at 42.

    But Dad never gave me much static about weight, for which I bless him.

  6. I was a fat child, am a fat adult and do have a good relationship with my parents. I feel like they did what they thought they had to to be “good” parents in regard to the fat issue–we always ate healthily as a family and I was encouraged to be involved in movement that I enjoyed, but I was also seeing a dietitian regularly by the time I was 8 or 9 years old. I watched them struggle with their own weight and we sometimes bonded over that. I sometimes wish that my mom had been less restrictive with me about food, because I do think that I developed some issues with secretive eating in response to that, but again, I don’t blame them. I really think they were under a ton of pressure from the medical establishment to “fix” me–even though it should have been clear to anyone with half a brain that the child of two fat parents might just be naturally fat.

    Now that I’m a parent myself, I feel the pressure. My son is technically overweight according to BMI but does not look fat, while my baby daughter is quite small for her age at the moment. They’ve eaten mostly the same things–actually, my son ate better as a toddler because I was able to focus more on just him. So far, no one has yet given us any guff about my son’s weight, but I’m loaded for bear when it happens. I am not putting my kid on any diets and I’m not making him feel bad about how his body is naturally. I firmly believe that if I had been allowed to eat intuitively as a child (instead of dieting from age 7 on) that my weight would not be as high as it is now. Go dieting! You know, if you want to gain weight.

  7. Every now and then my mom will try to lecture me on what I eat, and I instantly hush her, because she eats a lot of the same foods too. However, since she’s dieting and I’m not, I guess she thinks she’s entitled to it while I shouldn’t have it at all.

    It’s not as bad as it sounds though. She is aware that I have accepted myself at the size I am and to be quite honest, I never got the flak that others who blog or respond to FA blogs did when I was young. That may explain my non-dysfunctional relationship with food I enjoy as an adult.

    Note to parents and other adult concern trolls up in arms about fat kids: Leave them alone. They are still growing. We’ve forgotten about that in our moral panic over childhood obesity. Stunting their development in an effort to make them and keep them thin is more harmful then allowing them to grow and change as they should.

  8. I have a good relationship with my mom, and no fights about setting boundaries. However, my mom was also the source of a lot of my body hatred. She never told me I was anything but beautiful, but she made comments about her own body (which was considerably taller and thinner than mine) that made it clear what she thought about fat. She tried to help me diet in the nicest way possible because she knew I was unhappy with the social stigma, but she never criticized my weight or eating habits (except to tell me it wasn’t good for me to skip meals, something I started doing at age 8).

    I absorbed the body hatred just the same, from her comments about her own body, from the media, from doctors, and from cruel people at school or in other public places. And I know my mom struggled with the idea that she must be a Bad Parent because of it.

  9. My weight is definitely the elephant in the room (pun intended) with my mom. She and my sister are cut from the same cloth (the 5’7″ 130lbs cloth, that is) and I am built like my father’s very very Italian family. (I am a short female clone of my father). She never understood how losing weight could possibly be difficult, “just watch what you eat and get up and move a little, Kate!” Even after I told her unequivocally that I do not want to ever discuss food, diets, or weight with her again, she still somehow finds ways to work it into the conversation. The most recent point of contention is why I’m not putting long sleeves on my wedding dress, since I couldn’t possibly want to blind our guests with my ZOMG FAT arms. Sigh.

    Fortunately my Dad understood where I was coming from, although he did express concern about my health – but that is only because my Mom blames all of HIS health problems on HIS weight, so he assumed that if I was overweight I’d end up with the same problems, and obviously no parent wishes health problems for their child.

    However I succeeded in completely alienating both of them emotionally when I told them once and for all that I am not (and never will be) a member of the religion they raised me in. But that’s another story for another blog. At least my ZOMG FAT isn’t center stage anymore, though ;-P

  10. I have a pretty good relationship with my mom. In fact I think she’s a pretty awesome mom (though we had some pretty stellar fights in high school).

    At the same time my fatness has always been an issue. She always tried to make sure that I had nice clothes to wear and wasn’t actively awful about it. But her own body issues gave me the overwhelming feeling that my body was unacceptible. She had always been thin and yet was obcessive about her weight and what she ate. I can’t remember a time that there wasn’t some type of diet pills in the house.

    As the fat kid of a thin woman who so clearly didn’t accept her own body it was hard not to think, “well if she’s that unhappy with how she looks she must be just disgusted with me.” Add to that her tendency to praise me when I lost weight regardless of the methods and the fact she never openly expressed concern about the disordered eating I had adopted to try and attain an “acceptible” weight…yeah. That did a lot of damage to our relationship.

    (Oh! She’s also a nurse. The fat-hate that she internalized as part of her training is astounding sometimes. She really struggles with the idea that I can be healthy.)

    • That’s why I brought up that any boundaries I set were an issue with my parents, especially my mom, not just the weight one. If we’d had a better relationship to start with, or if mom had been happier with her weight, then the weight might not have been as big a deal.

      One thing that is funny in retrospect – Mom had complained that I wasn’t at my first apartment when she’d stopped by. So I asked her not to come over without calling first. The next Saturday she and dad show up at 10am, as in, I’m woken out of a sound sleep by the doorbell in my messy apartment which has condiments in the fridge and little else. I actually said, “No, you can’t come in” and went back to bed.

      Of course I felt terrible when I woke up an hour later…!

  11. Family members were the most frequent source of weight stigma, reported by 72% of participants.

    I take the point of your post, I really do, but it must not be forgotten exactly who is the driving force behind the obesity crisis, it’s not our families.

    • I agree that parents don’t come up with this stuff in a vacuum—they are bombarded with cultural expectations, too.

      My mother’s family are large people on both sides, and she was bullied for being a large kid in the early 1940s by schoolmates and her own mother.

      She grew up (to become a gym teacher, of all things), joined the WW cult after having me —in 1970—and became a leader, ie, a crazed, half-starved, rule obsessed cheerleader.

      And she wasn’t going to have her child growing up fat and miserable like she did.

      But at the time, the only way she knew to ‘save me’ was to watch and control everything I ate and to show me that she hated her body—which looked like mine. Which, to put it mildly, backfired.

      My therapist says that a great number of ‘Children of WW’ have food anxieties and eating disorders. I am no exception, and I was well on my way to teaching my older daughter that being thin is worth any price when my body shut down and I woke up.

      Now I know that there’s another option to help my kids with their potential body issues. I’m going to show (and tell, tell, tell) my kids that their bodies, and mine, are fine and beautiful they way they are and offer (not force) a variety of foods and activities.

      And I will never count the apples in the fridge to see if anyone’s been ‘sneaking’ food.

      We’re going to try conquering potential misery by refusing to be miserable.

      • “We’re going to try conquering potential misery by refusing to be miserable.”

        This.

        You’ve summed up exactly what I’d like to achieve with my kids. Thank you.

  12. I am lucky there. My parents get the whole genetics thing because they and all their families are just as fat as me. My grandmother has given me a little grief on occasion when she forgets that Mom explicitly forbade her from doing that. My parents aren’t completely free of issues with fat, but they don’t shame it. My body image is absolutely terrible anyway, mostly because of classmates and, I suppose, the media. A steady diet of these sorts of blogs has made a tiny difference — give it a few more years.

  13. I did not grow up fat, but I gained a noticeable amount of weight after having a child, being unable to exercise for a year and taking three different medications that all cause weight gain. Guess who was the first person to ignore all this and tell me that I obviously “needed to” lose weight? Well, who else would it be but my own mother.

    You’re absolutely right: In most cases it’s because parents are told they’re harming their children if they don’t force them on diets. Then, of course, there’s also the fact that many parents of fat children are fat themselves, and thus they think they’ve passed on their “bad habits”, which makes them feel guilty. Sadly, some are probably worried about looks, too.

  14. Yeah, my mom is also a big believer in shame, especially when it comes to body image and weight. I’m 40 now, and it was just a few years ago when my dad made her back off about my food choices. I really feel that if she had not started crawling up my ass about being fat when I grew some boobs, I would have never had much weight problems But then again, I was just there last week, and looking at the way my mom eats (she’s VERY lucky her body won’t accumulate fat), it might have happened anyway. She eats non-fat, high HFCF yogurt for lunch, three ice cream sandwiches after dinner, chips and cookies, yet tries to pretend she eats only vegetables and chicken.

  15. I had a very thin mother, and a father who came from a big, chunky family, and I and my brother both took after him. OK for my brother, not so for me, and my mother never ceased to tell me how dreadful I looked. There was this odd kind of gender doublethink – she’d admit that being fat had obviously been healthy for my dad, because it almost certainly was a factor (and we had several doctors tell us this) in him surviving a rare, industrial-related form of cancer for many years longer than anyone thought he would. Yet for me as a girl, taking after his build meant I’d die young. Oh, and never get married. Of the two messages, the latter got repeated so often that I can’t pretend health was ever her real concern.

    (To be absolutely honest, my mother had real deep issues about my looks, and my whole personality, that could very basically be summed up as ‘If my daughter is not exactly like me in every way, there is Something Seriously Wrong With Her’. That’s not something that’s ever going to result in a good relationship, but the weight stuff didn’t help. I’m glad I was a teen in the 80s, because society in general wasn’t quite so hysterical about weight then; today, she’d have been backed up by some much louder voices.)

  16. To be absolutely honest, my mother had real deep issues about my looks, and my whole personality, that could very basically be summed up as ‘If my daughter is not exactly like me in every way, there is Something Seriously Wrong With Her’

    My mother had issues too, though it might be closer to ‘If my daughter is not exactly like I want her to be in every way, there is Something Seriously Wrong With Her’ ;)

    • My mother’s issues stemmed from, ‘If my daughter is not absolutely perfect in every way, everyone will think I’m a horrible mother.”

      Actually, substituting “my mother” (as in, my grandmother) for “everyone” would be even closer to how Mom felt back then.

      To her credit, she understands this now, and has apologized for prolonging the family tradition.

  17. I have a great relationship with my sisters and HAD a great relationship with my parents, but I don’t even SPEAK to my grandmother anymore, and I don’t allow anyone else in the family to give me guff about my weight.

    If they’ll lose height, I’ll lose weight.

  18. this is an excerpt from an email i sent to my Father and Step Mother that set up the boundary to not discuss my food or weight. It has worked and given all of us the ability to enjoy each other’s company. Sadly, I am the one who broke the boundary trying to explain HAES and the FA movement which wqs a big mistake. Live and learn. I can see from the language at the time that I was still hoping to figure out how to do something about my weight back then. At least now I am focused on bringing in intuitive eating and getting healthier.

    yay me!

    well here it is…

    …”There is nothing you can do for me to speed up any part of my recovery or health.  Nothing you can do about my weight, my job situation, my moving from okay back to great.  Only I can do that.  Only I can find the motivation, the willingness to do more.

    I wish that every time we see each other didn’t trigger in you concern and worry, but I know that this is not possible.  I wish there were things for you to be happy about, excited about.  Hopefully soon.

    I hope we can find a way to hang out and see each other and enjoy each other’s company.  

    I know you are concerned, worried and want to see me doing something more than I am doing.  I will do more in time.  Right now, giving myself credit for getting back to work and showing up there everyday has got to be enough.  I cannot get down on myself right now.  Only bad things can come from me delving into regret and disappointment in myself.  I will not go there.

    Discussions and communications between us about why I am not doing more, or suggestions of what I can do next can only lead to frustration and heartache, and, ultimately to me avoiding you guys.  I don’t want that.

    Let’s just hang out or get together when we all feel we can focus on things other than what I am going to do for myself, or how you can help me feel or do better.  We all know that this road leads to nowhere good.

    I like the email chess exchange, it is a nice way to stay in touch and enjoy something together.

    I am hanging in there, showing up or work, expecting good things to come my way.

    I love you and am very grateful for your Love and help and concern. 

    Ivan

  19. Pingback: What’s Important? « Living ~400lbs

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