Mothers of fat kids face firing squads of public outcry. I remember how I used to look at them, blame them for predisposing their children to diabetes and heart disease and the kind of relent- less teasing that destroys a kid, snuffs her out like an old match. Everybody might love a fat baby, but nobody likes a fat kid. Now I’m the mother of a fat kid. Others were looking at me and talking real loud about childhood obesity becoming an epidemic because moms sit their kids in front of the TV with super-sized cartons of fries. I didn’t know if I had the courage to be the mother of a fat kid.
My experience is not to say that super-sized fries and TV don’t play a part in the swelling of childhood obesity, or that parents of obese kids shouldn’t be held accountable, or that we shouldn’t attach some urgency to nutrition education and the revamping of school lunches. At some evolution- ary point between humans hunting and gathering for meals and the popping up of fast food joints on every street corner, our relationship with food became a series of sordid one-night stands. Our children are paying the hefty price. We are bad mothers and fathers indeed.
And yet, as I searched for evidence that might exonerate me, that might exonerate Leah, I found a 2009 study by the University of Cambridge and the Welcome Trust Sanger Institute suggesting that some children with severe obesity are not overweight because of lifestyle habits. Their girth is the result of a missing genome. Conclusion: not every mother of an overweight child is a bad mother. But what do we do about that? Do we give kids who gain weight through no fault of their own T-shirts that read: “It’s not me. It’s my genes”? Would that at all change how our skinny-obsessed culture perceives those who are bootylicious?
There are the Big-is-Beautiful people, who instead of blaming me for Leah’s weight, intimate that I’m too obsessed with her size. They look at me with my barely 120 pounds and insist Leah is gorgeous. I am not embarrassed by my child or obsessed with her skinniness. I’m not going to turn her into an anorexic mess who’ll need feeding tubes. I know she’s a beautiful girl. She is iridescent. She is the moon lighting my nights. For now, all I can do is greet each snarky comment and too long look with a handful of courage, enough for me and enough for her.
Leah is almost three now, and I’m planning a party with a giant Cookie Monster cake. I no longer make her sisters eat dessert after she leaves the room. I don’t hide when I eat cookies. Cookies and cake are a part of her life that she and I will be facing together. Sneaking around isn’t going to help her. I have to show her to be brave, to have self-control in the face of yummy sweets. She can do it. She’s even stronger than she looks.
As for her weight, Leah’s growth rate has slowed, but she’s still a big girl with a concerning BMI who already wears her seven and six-year-old sisters’ clothing. Yet Leah no longer looks like that pumpkin in the patch. She’s grown into her size. She is what you might call big boned. Baby has shoulders. Baby has hips. Baby has back.
When family and friends see her now they tell me she’s not so fat anymore: “still big, but not like she was.” And people at the grocery store are more likely to comment on her gorgeous curly hair cascading down her back, or the brown eyes that never cease to blink joy. Most tell me she’s beautiful. Some, like a random woman in the restroom at Disney World last month, still exclaim: “Wow, she’s a big girl!” in a way that teeters on insult. I’ve learned to live with those latter comments. I desperately hope they stop before Leah has to.
Leah is beautiful, and that beauty has nothing and everything to do with her size. She likes to look in the mirror and say: “Pretty Leah.” The jokes people used to tell about my feeding her growth hormones, the comment one teacher made about her hams belonging in a crockpot, only I was wrenched by them. She is confident. She is happy. She is loving in a selfless way that reminds you humans aren’t necessarily programmed to be self-interested. Some are programmed to eat and sleep and grow. Leah grows as much on the inside as she does on the outside.
Still, I fear the future. I don’t know if she’ll get thinner or if she’ll get bigger. If she’ll look at girls on TV and in cosmetic ads and wish she were skinny. If she’ll look at her rail-like sisters and her thin mother and wonder why she had to be the Botticelli. I fear there’ll come a day when she’ll stare in the mirror and no longer say: “Pretty Leah.” I’ll have to stand behind her then. I’ll have to place my hand on her chin and lift her head, twirl her cascading curls around my finger. I’ll have to find some way to make her believe in all the beauty and warmth that radiates from her as if she were lit coal. Yes, pretty Leah. Pretty Leah.
Author’s Note: I wrote The Biggest Baby a year ago as a love letter to my youngest daughter. It was at once an apology on behalf of the world, a defense of motherhood and a simple ode to her beauty. At the time, I didn’t know what was going to happen with her weight. Since then, she has slimmed down and is actually on the weight chart for her age. I’m relieved that she is on a healthier path, that she’ll avoid other kids’ mean jokes. I also verified what I’d felt all along: I don’t care what size she is, she will always be my beautiful baby.
About the Author: Natalia Cortes-Chaffin’s fiction has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry, Potomac Review, Stone Canoe, Coachella Review and Saw Palm among others. She lives and writes in Las Vegas with the support of her husband, three daughters and a neurotic mutt.