It was my grandfather’s birthday dinner. We were at a restaurant where they know my extended family quite well, and we were having a great time. Then, Robert took the smalls to the restroom, and suddenly my mother was equating losing weight with being worthy.
“Well,” she says to my grandfather’s wife, “[little brother] is going to have to buy some new clothes since he lost 90 pounds.”
A big freaking red flag goes up in my head.
And sure enough, my mother rests on the subject of just how much weight my brother has lost and how great it is for so long that I can tell he’s uncomfortable with it, too. My grandfather’s wife is shocked that he could have had 90 pounds to lose, she reminds him of previous weight cycling, she compliments his appearance and resolve, and she lectures him about how it’s obviously wonderful that he lost weight but he shouldn’t lose any more now that he’s skinny, as if he had lost weight to please her. Then my mother wants him to stand up and display how ill-fitting his clothes are, like it’s a badge of honor. He didn’t want to, he was embarrassed, he demurred. She relented, but only on the promise that he would allow everyone to scrutinize his appearance later, when he stands up to leave the restaurant.
During this last exchange, my children have returned to the table. I’m helping Númenor get settled again with his crayons, when I hear my grandfather say to my brother “Well, I wish you’d rub off on–” and then he gestures to his wife.
“EXCUSE ME!” I interject, loudly enough to catch the attention of the whole table, “We will only be discussing our bodies in POSITIVE ways in front of the children.”
An awkward silence. I wish I had interrupted earlier, I wish I had taken a stronger stance, I wish I felt secure forbidding diet talk in my presence instead of only feeling able to object to it on behalf of the developing psyches of my children.
I want to be angry. I want to channel righteous indignation and lecture these people, make them see the terrible impact of their casual violence in what is supposed to be a loving family environment.
I want to say “How dare you publicly criticize the appearance of your spouse?!”
I want to say “Do you know you’re telling my brother that he’s more worthy of love now that there’s less of him? Do you hear yourself purporting to be the authority on what he should and shouldn’t do with his body?”
I want to say “Did you even get your son’s permission before holding a public conference on his body and sharing his private health information?”
I want to say “Diet talk and other forms of body shaming are not child-appropriate, and I don’t care for them, either!”
Instead, I help Númenor read a few numbers on his placemat, and conversation resumes around me, thankfully on a different topic.
As we’re getting ready to leave, after cake and presents and singing, I brush past my aunt and my mother having a reprise of the same weight loss conversation at my brother, who looks as uncomfortable as ever. I roll my eyes and give him a look that I hope says “solidarity, bro” as I shepherd the smalls past so they won’t hear someone telling him how his body should look as if everyone gets a vote.
In the car on the drive home, with the smalls safely asleep in the back seat, I cry. And I yell (sotto voce, like you do when smalls are asleep). And I say “That is fucked up.” about 9874259 times. And I quote theological texts, which is not something I’m prone to do. As a very outspoken person by nature, I mourn my reticence, but if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change the way I acted.
The fact is that I’m trying to have patience with my family, because we are all flawed and we all have to learn to get along anyway, but mostly because I don’t think they understand what they’re doing and if I try to dunk them into the Pool of Elizabeth’s Standards at the deep end, they will drown and think it’s my fault for having such an unreasonably deep pool. I’m letting them enter from the shallow end, in the hopes that they’ll want to learn how to swim over the next few years. I don’t know exactly what the timeline is, but I do know I won’t be tolerating this stuff by the time Númenor and Ithilien are tweens.
I don’t think that, when my parents were raising me in a liberal ’90s household, they truly understood how that would interact with my high sensitivity to injustice. But, as Beth recently pointed out, the Bible does say that I’m their God-given reward, and they are clergy, so they can’t claim they weren’t warned.