I heard someone make a comment the other day, a comment that made me cringe inwardly and outwardly as an involuntarily response.
“You have such a pretty face.”
Six words. Just six words meant to be a compliment. But the undercurrent of those words belies something very unflattering.
Those words meant who ever received them was fat, chubby, needed to lose some weight.
I had heard those painful words far too many times to count in my life.
When I had grown beyond the ‘cute’ level of chubby as a child, I would hear people comment behind my back that I used to be cute.
I actually went out with a guy in high school once who said this very comment to me. His actual words were: “You know you’d be really pretty if you dropped about 10 pounds.”
I felt like I had been slapped. “What if I lost more than that?”
“You’d be almost perfect then.”
I fought back angry tears. This guy was sorely lacking in both the personality and the looks departments, so I wasn’t quite sure where he got off saying anything about me being a little bit chubby.
“You are absolutely right; I would be perfect. So what I am going to lose is you.”
Even though the guy was an uncouth imbecile, his words stung bitterly. As someone who battled eating disorders, hearing something like that could ignite a relapse.
I have heard people use this phrase in an almost contentious way. It is always said with the unspoken “but” hovering in space afterwards that means, “So why don’t you lose weight so people will look at you differently?”
It means: “Why do you keep eating when you know how heavy you are?”
It means: “Do you not have a mirror to see yourself?”
It means: “Why did you let yourself go like this?”
It means: “How can you expect anyone to love you at this weight?”
It means: “I find you disgusting and gross.”
All the implications are full of judgment and negative evaluation.
I don’t know one female who has heard that phrase and not understood the secret meaning.
“Don’t you dare – I will stab you – tell me I still have a pretty face,” a friend said in greeting.
She had gained a few pounds and understood, the first thing women friends do is look to see if their other girlfriends have gained any weight.
We gauge our standing, our desirability, pretty much everything in our lives based on what we weigh and what our jeans size is. We even may take a secret delight in realizing we are not the chubbiest one any more. It was like a Darwinesque process where the thinnest not only survive, but move up the evolutionary chain.
I was, as usual, commenting on my weight as we sat at lunch one day. Lamar has learned to play deaf mute when I start saying anything in the proximity of weight. He excused himself to go to the restroom and I continued my monologue about my weight with Cole, who nibbled his fries.
“Mama, can I tell you what I think the problem is?” he asked quietly.
“Sure,” I replied, thinking he was going to tell me the current tightness in my jeans had to do with the cheesecake I had ordered for dessert.
“You are talking negatively about yourself. That is wrong. You should not do that. You are saying you are fat – that’s all I hear. How fat you think you are and it hurts my feelings because you are my mama,” he said, sincerity woven in his words.
“You always tell me to speak kindly and positively about myself; you don’t do that with yourself.”
No, I didn’t.
My child was only 9, but he had probably heard me fat-shaming myself since he was born.
That’s what women are supposed to do, isn’t it? We can’t get together without the conversation turning to how we hate our bodies within minutes. We are supposed to never be happy with what we weigh, how we look and are supposed to feel some sort of guilt as if we should have a ginormous disclaimer on our foreheads, reading: “I am greatly sorry, I am not perfect, I am not a sample size 2, I have curvy hips, a big rear and my stomach wasn’t flat before childbirth, so don’t know why you expect it to be now.”
Of course, that would never fit on our foreheads unless they were of billboard proportions, but surely we could put it on our ample posteriors. Or maybe just a T-shirt, in small words underneath, the words: “But I have such a pretty face.”
My child was right. I told him so. This did not assuage his discontent at my personal attack on myself.
“I don’t know why you worry about these things, Mama. You are married, have a family – why do you care what you weigh?”
“It has nothing to do with being married, Cole. It has to do with me. Can you understand that? It’s all internal. It’s all my issues. And just because I am married, that doesn’t mean I should just let myself go.” (Oh, all those undercurrents of judgment were so deeply ingrained in me.)
“What if your wife gained a bunch of weight after y’all got married? How would you feel?”
He sipped his lemonade, considering his response.
“You mean my wife, right? When I am grown and married?” I nodded. “If she gains weight that is perfectly fine with me. I don’t care what she would weigh or any of that stuff. As long as she loves me, loves our family, that’s all that matters to me. It’s all that should really matter any way.”
“As long as she has a pretty face, right?” I said, partly in jest.
“No, sweet girl,” he began, “that’s all that should matter at all – is what’s inside.”
Maybe one day, the fat shaming, the guilt, all the negative body imaging we do, will end.
Maybe it will be in my son’s generation, a revolution started by a child tired of hearing his mother’s weight complaints. And maybe just one day, the phrase “you have such a pretty face” will be replaced with “you are gorgeous” -free of judgment, condemnation and nothing negative implied.