All Around My Fat

‘ve always loved the folk song “All Around My Hat.” Here’s a lovely youtube of them performing it on a 70s children’s show (there’s an interesting thing, in and of itself…):   I do lovelovelove Maddy Prior’s voice.

Anyway, that’s just in case this episode’s title was an off-your-particular-map sort of reference. Also a nice chance to introduce you to an abidingly wonderful music group.

Two interesting pieces about the influence of culture on identity came my way this week. This one, from xo jane ( ) It’s a typically thoughtful discussion by Lesley (I will admit that I am a little disconcerted by the fact that one of my current heroes is 20+ years younger than I am, but I am also thrilled by the fact…and she has a splendid discussion about the implications of the AMA’s designation of obesity as a disease, too…) about the complexities (my favorite thing…) of the intersection between blame, bullying, and wounding in the larger culture, but more specifically in the cultural space around women and fat.  It seemed particularly relevant because of a piece my daughter had sent me several nights ago:

When Your Mother Says She’s Fat

This is a gentle, humane discussion of the awful intersection between how mothers have been taught to think of themselves and how they model living-in-a-body for their daughters. I replied to the email very briefly and obliquely. I was crying when I replied and busy talking myself down from taking her sending the thing to me as an indictment of my own mothering. Which is very much not how she meant it. It wasn’t a blame-y article in the first place, and its/her message was  “See, I get what you were up against” not “See how you effed up.” Which I got as soon as the knee-jerk-storm passed. She ended up really sweetly apologizing for (she was worried) having hurt me. I wasn’t hurt by her. I am hurt constantly by the thought of my own part in my daughters’ obesity, even though both of them are very clear about not blaming me, even as they recognize the variety of dynastic factors. But the fact that they’re fat is a constant knife in my heart. I was supposed to be able to save them from it. That was maybe my most important job as a mother, after loving the bejeebers out of them. At least I was able to get that much in the proper order.

The fact that that quest so colored my definition and experience of mothering is an indicator of how screwed up my mental universe was/is.

I know there are things we should have done that we didn’t because I was so focused on that (maybe pushed a little more academically…I don’t know. Hindsight is a lousy parent and a dumb analyst…not to mention a wretched prophet…) What I did was focus on was what seemed to be the causes of my own body-battle and then work to make sure we never did those things to our girls. We never told them they were anything but beautiful. We didn’t yell at them for being fairly sedentary artsy-types. We didn’t purposely make them feel like disappointments. We didn’t make them think we’d love them more if they’d been thinner/blonder/more conventionally perky-pretty. At least we tried to avoid all that. Who knows what neurotic messages seep through the cracks of our good intentions? But we were intentional. We tried to put ourselves between our daughters and the world that wanted them to define themselves according to its standards.

I only thought, I suspect, in terms of what the constant messages of my own childhood about my utter aesthetic disappointingness had done to me, individually. Although I have been a feminist ever since I began to sort out gender relations, I don’t know that I thought much in terms of what the world was doing by way of repeating and affirming and originating my parents’ messages, so I didn’t much think about what I was trying to do with my daughters in terms of the long chain of human history and habit. Once again, Philip Larkin’s poem “This  Be the Verse” is all too apposite (gendered language notwithstanding):

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   

    They may not mean to, but they do.   

They fill you with the faults they had

    And add some extra, just for you.


But they were fucked up in their turn

    By fools in old-style hats and coats,   

Who half the time were soppy-stern

    And half at one another’s throats.


Man hands on misery to man.

    It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

    And don’t have any kids yourself.

Funny how much of the human condition that covers. Coastal shelf, indeed. So all the time I was carefully avoiding giving my daughters lousy messages about their bodies, I was inevitably failing. I was simply continuing the long, crappy conversation of my own upbringing about my body, and unknowingly spreading around my own deeply-absorbed self-hatred. Well, shit.

Probably not much, aside from apologizing as much as we can all stand, that I can do to stop that particular train from running down hill. I can start seeing my daughters as something other than fat (I do, in fact, also see them as beautiful and funky and brainy-looking, too, but, painfully for all 3 of us, none of those things is the first thing I see)–that I can work on, since the extent to which I see their size first when I look at them is a function of my own envisioning of what people see first when they look at me. I believe that’s a TRUTH that I can’t ever escape. I believe it is a REALITY I can’t ever escape–my own true and invariable visual identity.

And, of course, there is all kinds and shades of evidence that “fat” is, indeed, my overwhelmingly dominant visual identity. But that’s very likely because the culture I live in (i.e. human, except for some places in Hawaii and Africa) is both visually-dominated (humans see a lot better than we smell, after all, so it’s logical enough, in some ways) and carries around a very deeply embedded system of visual/aesthetic hierarchy. That’s the standard/system that taught my parents, and that I passed on to my daughters. The extent to which that system is tied up in the consistent oppression of women is huge. I am so bloody sorry that it’s taken me all this time to understand the crap that was externally driving my family’s crap–to really understand it, not just to know it. I hurt my children because of it.

But there’s a level beyond this. What if I were able to decide that whatever it is that makes my daughters fat was not, in fact, some wound in which I participated? What if it were just their bodies responding to their lives. What if it were just fine if they’re fat?

Current fat acceptance discourse would suggest that that’s where I need to go. While I believe that discourse is critically important, and offers much by way of healing, I find myself unable to buy into it wholeheartedly. I never bought any of Andrea Dworkin’s more radical ideas, either, but thought they were still important parts of a larger discussion. This is the same situation.

What may be more important to think about right now is whether we can stop handing on misery, woman to woman. 30 years ago, I thought I could. I was naive. And I was right. They’re saner than I was, my daughters, less anxious to fulfill some artificial standard for beauty, less willing to use conventional beauty as a standard for judging their own worth and others’. So maybe I made a little progress happen. Or maybe it happened because times were shifting a bit. The real reason all this is so ferociously important now is that there’s a baby woman in the family, and we could all maybe make it better for her by being even more intensely aware of our messages to her, starting with what we tell her we think about ourselves.

So, just for me, maybe I should stop telling people who’ve offered me a compliment (especially my daughters…) why they’re wrong and how this or that sag or rumple is mucking up my chance at real beauty. For reasons I will never entirely figure out, I tend to think I look nicest in my bathroom mirror late at night. Maybe it’s lighting, maybe it’s something else. But maybe I should accept that this “Hey, you look kinda pretty.” self is what they’re seeing when people say something nice about a photo of me. Maybe they’re not lying (to me or themselves), or visually impaired, or aesthetically demented. Maybe I should just learn to thank them and believe them. And maybe I can pass that acceptance on to my granddaughter a bit. Maybe we can start to fix this, one grandbaby at a time.

Meanwhile, my son-in-law, bless his huge heart, will raise his son to see his mother as gorgeous. And my daughter manages to not argue with him when he says these sorts of things.

So maybe that’s two grandbabies at a time.

I don’t know all of what I think about the relationship between fat and beauty and health and comfort. I do know that the first needs to be disconnected from any definition of human worth, that it’s important for all of us to see each other in different terms than relative thinness. And I am pretty sure that beauty, health, and comfort are all hugely important in various ways, but that their definitions need to be expanded. That those definitions need to be fatter/broader/more capacious. That my personal definition of human beauty needs to keep growing, and that it may be important for me to make it include myself. Weird thought. Very un-Puritan. Which probably affirms its good-idea-ness.

round goddess


3 thoughts on “All Around My Fat

  1. marycomfortstevens says:

    Bravo, Devon!
    Xoxox, mcs

  2. This is a really tough one (both in terms of fat and in terms of other things about parenting.) I’d remind you, though, that you can only do as well as you can do at any given time. You can’t live the 20-teens in the 1980’s. You can’t know what you know at fifty when you were in your twenties or thirties. You can’t get rid of your own hangups, or what your parents did to or with you, by willing them away, despite all the Puritans who tell you you can and should; you can’t understand things before you’re able to understand them. And–the big one–you can’t save your kids from much, any more than our parents could save us. Save them from hunger, from abuse, from the fill in the blank of your choice, and you’re invariably doing something else to them that later you’ll wish to God you could’ve spared them. Some people who “saved” their kids from fat gave them eating disorders–and that’s a LOT of people. Some people who “kept” their kids mannerly and well-behaved were astounded when their kids took rifles to school and committed mass murder—fewer people, but still a pretty tragic thing for all concerned, not least for the parents. My friend Tracy says that if kids live to complain about parents to their therapists, 🙂 the parents have done just fine. I’ll add to that that if you’ve raised kids who aren’t terrorists, don’t take out their own stuff on random bystanders with rifles, and aren’t doing a few dozen other profoundly awful things to themselves and others, you’ve done just fine too. Hang in there, and keep loving the bejeebers out of them. It’s both never enough and really kind of enough.

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