Raising a Body Positive Girl

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with my weight. I can’t remember the color of my first backpack, can’t really remember what type of bedsheets I had when I was little, and I can’t remember what my 2nd grade teacher looked like. But, I can remember exactly what my first bathroom scale looked like. Actually it wasn’t mine. It was the bathroom scale in my parent’s room. The scale was oval, dark brown, and had large black numbers in the transparent screen at the top. It had a textured top, too – kind of like little triangles scattered in a geometric pattern.

At every chance I could get, I used to sneak into my parent’s bathroom and step on the scale.

Weight was always an issue in my family. Not sure if it was cultural or just something that occured in my own extended family, but the phrase “Hello! My, you look so fat!” was the said in place of “Hello! How are you?” Everyone commented on how fat someone had gotten.

I know I was a pudgy kid. For a little Asian girl, I had a butt that protruded out. Standing up straight, the natural arch in my back accentuated my 6-year old bum more than any other kid I knew. And, because I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, went to an all-white school, every other kid I saw had a stick straight figure. I stood out in lots of ways.

I went on my first “diet” at age 11. By the time I was 13, I started skipping school (sorry, Mom and Dad!) just so that I could spend the day working out. But, I always did indoor aerobics so that none of the neighbors saw me running around the block and call my parents. By the time I was 16, I was doing 300 sit ups every morning. But, it was when I was 18 that my obsession with weight hit an all time high. I counted every calorie that went into my body, and every calorie that was burned off. Four years of college, and being surrounded by wealthy, skinny classmates didn’t make it any easier. I did this all while writing my Honor’s Thesis on “Eating Disorders.” How ironic.

I knew I wanted to be a young mom, but I feared being pregnant. My husband and I talked about what it would mean for my body to change, for my stomach to get bigger and, more importantly to me, for the numbers on the scale to get higher and higher. Through some preventative measures, I ended up being just fine with the weight gain. And, for the first time in my life, I embraced my growing body.

Being pregnant, seeing the beauty that grew inside my body, was very healing for me. I gave birth to the most beautiful and precious little girl. And, on the day she was born, I looked her in the eyes and promised that “weight” would never be something that I taught her to fear. Who would have known that, two years later, those same eyes would betray her with cancer.

For years, I fought having a scale in our bathroom. But, with additional pregnancies, I wanted to make sure I was gaining a healthy amount of weight. Six months after the birth of my son, the scale is still in there.

The other day, I stepped onto the scale just as my daughter walked in the door. “Oh, Mommy! I want to weigh myself too!” I froze. I didn’t want her to weigh herself. At 6-years old, she is at the same age as when I started my first diet. My daughter is built similar to me. She has a little bottom that arches out. She also has legs that are twice as long as her body, and she is in the 90% percentile for her height. “50 pounds” said the scale. How do I react? Do I say “Ooh! Cool! 50 pounds!”?? Do I say “Yes, 50 pounds.”? Or do I not say anything at all. As I thought of repercussions of each statement, I realized the growing silence was also sending a message. “50 pounds, Mommy! Is that good?”

Is. That. Good.

Those words hung in the air. I began to feel my tears come to the surface. I wanted to say, “it is what it is”, but she wouldn’t have understood that. Instead, I heard the words, “50 pounds. 5-0 is fifty. Okay, let’s go get dressed,” and I took her out of the bathroom.

How do we do this? How do we raise body positive kids? I wasn’t one. I’m still not one. I’m in my 30s, and while weight is something I’ve grown to embrace, it’s hard to shake the 20+ years of being cruel to my body. And, more importantly, cruel to my mind.

How do I teach my girls to embrace their bodies? How do I teach them that their body structure – as  a reflection of their culture – may be different from others? How do we teach children to loosen their interpretations of what is acceptable, what is beautiful, and what is criticized?

Yes, I’m fat.

Hat tip to Carmen VanKerckhove (via Twitter) who got me thinking about fatploitation.

I’m fat. I’m fat. I know it. Feel free to hum the tune of your favorite Weird Al song, but I’m serious (and, I apologize if that tune is now stuck in your head!). I’m fat. I could blame it as battle wounds of my three children and my 50 hour a week job. I could say that I’m fat because of some deep embedded belief that I actually *like* being fat, and therefore that is why I am fat. I’m sure my former therapist was trying to unravel the reasons why I subconsciously think that fat will protect a more vulnerable part of my psyche that I subconsciously wish to keep hidden. Being fat – and coming to terms that I have always thought of myself as fat – is a daily struggle.

While I’m proud of my body and what it has done, I am still embarrassed to show it. One out of every 500 pictures might have one of me in it — and none of them have my entire body. My Facebook profile has either a carefully cropped version of the side of my face, or I am strategically placing all three of my children in front of me to “create this illusion that I am thin.” (note to self: when you can fit THREE children in front of you and STILL see your body, you are not creating any illusion….)

The truth is.. food is yummy; And, I eat more than I burn off. Before I had children, I used to run 3-5 miles a day (2.5 miles before breakfast; 2-3 miles after dinner). Now, I feel productive if I can do 3-5 loads of laundry a week. As newlyweds, my husband and I used to spend evenings making dinner. Now, dinner with three grumpy and tired children, a work-induced headache, and a barking dog begging for attention, dinner preparation consists of opening a box and boiling water. When there was only two of us, our salaries went to paying for rent in a safe neighborhood where we could walk for miles around a well-groomed suburban block. Now, our salaries are stretched thin to support our family, and we live in an area right off of a very busy street and major highway.

Exercise is a luxury; and I get very little of it. All my great girlfriends and Mommy friends will, no doubt, come to my emotional rescue and say, “Taking care of 3 children IS exercise — laundry, dishes, daily vacuuming, picking up clothes, lifting bags of groceries, walking the dog, lifting children into car seats, etc.” I love them for it.

I am always on my own case for being fat – though, not necessarily for padded emotional reasons. Rather, I saw my own child face mortality. My friends have died from cancer. My sister battled cancer at a very young age. For them, their illnesses weren’t their choices. For me, to some extent, being fat has been a choice. So, how could I betray them? How could I take my own health for granted by choice when they faced each day praying for their health?

Picture 2

But, regardless of the 101 reasons why I am fat, I have come to accept that I Am Fat. And, while I’m still not brave enough to post my exact weight nor my exact size, I don’t apologize for being fat. I am pleasantly surprised at each physical that – despite my weight on the scale – I have a healthy cholesterol, excellent blood pressure, normal blood sugar processing, and a pretty uneventful first 10 minutes of my doctor’s appointment. Then, I get on the scale. The nursing assistants are always very kind – putting that big weighted bar at least 1-notch too light. “Uh, yeah, you’re gonna want to move that over 1-more-notch,” I say unapologetically.

Picture 3I’ve been awake quite a bit more during the night, and have been catching some interesting television shows lately. To my pleasure, I’ve caught on to a number of shows that I say have very “body positive” characters, themes, and messages. Drop Dead Diva has been a favorite in my house – and even my brother-in-law admits to looking forward to watching it. I almost dismissed the show, being mildly turned off by the idea that some skinny blond model has been “horrifically trapped” in a size 16 (gasp!) body. Barf, I thought. Another “I can’t believe I’m a fat girl!” theme. But, DDD turned out to have an excellent writing staff and a very body positive message. Not to mention, my girl, Margaret Cho is on there. And, she’s not being all crazy and weird, either she rocks.

Then, I caught “Dance Your Ass Off”. WTH?? What is this thing? So, it’s fat people Picture 4dancing? I admit, I watched it out of sheer curiousity, but ended up feeling both inspired and moved! Here was a group of fat contestants who were HOLDIN’ IT DOWN!! Damn, these people can dance!! Do they cha-cha and high kick like those on “So You Think You Can Dance” or “America’s Best Dance Crew”? No. Not at all. But they work with their bodies, and they seem comfortable in their bodies. And, while the show is about them losing weight, it’s also about showcasing their talent and the ways they appreciate movement and style.

What about shows like “The Biggest Loser” or “More To Love?” Well, I’ve watched a few episodes of The Biggest Loser and definitely like it, but I also accept that the contestants have to undergo such major changes in their lives, with the goal of being skinny and healthy (physically and emotionally). I don’t follow it closely, but I certainly do like seeing the changes people go through as a result of their hard work. “More To Love”? I don’t really watch these reality dating shows, anyway, so I’m a bit more skeptical that MTL embraces the diversity within the body positive community. I’m told, as with all the dating reality shows, that the interest is more in the personalities in wide spectrum as opposed to being very body positive. But, in their defense, I think it’s about time that the media shows that people of all sizes are looking for similar comforts of love, happiness, and togetherness.

Seeing someone with a body like mine represented in media is as exciting as when I see someone of Asian heritage in a mainstream role. I think the conversation around obesity, childhood diabetes, unequal access to healthy and affordable foods in underresourced communities, and the decline of exercise is a very serious one. I realize I have the privilege of sending my children to a school that continues to promote physical education and exercise. I accept that I have the privilege of only needing to work one job and being home at a time when I can encourage movement vs television. I own that not everyone has those privileges. And, for me, my focus here isn’t about these institutionalized injustices. Rather, it’s about seeing people like me have a public voice and about actually being seen and heard.

Yes, I’m fat. And, seeing other fat people on television and mainstream media who are living the same lives, expressing the same interests, and experiencing the same journeys is refreshing. I hope we continue to move in this direction where these mediums are not used to exploit nor mock others. Rather, I am optimistic that we are becoming a society that is starting to give voice — a normal voice — to people who make up the very fabric of our every day lives. Yes, I’m fat. And my fat life is life filled with compassion, care, confidence, and courage. And, yes, the occasional ice cream.

Coming soon!: The ways in which body image, race, and anti-racist parenting intersect.

The Unexpected

I’m back, all! I know it’s been a while since I’ve done any serious blogging. Thanks to all the people who I “borrowed” from and those who entertained me by reading older posts. I’m balancing lots of different duties, and in the past few months, other priorities forced their way into my life 🙂

But, I’m back! Back to writing, back to blogging, and back to exploring ways that race, health, parenting, and living collide.

So, a theme that I’ve been noticing these past few days is “the unexpected.” It’s “the unexpected” type of moments when you realize that something you said or did had an effect on someone above-and-beyond what you could have imagined.

The past Saturday, I spoke at an event to raise money for Camp Sunshine – an amazing healing camp that my family has attended in the past. Last year, I spoke about the importance of feeling normal when you have cancer.  I spoke about how my life was filled with materialistic wants, shy needs, and a superficial sense of importance. When my child was diagnosed with cancer, all of those characteristics and qualities flew out the door — instantly. When I held her in bed, with her chemotherapy dripping into her tiny 30 lb body, I couldn’t help but see flashes of what life might be without her. In the wee hours, when the hospital floor was quiet, I morbidly imagined what I would say at her funeral. I pictured her little coffin, a receiving line of relatives dressed in black, and me – crumbled on the ground – wishing I could just tell her, one more time, “I love you.”

It’s moments like those — an unexpected diagnosis, an unexpected bad dream, an unexpected taste of vomit in the back of my throat — that spin me into appreciating what I have; and feeling bad for people who yearn for materialistic belongings. For, if they had to come close to what I felt (what I feel) for my child, they would realize that the new car/the largest television/the cutest handbag, isn’t worth shit.

At the event last year, I remember saying the line, “If you have your health, you have everything. Because if you don’t have your health, you don’t have your finances. You don’t have your sanity. You don’t have your tomorrow. You only have your today.”

Just before I went on stage to deliver my speech,  a woman approached me in tears. She told me that my speech changed her life. This past year, her husband lost his job, and the family was stressed over their finances. They kept reflecting on what I had said about “having your family and your health”, and that’s what got them through their tough time.

Joey’s Special Eye

When my daughter was diagnosed, I found out I was pregnant with our 2nd child. I jse1jwasn’t sure how I was going to explain this to our new baby. How do you explain “your sister has a hole in her head, and it’s because of cancer”? I talked with my sister — writer, Grace Talusan — and she came up with a fantastic coloring book for children that described, from a sibling’s viewpoint, the cancer and prosthetic. While it was published by the Eye Care Foundation, I think we always imagined the coloring book to be something that we just use in our home. A few years went by, and we embraced our own personal copy of the coloring book. I contacted the Foundation a few years later and asked if they were going to reproduce it. There wasn’t quite a demand, but I was able to purchase 100 copies to send to other Rb families.

The following year, I returned to Camp Sunshine with additional copies. As I began to hand them out, some families were so surprised to see a coloring book – just what they were looking for! But, then one family came to me and said, “Oh, no thank you. We already have one.”
I admit, I looked at them like they were crazy. “Well, if you don’t want one, that’s fine,” I said somewhat insulted. “No, really. We have one. Our doctor’s office gives one to every Rb kid.” I immediately called Grace to tell her that her book was being distributed in a hospital 3,000 miles away!

I checked Grace’s site on the day of my daughter’s cancer anniversary, and realized that she had posted pictures of kids around the world holding the Joey’s Special Eye book! The kids pictured were in Mexico!

We never thought the book would have this kind of reach — completely unexpected. And, yet, it’s so rewarding to know that Grace’s book — Joli’s story — is being told around the world.

Richard

photoOur friend, Richard, has been having a hell of a year. His son had been diagnosed with the same cancer as my daughter. His son’s cancer was very aggressive, and he, too, ended up losing his eye after over a year of awful treatment. Once they came to peace with their son’s eye, Richard was diagnosed with a very rare cancer. He’s been fighting for his life for over a year now. We’ve been raising money for him through Facebook, and using our “status updates” to promote our cause.

In the midst of our status updates, an artist friend, Jeff McComsey, felt compelled to draw Richard. He doesn’t know Richard, never met him, and other than living in the same state, has nothing in common with Richard. Yet, he began drawing. He drew Richard as “Superman.” Jeff’s drawing arrived in the mail on Richard’s first day home from the hospital, and this brought him such strength. I know Richard didn’t expect this, and I’m quite sure that Jeff has no idea how meaningful his drawing is to Richard, his family, and friends. Yet, it’s this unexpected gift of kindness during an expected battle with cancer that completes this circle.

What have you done that was unexpected today? What unexpected impact will you make on someone’s life?

Revisiting

This past week, I had to take my infant over to the hospital for his routine exam under anesthesia, a process we have to follow because of my oldest child’s cancer. I’ve taken my children through this process more than two dozen times, and while it’s traumatic, it’s routine.

What I didn’t expect was for me to experience anxiety this time around. Usually, we do our EUA’s on the “surgery center waiting room” – it’s a room the size of my kitchen, very informal, very friendly. The recovery room is tiny, and it’s very easy to go in-and-out to each part of the operating room/recovery/waiting room. That is the “S” floor. Well, that morning, I went to the “S” floor to check in — like I’ve done all of the dozen or so times — and was told that I had to take Evan to the “10th floor.” Really? I’ve never been to the 10th floor. Why would we need to go there?

I went into the elevator, pushed “10” and waited, expecting a new adventure. The doors opened, and I nearly passed out….. this was the floor where we brought my oldest child to have her enucleation – the removal of her eye due to a rare and destructive cancer. I had not been back to that floor since August 18, 2005.

I waited by the front desk as other patients were checking in. I saw the same woman — who had a prosthetic eye — take insurance cards and check ID’s. I looked to my left and saw the room that my entire family waited in while J was in surgery. I had to tell myself to ‘breathe.’ Once I checked in, I walked the long hallway – to the room where my family destracted ourselves by silently eating bagels and drinking coffee. I stood in the corner of the hallway where I called friends in Long Island, whispering the words, “J has cancer. She is in surgery now.”

I’ve dealt with J’s journey through speaking engagements, fundraising, and class lectures, yet I never realized how the emotions would come flooding back when I entered the 10th floor.

My infant’s name was called to go to the OR, and I carried him – like I carried J – down the elevator. The same elevator closed behind me, the same doors that closed when my husband fainted and fell into his father’s arms. I went downstairs to the operating room, sat in the same chair I rocked J in just after her enucleation. Thankfully, it didn’t last long. My son and I were at the hospital by 6:00am and out by 9:15am. I think it was good to go down that road again, since being on that floor was such a blur on August 18, 2005. But, I’d be just fine not going back there again…!