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Radiance Magazine Online Kids Project Back Issues

By Catherine L. Johnson


From Radiance Fall 1999

Parenting Photo 1


hen I first mention to my petite, size-respectful internist that I want to have a baby, she gently says, "I would like to see you lose fifty pounds first."

I ask, "Will I have trouble conceiving or carrying a pregnancy to term?" She says, "No, actually there’s no evidence to indicate either of those things, but pregnancy and parenting are stressful, physically and emotionally. . . ." She pauses.

She thinks aloud: "You know, if you lost a lot of weight, then I’d tell you to wait for at least a year before you tried to get pregnant."

"What? Why?"

Because dieting is so stressful for your body and it disrupts your metabolism. Your body needs to recover from dieting, to be healthy again before starting a pregnancy. So I guess, all things considered, if you want to have a child soon, you’ll be healthier if you’re pregnant at this weight than if you subject your body to a diet."

I am speechless.

I begin "trying," with incredible support and encouragement from my large-size ob-gyn and her equally large nurse practitioner, both mothers. They tell me, "Your size is not an issue. Look at the hundreds of fat women with babies that you see around you. Look at us. The fact is that you ovulate irregularly, so we’ll try Clomid." After two and a half years, and many cycles, tries, and tests, the HMO system labels me infertile and sends me off to the fertility specialists.

These thin women tell me, "You are not getting pregnant because you are too fat." They say, "It is a waste of our time to work with you, because it is impossible for a morbidly obese woman like you to get pregnant." I struggle with them for a few months, demanding treatment, but eventually their ignorance, homophobia, and fat-hatred drive me away. I return to my ob-gyn and her team, who choose to ignore the specialists and perform intrauterine insemination for me several times. These inseminations are not successful, and eventually I decide to become a mother through adoption.

The adoption process is a long story, wonderful and difficult. Now I am a mom. There are thousands of things to think and feel and do. Many are standard parenting issues. In some ways, those seem easy.

My daughter and our family are also beginning a lifetime of "being different" in a culture that is at best still uncomfortable with difference. We are a lesbian-parented family, and my daughter, Solana, joined our family through adoption. We are a multiethnic, bilingual family. Fortunately, we are blessed by the companionship, awareness, and activism of other families like our own.

Then there are the twin issues of Solana’s beautiful brown skin and my generous body size. I am not a person of color, and my daughter is. I begin a process of recovery and discovery, deciding to transform the lifelong abuse that I have received as a fat girl and woman: I will use these experiences of oppression to help my precious child to feel and assert unquestioned self-worth in every situation she encounters in her life.

Fat moments at the beach are some of the most intense for any large woman. My beach stories include the words and stares of young children. Fat comments made by little kids scare me. They always have. There’s a directness, and intensity, a naked sort of innocence in the look on their faces when they say something that is fat-hating and hateful. It is a raw energy that strikes to my core.

Parenting Photo 2At the beach I often experience the feeling of eyes of all ages sliding across my body, in derision, disgust, and judgment. I dread the feeling of eyes moving over the surface of my body, eyes drawn to the fattest, most "unsightly" parts. I watch these eyes and I see that they are, unconsciously perhaps, repeatedly drawn to those parts of me that I routinely hide.

For years, my response to hurtful fat moments has been to absorb the negativity: to believe it, to take it in, and then to cry or hide or abuse myself. As a fat woman and as a fat mother, this is no longer acceptable. I no longer want to live that way.

When I wear a bathing suit on the beach, when I don’t hide, what’s revealed? Nothing about me, just more of my body. Inches and ripples and stretch marks and sagging skin and varicose veins. That’s all. Fat. More of me being seen. Do I want to be invisible? I know that I don’t want Solana to experience me as a mother-in-hiding. I am a mother-out-there-strong-beautiful-brave-smart. I am not young or thin or rich, but I am strong, beautiful, brave, and smart.

The question, then, is how do I respond to these comments, to these looks? What do I do, what do I say that I want Solana to hear?

When Solana first hears from a playmate, "Your mommy is fat!," I want her to be ready.

Parenting Photo 4.jpg (23455 bytes)I want her to have a history of hearing me respond with dignity, self-love, and, when appropriate, anger to such comments. I want her spirit to absorb these moments as her body soaks in the sunlight. This is my most critical parenting issue: not nutrition or preschool selection or toilet learning. None of the standard parenting issues carry this kind of charge. I simply want to say, with my words and my behavior, "Yes, I am fat and that’s okay."

Joining us in bed this morning, Solana rests her head, as she often does, on the pillow of my soft and cushy upper arm. Oh those upper arms. The unfortunate recipients of so much of my negativity. They’re so visible. I’ve been sensitive about their size for years. I try to keep them covered to the elbow. They are large, soft, stretch-marked, sagging, with strong muscles underneath. My large legs are more easily and more often hidden, but my upper arms, these beauties, are out there and they want to be bare, to feel the air and to cool my body.

Out in the world, and on the beach, I am practicing not watching the eyes of others, not waiting for their eyes to slide, to look at these upper arms in dismay. I focus on the cushy pillow that these upper arms provide for my loving daughter’s head. There is a poem there.

Parenting Photo 3.jpg (23495 bytes)Suddenly, I remember loving the soft, smooshy skin on the back of my own, averaged-size, mother’s upper arms, as she stretched her arm across the back of the front seat while we rode in the car with my family. A rare physical memory for me, the sensation of rubbing my cheek across the soft, smooshy skin on the back of her upper arms. And now the sensation as Solana’s head cradles there, on the inner and even softer surface of my own upper arm.

Later, photos arrive and there is one that I tear up immediately: a picture of Solana and me. I don’t like how I look, so I tear it into small squares. Solana finds these squares on the counter and begins to look at them.

First, she presents me with the piece that shows my head—"This is you, Mommy!"—and then we find the square with her and the square with the back porch and the square with her toy shovel and the square with her playhouse, and as we discover and name these squares, I find the one with my left upper arm perfectly exposed and centered. The offending body part, the reason that I tore up the photo in the first place, and there it is, isolated and visible.

I pocket it. Without thinking, I take it upstairs and hang it over my desk. The next day I take it to be color-copied and enlarged, a piece of self-acceptance art.


CATHERINE L. JOHNSON is a writer, dreamworker, and teacher. She lives in Massachusetts with her partner and their six-year-old daughter.



Fat Arm Frenzy

I watch myself in the mirror as I brush my hair
With elbows raised I manipulate the strands
Into a braid down my back
I see fat
I see thick, sausage arms
Dropping the braid, I yank at a sleeve Confirm: YES, my arms are fat

Back in fifth grade we snickered
Our teacher at the chalkboard
Arms hung immense and loose above the elbows
As she wrote on the board, her skin
Jellied back and forth: flap, flap, flap
Like a gobbler’s wattle
It was hard to concentrate
With such great waving distraction

Now, I see my arms full and thick
Someday they will fall flaccid
They will hang deflated, like soggy
Swimsuits on the clothesline
I will look like my fifth-grade teacher

My college friend comes to mind
When Kari looked in the mirror
She saw fat
Her exercise plan involved one event:
"I run my face off," Kari told me
Jogging was too tame

Once there was a supper table scene
Kari refused to eat anything, not a bite
Her mother pleaded,
"Just drink this glass of milk"
Kari grabbed the glass
Flung milk at her mother
Drenched her mother’s dress
White droplets clung
To the china cabinet behind her
Refusing to drip down

I wonder how mothers and daughters
Get past an episode like that
Do they hag about it for weeks?
Do they bury it in silence?

So here I am today
Standing at the mirror
In a fat-arm frenzy
From the closet I take
A sleeveless tank top
Its close-knit cotton clings to my body
Pink and orange stripes
Scream out like a neon sign
I smile
My arms are fat
And today they’re free

TORIA ANGELYN CLARK is a writer and fiber artist living in Erie, Colorado. She is currently in the M.F.A. Writing and Poetics program at the Naropa Institute in Boulder.


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