A friend gave us the book Piggies by Audrey and Don Wood at our baby shower a couple months before Katie was born. It's been one of her favorites for six years. Even if Katie couldn't read it to herself now, she's long had it memorized. But this morning she asked me to read it to her and I obliged, taking every opportunity I can get to lie next to her in bed and read together, fully aware in a few more years she won't want to be babied in this way.
She stopped me after I read the first page, "I've got two fat little piggies."
"That's not a nice word," Katie stated, flatly.
"What's not a nice word?" I asked.
"Fat." Katie gave me a look like, come on, Mom, we've been over this before.
She's right, kind of. Last week I overheard her making a comment about someone's fat belly. Her tone was no more judgmental than if she were commenting on someone's red hair or blue eyes. But I had to explain to her that some people don't like their fat bellies and they might think she's making fun of them.
I knew this concept was confusing to Katie since she's grown up with Will and me. We're both much more at ease with fat than most Americans are. I've gone out of my way to show Katie that I'm proud of my body the way it is so I can set an example of a healthy body image for her to emulate. But Katie does live in our culture and I can't shield her from it, so while I want to teach her that I'm OK with my tummy pudge, it's my job to also help her understand that just because we feel that way about our bodies doesn't mean others agree with us. I'd hate for her to hurt someone's feelings out of ignorance of mainstream society's rules.
But as we laid together in her bed reading the book, I realized this lesson is not going to be learned in one or two discussions.
"Well, 'fat' is a tricky word, Sweetie." I began. How can I explain this to her? "I don't think fat is bad, but many people in our community think it is."
"They are wrong." Katie stated. Her need for rigid definitions and black-and-white-thinking, normal for her age, is tough for me. I used to drive my philosophy instructors at the community college crazy with my penchant for ethical relativism. In my dialectical behavior therapy I learned to hold two seemingly opposing views, for example, "I am fat" and "I am beautiful" inside my head and let them duke it out. I do ambiguity quite well, but I've had forty-one years of practice. It's harder for a six year old to understand.
"Well, they're not wrong so much as they just think differently than we do." These are the same words I told her last Christmas when she wondered why not all of our neighbors had Christmas lights up and I explained that not everyone celebrates Christmas.
"Why not?!" She asked, astounded.
"Not everyone believes in Jesus or Santa or exchanging gifts..."
She interrupted me to set me straight, "They are wrong!"
"Well, they're not wrong so much as they just think differently than we do."
Back in bed with Piggies, I continued, "Some people think fat is bad. I don't. I used to think fat is bad. I spent lots of years thinking I was unhealthy and ugly because I'm fat."
"But you're beautiful, Mama!" Katie corrected me.
"Well, thank you, Sweetie, but not everything thinks I am. Some people don't like fat people. Lots of people don't. And many of those same people feel bad about the fat they carry on their own bodies. So just to be safe, it's best not to make any comments about the fat on people's bodies in case they feel bad about it. It's also not a good idea to make comments about how skinny some people's bodies are because they might feel bad about it. Really, just try to keep your thoughts about other people's bodies to yourself as best you can. Or talk to me and daddy about it. But other people are sensitive about their bodies and it's rude to talk about things that might embarrass them."
Katie didn't say anything, so I went back to the book.
"Let's start over. 'I've got two fat little piggies...'"
Katie stopped me from turning the page by putting her finger on the word "fat". She gave me a sly smile and whispered, "We like fat," giggling like the time I told her it was OK to say the word "shitty" around me and Dad but saying that word at school would get her into trouble.