ronna benjaminI was one fat kid away from being bullied in 7th grade. I was a “late bloomer” –a euphemism for being totally awkward, chubby, with frizzy hair, pimples, glasses and braces.  Luckily, I was also somewhat funny (the “ha ha” kind) and even luckier, there was Deli.

Nancy Delicatessen (I wonder now, could that really have been her name?) was much fatter than I.  She did not have the resources to hide her rolls with flattering clothing, she was a bit “off,” and she had a name that everyone in my home town associated with hot pastrami on a Keiser roll.

Because there was Deli to torture, I had plenty of friends—the kids didn’t seem to care that I was chubby because there was a fatter, more awkward kid to make fun of.  But my family name was Clayton, and I lived in fear that I too would be called out for being as fat as a ton of clay.

And one day, I was.  Somehow, I annoyed Eddie Roberts-or maybe it was his twin brother Larry, and he whispered to me, “You’re just like Deli.”  I am absolutely positive he would have no recollection of this offhand comment, yet it shook my world- not for days, not for months- forever.  I often wonder how, or if, Deli survived her torture when this whisper rocked me so.

In its weeklong series about body image, The Today Show revealed that 67 percent of adult women worry about their appearance regularly—more often than their finances, their health, their relationships or their professional success. The series culminated with Jenna Bush Hager interviewing Michelle Obama, on the fourth anniversary of her “Let’s Move” initiative, which has been so successful in reducing childhood obesity.

“We don’t talk about weight or physical appearance,” the First Lady said about her relationship with her two long and lean, beautiful, athletic teenage daughters- ones with very fortunate genes. “We talk about health.”

And, yes, I agree, talk about health is key, as is a focus away from body image and on being a good person.  But the fact is, we really don’t want our children to be fat—not only because it is unhealthy, but because in our uber competitive world, a fat person is less likely to be hired, or to be asked on a date—and yes, all of that matters. Unfortunately, what’s outside matters too.

So what do you do with a teenager who is blessed with parents who offer nutritious meals, who talk about healthy choices, but who is cursed with generations of fat genes?  What do you do with a teenager that unfortunately just loves to eat- everything- from cauliflower (the new kale, I understand) to roast beef, to peanut butter, to sushi, to chocolate cake?  And what do you with a teenager who doesn’t have an athletic bone in her body, who is most happy curled up on the couch reading and eating popcorn (air-popped, of course, her parents are on the ball)?  What do you do when you want to scream, “Stop eating so much and get off your butt and go out for a run!” but you know you can’t.

Is “healthy” talk the answer?  Do they buy it? Are teenagers- especially teenage girls- hearing something different when adults- especially their mothers- talk about “healthy choices”?  I’m not sure, but this is the world I know:

Mom: “I made a delicious fruit salad for dessert!”

Teenage daughter: “Are you telling me I’m fat?”

Mom: “A healthy portion of that steak is the size of your palm. Let’s load up on the broccoli.”

Teenage daughter: “OMG… you think I’m fat.”

Mom: “Let’s all go out for a brisk walk after dinner.”

Teenage daughter: “Really?  Am I fat?”

Mom: “Eating so much cheese is not healthy.”

Teenage Daughter: “I know cheese is fattening, mom. You obviously think I’m fat.”

Mom: “Those Oreos are not a healthy choice.”

Teenage Daughter: “Duh. Do you think I’m fat?”

Mom: “That style is not that flattering on you.”

Teenage Daughter: “Because I’m too fat, right?”

In high school, when I was on one of my many diets, my mother presented me with a beautiful cake- the white icing was thick with a beautiful sheen as the candles flickered.  My family sang happy birthday, and I blew out the candles.  “You shouldn’t have!” I exclaimed, which really meant, “I am so thrilled you did!”

But when I tried to cut the cake, the knife wouldn’t go through.  My mother had simply covered a round plastic container with icing—there was no cake under that frosting after all- just plastic.  I know, this was just plain old mean, but they meant well. After all, I was on a diet. Besides, when they left the room, I ate off all the frosting with my fingers.

I am glad we are more enlightened now, but I am not sure that it would have been any better if my mom had made me a special birthday fruit salad, or just offered me a tiny sliver of a real cake, or had made a non-fat angel cake with no frosting, because the underlying message would have been the same: you are too fat.  It is has never been-and it appears it never will be- easy to get a heavy pre-teen or teenage girl to slim down with her self-esteem intact, whether or not it is disguised as health living.

I was lucky.  As a teenager I had a father who could look at me—even at my heaviest, and say,  “You are so beautiful.”  And I think he meant it (or at least he faked it really well.)  And perhaps, in the end, that is the key, because fat or skinny, if you feel beautiful, you will look beautiful.  There is no doubt about that.

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