“Mommy, what does ‘fat’ mean?”

I was walking up the stairs — embarrassingly out of breath — carrying my son, when my daughter shouted the pensive question from the bottom of the stairs.

“What?!” I asked, taken aback. We had just gotten done playing legos, jumping on a trampoline, playing house and generally destroying the play room. Where did this come from? We don’t even use the words fat and skinny around her, so this question felt deep left field.

“What does FAT mean?” She repeated. “And, Mommy … am I fat?”

I had just arrived at the top of the stairs, and suddenly felt like I was going to fall back and topple right back on down them. I couldn’t believe the innocent, searching words I was just served up by my 5-year-old daughter, and knew I needed to catch my breath and focus.

“Don’t be an idiot, Tracy,” one side of my brain said. “Don’t make this a big deal or an after-school special, she’s only 5. Just breeze past it.” But the other side of my brain, the brain that is always looking for those pure gold teaching moments said, “Take your time with this one. Talk it through.”

For many mothers or even fathers, this type of conversation might not cause any triggers at all. Perhaps they’ve always had healthy role models, never saw food as the enemy, have always exercised in moderation for health benefits only, and maybe even have the metabolism of the likes of Jesus. (If this is you, I hope you’re eating a deep personal pan pepperoni pizza RIGHT NOW). Whatever the case, body image, eating, or self confidence have never really been a hang-up to them. And then there are some people that have visited the other camp. The camp that has, in fact, experienced some sort of distorted idea of themselves and perhaps tried to compensate for it via eating, not eating, exercising, and/or everything in-between.

I’m a woman that has visited that other camp.

I had just graduated college in Southern California, and I was living in Los Angeles at the time. All around me eating disorders ran rampant. So rampant, in fact, I didn’t even notice when it was happening around me anymore. It was said that one in three women at my college had some shape or form of a disorder, and I had just grown eerily accustomed to it. Whenever I heard about an eating disorder, I just didn’t understand it at all and went back to eating my waffle. (I know, I was super compassionate back then.)

Then, I remember the exact moment I, myself, started thinking about calories and as it related to my self-confidence. I was sitting at an amazing Mexican food joint in West Hollywood, and all our orders came out at the same time. I looked across the table, and all of my girlfriends had ordered salads; dressing on the side, no cheese, hold the tortilla strips. Basically, you know, prison food. I looked down at my plate, and there sat the most beautiful, giant enchilada topped with a dazzling layer of cheese, smothered in some sort of enchanting hot cream sauce with a side of glorious rice. Basically, you know, heaven. I picked up my fork to dive in, and out of nowhere, I was suddenly self-conscious. I felt guilty, even. And, in that moment, I allowed a sneaky lie from hell to creep into my soul and firmly plant itself: “You’re not beautiful if you eat that,” it whispered. And I listened. I scraped the cream and cheese off, peeled back the tortilla, and sadly ate just the chicken. And that’s how it all began. I still think about the tragedy of wasting that beautiful enchilada to this day.

After that moment, I found myself planning what I was going to eat days beforehand, scouring menus before I went to a restaurant. Always counting calories. Working out at all hours of the day. It became a sort of game, until, of course, it wasn’t anymore. After a while, I began avoiding places where I didn’t have control over what was going to be served. I had “safe foods” and “safe restaurants,” where I would order the same thing over and over. The “game” of counting calories and burning them off began to consume my life. At one point I looked in the mirror and couldn’t remember a time where I wasn’t thinking about calories, exercising, and the number on the scale. It was owning me. Food became my enemy, and I could barely recognize myself.

Long story short, for more reasons than one, I had to get out of L.A. So, I did what everyone should do in their 20s: I moved to Colorado. It was there that I began to find healing from my very unhealthy thought patterns and habits. In Colorado, I found myself surrounded by healthy people with healthy habits. Everyone I met there ate carbs?! We hiked, skied, biked, ran, and laughed, not to hastily, erratically burn calories, but for fun?! I did some counseling. I played in the healing shadow of the mountains. I prayed a lot. I admitted my struggle to a few close friends and family, and one day, months and months later, I noticed my thoughts were clear. I found joy in eating healthy, nutrient rich foods and also found joy in eating tacos and donuts. I found a beautiful balance. I couldn’t believe it — I was completely free — and it was only then did I really realize the true weight of the bondage I had been carrying.

Fast forward almost 10 years later, and there I was staring my beautiful 5-year-old daughter in the face as she asks me the meaning of “fat.” I am so thankful, because I know I’m prepared for this moment. I’m ready to tell her what “fat” means, but as I opened my mouth to talk, she interrupts me.

“Mommy, like, P-H, phat! That phat? Like what Lady Glitter Sparkles calls King Gristle in the movie Trolls?”

I laughed and quickly told her that “P-H, phat” means “super groovy” or “super cool.” (Obviously, I am so HIP. Also, when did I turn 70-years-old with this vernacular?). She gave me a weird look and said, “Ohhhhh, PHAT!” And off she ran …

“But wait! There is another kind of faaaaa …” I trailed off as she disappeared.

Dangit! I was so ready. I was ready to tell her how perfect her body is; how God created her legs to run and jump and explore, how He created her mouth to speak and sing beautiful love into the world, how her arms are the perfect shape and size to give great big bear hugs, how the food she eats fuels her body to go change the world around her. I was so ready to tell her all of it. But, I smiled as I realized … there’s so much time to tell her; so much time to show her.

So, I guess I’m off the hook … for now. I guess I’ll just save my after school special for another day, or I guess, for this column.

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