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I Was the Fat Kid

We were driving the other day when my mind got blown. Kids never fail to freak me out in all kinds of ways.

Here's what went down.

I was talking to my daughter, Violet, 6, and my son, Henry, 4. They were sitting in the backseat alongside their little bro, Charlie, who is 1-½ and somehow our never-ending car conversation took a turn down the body-image road.

We passed a farm field and there was a fat groundhog standing out there, staring at the sweltering sun, probably wishing he was an otter or a trout or something. We all saw him at the same time. And then just like that: boom. The beautiful 6-year-old mind behind me came alive.

"Dad, there's a girl in my class at camp who has big teeth, like a groundhog," Violet announced.

"Oh yeah?" I said. "Well, you know, you don't ever actually SAY that to her, right? I mean, you wouldn't TELL her that you think she has teeth like a groundhog, right?"

Right away, looking in my mirror, I watched Violet processing my words and I could see that swift flash of confusion that crosses a kid's face when they're suddenly thrown off their game by adult logic. It's a strange and magnificent thing to witness, any parent will tell you that, like scooping real lightning out of the evening sky in a butterfly net.

--

"I wouldn't say it mean, Dad," Violet told me.

Then Henry chimed in.

"I would say it like, 'Hey, I really like your groundhog teeth!'"

Ooof.

I smiled, but only on the inside.

I had a serious job to do here.

So much of being a parent is thinking fast on the fly; you have these times when you HAVE to be on your toes, when the next words you say might be the words that stick and echo across your own kids' minds and consciences for a long time to come, even long after your dead and gone.

"Well," I started in, "I like where you're coming from Henry, but here's the thing, right ..." I was not at all sure of what the hell my next thought was yet.

In the rearview, I saw two rapt faces. I don't always have that, people. This was my moment to shine—my big chance at connecting with my own kids on a subject that means a lot to me and is important in life. I was feeling the heat of the pressure.

So, I did what I had to do.

I dug it up.

I dug out the fat kid.

I brought 11-year-old Serge back from suburban Philly, 1982.

--

"Listen, you guys, I want to tell you something I haven't told you yet."

They were all eyes back there, mouths drooping open with the curiosity. I had them. I had to pounce.

"When I was a kid, I was pretty heavy."

"Like heavy like a cow?" Violet asked.

"No, not quite like a cow, kiddo, but I had—I was—ummm … My body was bigger than a lot of the kids in my class at school. And bigger than a lot of my friend's bodies, too."

--

It's weird for me to go back to this stuff now. Being an overweight kid—not morbidly obese, mind you, but on the far side of "husky"—pretty much throughout all my childhood had an effect on me. A serious one, too. As in, not a day goes by that I don't remember feeling ashamed and sad about my body.

I hated being fat. But I was fat. I had to walk through a lot of my life as a young boy hating who I was. And as much as it sucks to say this: I hated myself.

I wouldn't wish that on any kid in this world.

The self-consciousness that comes from feeling twisted inside about your physical appearance is pure rabies, man. Once it kicks in, it attacks your brain and it latches onto your heart like a savage jungle worm.

I want them to be OK with who they are so badly. I love them so frickin' much. I want them to be kind and cool people.

There, in our Honda, I was conjuring up my own bastard ghost. I wasn't expecting that. But maybe it could be a good thing. Maybe all those pizza puffs and potato chips from my younger days were about to pay off somehow.

--

"I was fat and I hated being fat." I just said it. I just needed to say it. To hell with tiptoeing around.

"Why were you fat, Dad?" Henry asked, and in all seriousness.

"Dude, I don't even know. I ate too much bad food and I guess I didn't exercise my body enough, who knows? But the main thing is that even when another kid is fat or has different skin or maybe has teeth that aren't perfect, no matter what it might be, we never pay attention to that, OK?"

I could see them getting excited in their faces as they were really connecting some mind dots.

"The thing is, you guys, it's perfectly normal to notice that people may look different than us, but it feels so much better in our own hearts and in their hearts too if we do our noticing quietly in the beginning and then mostly never think about that stuff again, you know what I mean?"

Violet pounced.

"Oh yeah! I know what you mean! You mean we just talk to ourselves if they are fat or have groundhog teeth, but we don't say it to them or hurt their feelings!"

"Exactly!" I answered. "And also, and maybe this is the most important thing, but when I was young and I was really sad inside my heart because I was a lot heavier than most of my friends, I really wanted people to like me. But a lot of times I felt like they didn't like me, even when they probably DID like me, because I had convinced myself that my body wasn't worth liking at all."

My kids looked sad in the mirror. Sad for me, maybe. Sad for their Dad. It hit me in the guts.

"Dad, I know what to do when you are with a kid like that—you don't do anything or say anything, right?" Henry said.

"Yeah, man. That's right. That's right. Because guess what? Inside our bodies is where all the magic happens, dude. Behind our skin is where the love gets made and that's where the good stuff lives, you know? Skin, teeth, eyeballs, they're all just like your Hulk costume. You put it on, but the real you is always underneath."

Henry smiled then. He looked out the window and kept smiling too. Violet stared straight into my eyes in the mirror.

Her heart is gigantic.

I want them to be OK with who they are so badly. I love them so frickin' much. I want them to be kind and cool people.

I want them to never hurt inside like I did when I was a kid. And I want them to never hurt anyone else.

I feel like they get the idea.

That's all we can do as parents. Let them know where real hurt is born and start out by teaching them that kindness is everything. Then, when it comes time to deal with their image in the mirror, maybe they'll already have this built-in kindness machine ripping away inside of them, you know?

And, hopefully, right when they might need it the most, they can just turn that idea around and aim right back at their beautiful selves.

This article is part of mom.me's collaboration with The Representation Project and their #buildconfidence campaign. Research shows that body image issues originate well before adolescence and that parents are pivotal in instilling confidence in their children. #BuildConfidence campaign celebrates and empowers parents, caregivers and mentors who model positive self-esteem and body image. Share this article and tag #buildconfidence to help us spread the word!

The rest of the series:

Rebecca Woolf — Building Confidence in Our Girls (and Boys)

Katie Hurley — Building Confidence in Your Kids. Right Now!

Jay Miranda — It Took Me Years to Get Over My Mom's Lack of Body Confidence

Margaret Jacobsen — Growing Confident Kids Means Honoring the 'Every Moments'

Marsha Takeda-Morrison — Building Confidence, One Living Room Lecture at a Time

Laurel Dalrymple — When Your Boy Is Not the Athletic Type

Whit Honea — Being the Skinny Boy Was Never Easy

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