This essay is part of Motherwell’s Parenting and Food column.
By Michael Bahler
My 12-year-old son plays baseball without anxiety or self-doubt. He steps onto the mound with the bases loaded in a tied game and pumps in strikes, oblivious to the pressure of the moment.
Yet he’s a completely different kid at home.
“Am I fat?” he asks me when he wakes up in the morning.
It’s an objectively ludicrous question because the boy is lean and sinewy and has absolutely no fat on him.
“I’m too skinny, right?” he asks.
Later in the day I catch him standing in front of our hallway mirror sucking in his stomach, making himself look sickly.
“You’re not fat,” I say.
“Too skinny, right?” he says with a smile.
“See what you’ve done with all your talk about weight,” my wife scolds me.
I do talk about weight when I’m dieting. I also once placed a scale in front of our fridge as a reminder to myself not to eat when I wasn’t hungry.
And I’ve been known to comment on the portliness of some of the youth baseball players in our part of New Jersey, who are as big as extras from The Sopranos, or ask my wife if I look fat in a picture.
My sister claims the reason she bought a Peloton was because I made fun of her weight when we were kids.
My son obsessively exercises during the commercials of whatever sporting event he happens to be watching.
“I have to do my sit-ups and push-ups,” he says.
When I ask him why he needs to exercise during every commercial, his face turns serious. “I don’t want to get fat.”
“You’ve made him think he’s unlovable if he gains weight,” my wife later says to me.
I vehemently disagree, but worry she might be right.
Not that it’s an excuse, but I grew up in a hyper-critical family, and one of my earliest memories is of my grandmother calling a person fat at a restaurant in Florida. I was probably three at the time. The idea of holding my tongue whenever a critical thought about weight enters my head feels like censorship and a bridge too far.
And for me, fat-shaming has often been a needed kick in the butt.
“You look sloppy,” my father said last year after I gained a few pounds, and those words cut to the bone, and motivated me to lose the weight, and my cholesterol numbers are down, and I can fit into my jeans again, and I feel better about myself, all because of fat shaming.
My wife reads in a book that we should respond with “I’m not answering that question” when our son asks us if he’s fat. And we start doing that, and it works. He goes days without asking us the question, until he finds a way around it:
“I can’t eat pasta because I have man boobs,” he said when I placed down a bowl in front of him.
“Am I fat?” he asked.
“I’m not answering that question,” I told him, sticking to the plan.
“I’m fat,” he said and pushed the bowl away.
I didn’t want to change course, but I also didn’t want him starving himself. “You’re not fat,” I finally told him.
“Let’s go!” he said like he just scored a goal.
I write my shrink who I haven’t spoken to in months and ask her if he is just exhibiting my family’s penchant for anxiety or if something more nefarious is afoot. After all, I likely passed on some of my mishigas, like how I avoid elevators at all costs, carry a bottle of Valium in my fleece pocket, and wouldn’t wear the color red when my mother had cancer for reasons I still don’t understand.
“It’s the family anxiety,” she tells me.
I breathe easier. “So I can tell him he’s not fat?” I ask.
“For now,” she says, “but he’s going to eventually have to learn to soothe himself.”
The thing is for all my son’s obsession with weight, he eats fine. He takes in three square meals a day, only eats when he’s hungry, and exercises. He’s now started to check ingredient labels for added sugar, which is almost precocious, and eats far healthier than my other two kids, who are addicted to sweets.
If his anxiety was bound to land on something, maybe this isn’t the worst thing?
I spot my son in front of the hallway mirror holding his shirt up and jumping.
“You don’t have man boobs,” I tell him.
“Let’s go!” he says.
Michael Bahler’s nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, Jewcy, and Modern Loss. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and three kids and dog and two guinea pigs.
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