“Mummy, are you fat?”
The question comes out of the blue. It’s the weekend and I’m lying on the sofa while my two small sons pretend my body is a see-saw (I’m actually recovering from pneumonia, but when you have small, lively children, this is what ‘bed rest’ looks like).
My one-year-old is on my head, yanking fistfuls of my hair and giggling maniacally. My four-year-old is trampolining on my belly, then examining it with forensic attention. This is when he asks, in the sweetest, most innocent, piping little tones imaginable: “Mummy, are you fat?”
Well, I mean. Where to begin? And how to respond? Suddenly my brain is alive with a firework display of thoughts and emotions, as all those opinion pieces I’ve read about body positivity repeat on me with the urgency of a half-digested dodgy kebab. “Don’t Stigmatise Fat!” They warn. “‘Fat’ Isn’t A Perjorative Term!” But also, they add: “Don’t Correct Someone If They Refer To Themselves As ‘Fat’, Otherwise You’re Perpetuating The Idea That ‘Fat’ *Is* A Perjorative Term!” And on the other hand: “If You’re Reclaiming The Word As A Positive Identifier The Whole Thing Is Entirely Subjective!”
“Are you fat, Mummy?” My son asks, again.
I can’t answer, because I’m trying not to cry. Inside my brain it’s just a shower of grief.
My sons are the most beautiful creatures I have ever seen. I’m sure, unless my kids are exceptionally attractive, it is the same for all parents. I am obsessed by my kids’ skin, the curve of their eyelids, the little vulnerable napes of their necks and the plumpness of their parted lips as they slumber; and I am constantly agog at how I could have lent even half my genes to something so perfect and wonderful.
And now one of them has called me “fat”.
I know this isn’t an evolved response. I personally don’t think of “fat” as a perjorative term. Still, it’s like a knife to the heart.
“Do you think I’m fat?” I manage to squeak, stalling for time by way of the age-old conversational switcheroo. My son jabs my belly and we both watch the resulting ripples – him, with interest; me with dismay. “I think you might be a little bit fat,” he replies, equably.
For a tiny second, I go blind with rage and sadness, then I take two deep breaths and tell myself to stick to the facts. I settle both boys on my lap.
“What is fat?” I ask them.
“Wok is fack?” The toddler repeats, gravely.
“Fat,” my older son informs me, “Is when you’re big and huge and round and puffed-out, like a puffer-fish or a big fat man, or a great big fat whale.”
Well, there it is. Precisely what I haven’t wanted him to think.
Quite apart from – or perhaps because of – my own insecurities, I’ve stayed away from the word “fat” as a descriptor. I’ve quietly removed classic kids’ titles like A Piece of Cake and even Dinosaur Roar from the kids’ bookshelf because they each use either the word “fat” or the notion of “fatness” negatively – and I’d like my son to at least *understand* the word factually before he accepts it unquestioningly as lazy shorthand for “comically large”, and all the connotations that go with it.
So, I say no: that’s not what fat is. For a start, puffer-fish are filled with air. And whales are big and full of fat, because it helps them stay warm in cold water. All mammals have fat, I tell him, in between our skin and our skeleton. Fat gives us energy, and helps pad out our cushiony bits like cheeks and bums and tummies.
“CHEEKY BUM TUMMY!” My toddler shouts joyfully, slapping at his belly, and prompting a family-wide examination of our “cushiony bits”.
And now we’re looking at my stomach again. I am trying very hard to see it as simply a body part, rather than the lifelong source of great anxiety it’s really been – whether it slipped easily into a sample size or, as now, is the poster child for two C-sections and finding your emotional truth at the bottom of a biscuit barrel.
I tell my sons: “Some – like Mummy – have more fat on their tummies and bums than other people. Some people have less. Just like you have yellow hair and your brother has brown hair. Lots of people say lots of different things about fat, but the important thing to remember is this: fat is just another part of your body, like your nails and teeth.”
“And like your bogeys and eyelashes,” my older boy adds. Yes, I tell him. “And your willy and your nose.” Yes, yes, yes, I say. Then I ask for a kiss, because I feel somehow like I’ve been through something.
My son throws his arms round my middle and buries his nose in my belly button. When he next speaks, his voice is muffled, but he sounds happy.
“I’ll kiss your fat,” he tells me. “I love you, fat.” And then he kisses me.
• Robyn Wilder is a guest columnist for HuffPost UK Parents. Read more of her columns here.