Tuesday, February 17, 2009

messing with clean slates.

"Yeah, well, you're fat!" A pretty big burn for a second grader to deliver to a fourth grader. She looked a lot like me at her age: slightly runt-ish in comparison to the other kids with a very short stature and the kind of measurements that make your friends feel the need to grab your arm and tell you, "Oh my god, I could just like.. snap your wrist." That used to scare me. I thought they would actually try; kids love to experiment.
The fourth grader - and healthy, strong tennis player - made a face. "Am not!"
"That wasn't very nice," I said to the second grader, questioning myself. What am I promoting by saying this?
"Well, she is!"

She wasn't. But if she was, why is that still a terrible thing to say? If someone decided to comeback at me with, "Yeah, well, you're skinny," I wouldn't feel particularly offended. I am. It's a fact. I keep wondering where "fat" went from an adjective to the worst "f word" you could say around a person. Why has it become such a horrifying thing?
I couldn't help but wonder if the reason was because we teach children that it is. By me saying, "That wasn't very nice," I was really only enforcing the fact that calling someone "fat" is an insult. But she meant it as an insult, so, as the adult in the room, I had to tell her that wasn't appropriate to talk to her peer as such.

The line in body-image vocabulary is not a straight one. It's so frustrating to find where to draw it. It seems like every word is insulting to someone. Are we trying too hard to protect everyone from saying the wrong things?


Cammy said...

I agree, it is sad that "fat" has become a universal insult, guaranteed to sting no matter if the kid it's aimed at is scrawny or not. I remember an incident during my first round of recovery (age 13) when my cousin got mad at me for something and hissed "fatty fatty fatty" at me. I was still very emaciated, and knew that looked like I'd just escaped from a prison camp, and yet the words succeeded in delivering a sharp dose of venom.

There is a really good essay in the Harriet Brown's book 'Feed Me,' the chapter by Courtney Martin, when she talks about her reaction to a young African girl that tells her she's gained weight, and then realizes that in that culture it's a compliment, it was a very thought-provoking story.

PJ Monito said...

The "F" word can easily be taken, and given, as an ugly insult. I don't really know what I would have done in your position, but I do know that I would have pulled both of them aside for a moment. Explain to the 2nd grader how demeaning calling names is, and to the 4th grader that she isn't fat at all.
Overall, children can be MEAN!

<3 I love your blog.

**emily said...

I have friends that are very skinny, and always have been - just the way they're built. And they find skinny to be just as insulting of a phrase. i think the hype around it is just the sensitivity of the situation- the way that "you're skinny" isn't usually hurled as an insult at someone. I don't think you're promoting "well you're big" with your response, but the fact that such a topic is a sensitive one which it is. Body image has no linear explanation, but when in doubt in this case, its better to protect than risk someone's feelings. Since we never know what anyone else is struggling with or hiding deep down.

Big J said...

I think a lot of the 'fat as bad' stereotype has got to originate in Hollywood. For decades, the 'fat' person has always been the comedy foil. They're often depicted as lumbering, out of shape, sick, gross, smelly, stupid people. There is an association that forms in the minds of people that pairs 'fat' with all of those adjectives and more. So when someone uses fat as an insult, it causes those on the receiving end to feel as thought they've just been called all of those. I think that plays into a lot of the body image issues with them.

But on the other hand, since you were working at a school, teaching these kids how to knit, you could have just reached over and stabbed the culprit in the leg with one of those giant needles while saying something that equates emotional pain and physical pain.