The first time she asked me, I laughed nervously, hoping to
cover up my anxiety. I’m not a relationship expert, but I’m pretty sure that
telling someone her child is chubby is a surefire way to ensure she never
speaks to you again. Had I noticed that little
Tessa looked larger every time I saw her? Yes. I didn’t want to see it, but I did. But telling her mother I noticed?
No way, I wasn’t going there.
I deflected by asking her what the pediatrician said.
The second time she asked, we were in the middle of an
intense conversation about our own self-destructive eating habits, both past
and present. She brought up her
daughter. “I’m worried about Tess. She’s the biggest girl in her class. She’s overweight. Do you think she’s fat?”
My friend’s furrowed brow and tightened jaw billboarded her
angst. She was looking to me for something:
my impressions, reassurance, honesty, friendship. I wanted to give her what she wanted, but I
was scared. I was scared to tell her
what I saw because I feared the words were going to hurt and I had no idea if
they would help. I didn’t like risking
“Just tell me,” she
I spent some time as an overweight kid and it felt like an unspeakable open secret that no one in my family could talk about.
I didn’t want to be in this conversation, but isn’t that
what friendship is? Sticking around for the hard stuff? Anyone can be the friend who takes a free
ticket to a Bon Jovi concert or dashes off to Nordstrom Rack in search of
discounted designer denim. But a conversation like this, where a child’s welfare and a mother’s ego
is at stake, takes more courage and a deeper commitment.
“I’m scared,” I blurted out. “I don’t know how to be helpful here. I’m not a pediatrician.” I wanted
to stop there, but I couldn’t punt to the pediatrician a second time. “It seems like Tess is uncomfortable in her
body and being overweight is really hard on a kid.”
I should know, I spent some
time as an overweight kid and it felt like an unspeakable open secret that no
one in my family could talk about. I
suppose no one wanted to hurt my feelings, but it wasn’t like I didn’t notice I
was bigger than all of my friends.
And there was more. For every overweight child, there’s an indictment against his or her
parents. We assume that an overweight
child has unfettered access to overly processed, high-fat and sugary
foods. We as a culture see fat as a
failure, but we don’t blame second graders for it. At least, I don’t. But if the blame doesn’t belong on Tess’s
shoulders, then where? Was I going to point out my friend’s doughnut runs and
dessert-every-night habits? The conversation didn’t go there that time.
The third time she asked, I made a decision to be
honest. So I told her this: “I love you,
and I love Tessa. I don’t know how to
help or if she needs help. I’m not
qualified to give nutrition advice to you nor be your therapist. But I’m on your team and I want to support
your family’s health.” Then, in a burst of audacious courage I asked her to
please stop asking me if I thought Tessa was fat.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I see when
I look at Tess. What matters is whether
she is getting what she needs or using food appropriately to meet them. What matters is whether Tessa is healthy and
whether the adults in her life are giving her the tools she needs to thrive
physically and emotionally. Those are
the questions I’m happy to discuss. Those are the ones that matter.