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Don't Ask Me If Your Kid Is Fat

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.

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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 my odds.

“Just tell me,” she begged.

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.

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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.

Image via Twenty20/sahareut

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