I swear my life could be a movie of cringe-worthy moments. My family and close friends all know my long history of faux pas comments. “Remember when Jen said…” is a common phrase used at our family gatherings. I laugh along with them but inside I’m cringing because it means I have to relive those horrible, awkward moments when everyone is staring at me open-mouthed, some gasping… And I’m all, “please ground, open up and swallow me RIGHT NOW.”
If there’s one thing I want you all to know about me it’s that I’m the opposite of what some call “smooth.” I’m awkward. Consider that fair warning if you ever meet me in person.
So This Is What Happened.
Last week I did a pre and postnatal exercise talk for a group of Moms. I was SO nervous, which really brings out my awkward nature. Despite that I poured my heart out in my presentation, about quite a bit more than exercise. By the end I felt great, and thought I had done a good job of connecting with my audience.
All of the women at my presentation had babies but there was one with a toddler. When my presentation was over I started gathering up my things. She came up beside me and we started chatting. I asked her when she was due.
“I’m not pregnant,” she replied. “I’m just overweight.”
All the color drained from my face. In the TV movie of my life this is when I would take slow steps backwards before turning around and sprinting away. Preferably over a cliff. It was pretty much the biggest foot-in-mouth moment of my life.
I tried to apologize and tell her I didn’t actually think she was overweight but she brushed me off. I could feel her anger from six feet away. I couldn’t blame her.
A few minutes later she was in front of me as I was leaving the building. I reached out and touched her arm and asked, “can I talk to you privately for a moment?”
She turned around. “No,” she said. “I am VERY upset with you right now.”
I knew this was totally deserved. “That’s why I want to talk to you,” I replied. “I want to apologize. I feel awful.”
She laid into me. I knew I deserved it. When she finished I said, “I’m sorry. I hope you can see the intent behind it was to connect with you as a woman, not insult you. I made a huge mistake.”
“Yes you did,” she snapped, then stormed off with her friend.
You Can’t Really Recover From Something Like That
I stood there in front of the building watching her and her friend walk away. I felt like I was back in high school for a moment. Part of me wanted to die, the other part was in awe of this woman’s honesty (because many women aren’t able to be).
That night I laid in bed wishing she would have talked with me because there was so much I wanted to tell her.
I had broken two of my biggest rules:
1) Don’t comment on other people’s bodies, and
2) Don’t say anything that might make a person feel shame about their bodies.
It made me realize that despite embracing body-positive ideals the last two years, I am still fallible. I think when we are in uncomfortable situations we tend to resort back to what comes naturally… Which for women, is often relating to other women through our bodies. It takes a long time to reprogram that.
To be honest, my assumption that she was expecting had less to do with her body and more to do with the context of our meeting – the subject of my talk, the age of her child, and the way she was standing (yes, standing!). My assumption wasn’t totally out of context, but it was not something I should have shared. Period.
Aaaaaaand I Thought It Couldn’t Get Any Worse…
In the morning I woke up to an email from the organization that arranged my talk. It said the woman had complained about me. She had told them that I had “made comments about her weight and wouldn’t drop the subject.” The email continued with a lecture about how sensitive mothers are about their post-baby bodies and how detrimental my comments could be to another woman’s self esteem.
After reading I sat in stunned silence. I made comments about her weight? I wouldn’t drop the subject? From the emails description I sounded like a fat-shaming bully. I don’t feel like I’m a fat shaming bully. And I don’t think asking someone when they are due has any place in the “fat-shaming bully” category. I was completely deflated at that point.
Hurt people hurt people. I know this. If trying to end my professional relationship with this organization and perhaps hurting my reputation as a whole in my community is what helps this woman feel better than so be it. I think most people feel better hurting others than being vulnerable and forgiving.
I responded with my version of the situation, another apology, and this: “the comment I made had nothing to do with how I see her or any woman. She is beautiful, kind and passionate about many of the same things I am. I hope one day she is able to stop seeing this as a personal criticism but a genuine mistake.”
The Only Thing Worse Than Being Asked If You’re Pregnant When You Aren’t…
You know what’s worse than being asked if you’re pregnant when you aren’t? Being the one to ask it. I know this because I have been on both ends now. That was the last thing I wanted to tell her – “I know exactly how you feel.”
The first time I was asked I was devastated. It confirmed my biggest insecurity – that I was FAT. It made me feel like I had to defend my body. It reminded me that despite feeling like I was doing the best I could, I still wasn’t doing enough. The person who asked me was thin. I was not. I instantly hated her because she made me hate my body and myself just a little bit more.
The second time I was well into my body-loving journey and I simply replied, “I’m actually not expecting.” The woman who asked me was so horrified that I ended up consoling her!
When I was asked the second time I was at peace with myself and where my life was at. I knew I wasn’t FAT, my body just contained fat. I knew that fat wasn’t BAD and I knew I wasn’t BAD.
I also knew that her comment came from a place of kindness and a desire to shower me with joy and attention, not cruelty. I couldn’t really fault her for it. My belly did, in fact, resemble a pregnant belly. Is that such a bad thing? Not really. It is what it is, just like I have blue eyes and Caucasian skin. People might notice those things about me. If I had been pregnant I would have been thrilled that she had asked. But she was wrong, so I corrected her and we moved on. I’m sure the lesson she learned was much bigger than my own.
This Is Why People Are Confused…
It’s confusing to know what’s socially acceptable. That’s why “what women want” is the biggest mystery of mankind! ;) When I shared this story with my pre and postnatal clients, I learned that most women have been in this situation, on both sides. And we all feel differently. There are the women who don’t like being asked about their pregnancy even when they are pregnant. There are those who feel disappointed when others don’t acknowledge it. But NOBODY likes being asked if they’re pregnant when they aren’t, even if they might look it (including me!).
Bottom line: don’t comment on another woman’s body. You’re not just noticing another woman’s body, you are bringing it up in conversation. If a woman is interested in discussing her body (or pregnancy) with you, she will bring it up. This isn’t something we do to men with their bodies or weights. It’s an interesting double standard.
I’m not proud of what happened. I made a huge mistake. But it’s also shown me that we live in such a reactive society. The issue of fat-shaming has blown up. I’m starting to wonder if we’re making people more sensitive to it than they were before. I think we, as parents, need to think about the message we’re sending our children about the dreaded “f word” (fat) which I’ve written about here.
All you can do when you make a mistake like this is own it, apologize, and move on. And that’s what I’m doing.
Hopefully sharing this story can help others, on both sides of this very uncomfortable conversation. When we learn from each other we grow.
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