Author Elna Baker after her weight loss. (Photo: Mindy Tucker)
I was always chubby. As a little girl I remember lying in the bathtub and squeezing my stomach fat for fun. Through elementary school I would measure my fat in increments of fruit. When I was nine I had an orange of extra fat and then at eleven a grapefruit of extra fat, and then a melon, and then … I decided not to measure myself anymore because it was no longer a fun game, and I didn’t want to use the word watermelon.
Around the age of nine I noticed that if I went for a second helping of dinner my mother would tense up, or just look at me a second longer than she should have. My mother didn’t do this when any of my other siblings got seconds. So what was wrong with me?
My mom tried to help me lose weight by forcing me to go to classes that I hated. Activities where I had to wear a nude leotard, like ballet or gymnastics, which was like taking a highlighter to my belly fat. We’d all line up in front of the mirror and I’d look at the thin girls and wish I could be like them.
When I was twelve my mom bought me my first girdle. It was white lace with a little pink rosette in the center. The fact that they even make child girdles is shocking to me now. But I had one. That same year she taught me how to make a Slimfast shake for breakfast. I’d drink my Slimfast but later in the day, I’d sneak into the cupboard and reach into the industrial sized bag of chocolate chips we always had. I weirdly have so many childhood memories of melted chocolate chips on my palms.
My mom only called me ‘fat’ once. Just once. But I remember it vividly because I replayed it over and over again in my head. It was noon on a Saturday and I’d slept in. My mom came rushing into my bedroom. When she saw me laying there in bed, she yanked me by the arm and dragged me out. “Get up!” She yelled. “This is why you’re fat!” In fairness to my mother, I was probably acting bratty. It only happened once. But by the time I was a teenager it was as if she’d called me fat a hundred times because I’d replayed it in my head so many times.
The final straw happened when I was 13. When it was clear my baby fat wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. My mom took me to a doctor to see if there was a medical reason that I was heavier than my sisters. I had to strip down naked. They weighed me on a big scale. I remember the pink measuring tape pressed against my pale, pudgy skin. Then I had my blood drawn so they could test me for thyroid disease. We went back a few weeks later to get the results. The doctor, a tall, middle-aged man with grey hair sat across from us in a big leather chair. He was British and carried himself with an air of superiority. “There isn’t anything wrong with her,” he said in a proper accent.
Under normal circumstances this would’ve been good news—but not to my mother. She was shocked, certain that they’d made some kind of error. I wasn’t shocked. I was disappointed, because I really wanted it to be a condition. I wanted it not to be my fault.
“Are you sure?” my mother pleaded. She started listing off possible diagnoses. But he kept shooting them down. “Isn’t there anything we can do?” she asked.
“She’s just fat,” he said, “What do you want me to tell her? To stick her finger down her throat like all the other girls her age? Aside from that there’s nothing I can suggest.”
My mother understandably flipped out upon hearing this. Doctor’s aren’t supposed to prescribe eating disorders to children. I don’t remember the rest of their conversation. But I do remember my mother’s face turning red while yelling at him. I was touched that she came to defense. I wasn’t used to her being on my side in weight related matters.
We drove home in silence. I kept replaying the doctor’s words. Stick my finger down my throat? It didn’t make any sense. Why do all the other girls do that? I wondered. What does that even mean? Halfway home I started crying. My mother pulled into our driveway and turned the car off. She turned to face me, “I am so sorry,” she said. She was crying now too. “I’m sorry I took you there. I’m sorry he said that to you. I promise this will never happen again.”
And like that, she backed off. I wish I could say this led to a happy ending. But no. Without my mother’s interference, I was finally allowed to eat whatever I wanted. That’s when I really put the weight on. Between 8th and 10th grade I gained at least 80 lbs. Weighing, in total, 260 lbs. It wasn’t until the age of 22, that I, unprompted by any outside forces, decided to do something about my health. So I went to a weight loss specialist, I started a diet and I began exercising. Through a tremendous amount of work, and by changing all of my eating habits, I was able to lose 110 pounds in total.
I’m 33 now. The age my mother was when she called me fat. And the weird thing about being her age is that I’ve begun to empathize with her. I can see the other side of the equation. She wasn’t trying to hurt me, she was concerned about my health. All the times she shook her head when I asked for more food, these weren’t acts of aggression towards me. She was trying to prevent what happened to me– from happening.
So what could we have done differently? How do you talk to your kid about their weight without hurting their feelings? Especially mother to daughter. Is there any right way to do it? I decided I’d ask my mom, and for the first time ever we talked about it. Getting to hear both sides of the story was enlightening. For example, I had no idea I was such a brat or that it was like pulling teeth to get me to exercise and control my portions at dinner. I fought my mother at every turn. She didn’t understand why I was being so difficult, but that’s because I never communicated my side of the story. Here’s what we learned:
Writer Elna Baker as a chid. (Photo: Courtesy of Elna Baker)
1. Your children have an emotional life that they keep from you.
My mother didn’t know I was bullied or teased at school for being fat. I kept it to myself. So she thought I was super confident, oblivious to the problem. In reality, I acted confident to deflect from my weight. She also didn’t know that I used my weight to make myself feel bad all of the time. I’d stare at pictures of our family hold my thumb over my face and think, Everyone is so beautiful, except for me. Because I kept this all inside, she had no idea why I took things so personally. The times she tired to make helpful suggestions about my weight all I heard was: “You’re not good enough.” If I could go back in time I’d tell her, “You don’t need to point out to me that I have a weight problem, everyone else is already doing that. The kids at school make fun of me. The boys call me fat. I’m not oblivious. Help me by making it easier to be healthy. Not by telling me what the rest of the world is already rubbing in my face.”
2. There may be reasons your child doesn’t want to be active.
My mother first became concerned about my weight around 6th grade when she noticed I wasn’t interested in being active or playing school sports. She thought I was lazy. But the main reason I didn’t want to be active was because I felt self-conscious. I either looked fat in a leotard or we were doing a sport that required running and I was the slowest. Gym was the worst. We had to run a mile at the start of class. I was always out of breath, my face beet red, and I was a full lap behind everyone. It was so humiliating to do that last lap with the entire grade watching me. It’s not that I didn’t like being active — I didn’t like feeling ashamed. So I avoided sports, and because I avoided them I never practiced or built up the strength that would’ve helped me get better at running. I wish my parents had known this. I also wish I’d been given more options of ways to be active so that I could’ve found the ones I actually enjoyed, like yoga, Tae Bo, or YouTube videos of dance classes that I could do in the privacy of my own room, without feeling judged.
3. If your child sneaks a certain food, get rid of that food.
I was surprised to find out that my mother knew I snuck chocolate chips. She never hid them. She also always bought them, even though they were hard for me to resist. I still can’t resist them. One of my tricks for keeping my weight off is to not keep unhealthy food in the house, because I’m not successful at saying no to sweets if they’re in front of me. I’ve learned that about myself. So I don’t buy or keep sweets or junk food in the house. While this advice may feel like a punishment for the whole family, it’s something that will really help that one child who is struggling. Because for all the times I snuck chocolate chips, there were ten other times I thought about it. I was like a baby alcoholic, but for chocolate chips. I would’ve rather my parents just eliminated the option rather than leaving it up to my self-control.
4. Teach your kids the differences between healthy and unhealthy food.
I wish I’d been taught what foods were good for me, and which ones weren’t. This isn’t entirely my parents fault. I was a child of the 80’s, back when people thought a fruit roll up was a serving of fruit and cereal was one of the major food groups. Take the time to teach your kids about their food. As a kid I ate indiscriminately, not knowing some foods were good for me, some were okay, and some were terrible. Now that I know the difference, I can make better choices. For example, I love brownies, but I also like frozen yogurt with raspberries. It gives me the same sweet tooth fix. And as it turns, one is a smarter choice than the other.
5. Identify the void your child is eating to fill.
I was a hard kid to reach. According to her, I wanted food more than I wanted anything else in life. Hearing this it felt like this darker truth about myself was being revealed to me. I still struggle with this. I eat better, yes. But I still have to remind myself not to love food above all else. To stop. To think why I am eating. To understand that food won’t make things better. Instead of sitting in the discomfort of my emotions, or even just allowing myself to feel bored, my impulse is to fill this void with food. I think a lot of it is self-hatred. Who am I to do or be anything good? I think I was born with a weird mixture of self-doubt and cockiness. I believed I was destined for greatness, while also believing that I’d never get there because of who I was. If I could talk to my younger self I’d say that it is okay to believe that I’m worth loving, I don’t need a scapegoat to blame when life’s not going my way. I don’t need to be fat.
6. Make it about you, not them.
The main thing I would suggest if you’re trying to help one specific child to become healthier is that the whole family have a change of lifestyle. Get rid of the couch in front of the TV. Hide the unhealthy food. Or just don’t have it in the house. Don’t put it on your child. Put it on yourself.
How do you talk to your child about their weight? You don’t. You change the environment around them, so they a have better chance at leading a healthy life. And you work to understand their self-image. Your children see themselves differently than you see them. For this article I asked my mother to send me photos of myself as a chubby kid. She sent me way more than I was expecting, 30 photos, ranging from age 4 to 18. It’s like a flipbook where I get to see myself getting bigger and bigger. It’s also revealing. I thought I was fat years before I actually became fat. When I look back at pictures of myself at age 9, 10, 11, 12, I was barely even that chubby. So why did I think I was so fat? To me this was the tipping point, the age where I latched onto the idea, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I’d start there. I’d tell myself: “You’re not fat. There’s this thing called baby fat. And it will go away. Don’t let it tip the balance. Don’t believe what the other kids say to you about the way you look. Don’t go looking for reasons to hate yourself, even if it is tempting and if it makes you feel like your life is more dramatic. Be kind, and be patient. Give your body a chance. Love it exactly the way it is. You only get one body. Be grateful for it.”