Genetics, Body Positivity, and Raising a “Princess”
Ah, genetics. A sore subject for me. But before I get to my own sad state of affairs, let me tell you about my dear friend Gary. Gary has red hair. He is 6 feet 6 inches tall. He wears a size 18 shoe. His wrist is not much smaller than my calf. Gary is a colossus, like NFL-offensive-lineman huge: wide shoulders, giant hands, a cannon for a chest. Gary doesn’t wear hats, he told me, because so few can accommodate his head. Poor guy, to this day he loathes football, probably because he spent his entire youth dodging coaches who salivated at the sight of his oversized frame.
I got to know Gary in college. He grew up on the west side of Mobile, Alabama, a port city about half an hour from Fairhope, the coastal town where I attended high school. On occasion, I’d carpool with him during the holidays, and on one such trip I met his parents. Gary’s dad greeted us at the door. I could kind of see the resemblance in his face, but otherwise, they looked nothing alike. He was maybe 5’ 8. His hair wasn’t red but instead a blondish gray. While he was stocky, with thick legs and arms, there was no other discernible evidence he’d produce a kid who’d grow to Gary’s size.
I remember standing in the living room, focused on keeping my mouth from dropping open while thinking, “My god, his mom must be enormous.” She wasn’t. Perhaps an inch taller than her husband, Gary’s mom was thin and elegant and reminded me of Audrey Hepburn. Her hair was brown—not red—like the actress, as well. Queue music from The Twilight Zone, because apparently, I’d entered it.
Back in college, Gary weighed a solid 305 lbs., and this was before he put on extra weight. I half-wondered if I’d been the target of a bizarre and elaborate practical joke. We visited for a few minutes with his parents and then returned to the car, since my mom was expecting me. Following an awkward silence, I turned to Gary: “Were you adopted?” Laughing, he assured me that he wasn’t, even when I asked a second time. He said he understood why I’d ask though. *Beat* I ask, “Seriously, do you have a tall uncle or something?”
Gary contemplated a minute, then shared that he thinks he has a cousin on his father’s side who might be over six feet, but he’s never met him, so he can’t say for sure. I continue my line of questioning, “Any redheads?” Still laughing, Gary just says, “Nope. I have no explanation. Maybe Mom and the mailman got it on. No idea.” And there you have it, the mystery of genetics. The biological children of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are breathtaking specimens and exactly what you’d expect. But I’m not convinced Prince Harry is related to either Charles or Diana, since he doesn’t favor either one.
My %*@% Genetics
In my case, the genetic traits passed from Mom and Dad to me, and from their parents to them, and so on, are all too predictable. We are a family of short, round people. On the upside, most of the men, myself included, still have their hair. I am, admittedly, something of an outlier, at least in terms of my height. I stand a proud 5 feet 9 inches, and (if you can believe it) I’m the tallest male in my immediate family save for my dad, who is 6’ 1. My older brother is 5’ 6. My mom is 5’ 2…and shrinking.
She’s the tallest of her three sisters. Janice, her younger sister (whose alcoholism killed her a decade ago, tragically), was 4’ 10 and would bring me along for grocery shopping because she couldn’t reach some of the bags in the produce section. My mom’s dad, the youngest of nine, was 5’ 4 and developed a sizable belly, which gave him the appearance of a Far Side character.
When Nature Makes You a Bosc Pear
Despite a slight variance in height, we are, indeed, a family of round people. The children are round, as are their parents, as are their parents’ parents. Unlike my friend Gary, whom I’m convinced is the product of an albeit brief but passionate love affair (my apologies to Gary’s mom), you can rest assured that our characteristic roundness is a trait that will be passed on for generations to come.
In the nature versus nurture debate, nature wins; however, each of us to some degree, despite our biological propensity to take on the shape of a Bosc pear, can resist our fate…with a steady diet of starvation and unceasing exercise. To this day, I have friends who order a pitcher of beer with their pepperoni pizza, who don’t exercise on principle, and who nonetheless maintain a physique that, for me, would require a level of self-sacrifice that would render me so resentful and misanthropic that I’d no doubt end up friendless and alone.
The trade-off isn’t worth it. I’m aiming to just maintain a level of pear-shaped roundness that I can tolerate. This entails periodic exercise as well as curbing my impulse to gorge on a whole sleeve of Oreos.
The Disney Princess Metabolism
I did not marry Cindy because she is thin. I married her because she is hilarious and curious and lovely, and for so many other reasons, too. She’s everything I could hope for in a partner, and she also happens to be thin. Cindy, like my beer-guzzling, pizza-devouring buddies, subsists on sodium-heavy, pre-packaged foods that would make people such as myself balloon into a post-Godfather Marlon Brando.
Cindy’s superhuman metabolism no doubt correlates to her inability to cook. She’s just not cut out for cooking, since her brain moves in ten directions at once. This leads to time mismanagement and poor decision making (such as taking a shower in the midst of toasting a bagel), and it results in burning the hell out of everything. It’s good Cindy married me because I feed her and keep her alive.
But you see, now we have a little girl who turned four this past January. Girls have it so much harder than boys, and given my own genetic track record, I worry not so much for Sylvia now, but for the little girl that becomes fully socialized at school, who will eventually want her own social media accounts, and who simply exists in a world that can be petty and unfair.
Sylvia, like so many girls, will increasingly feel the pressures of conforming to unrealistic standards of beauty. She’s already image-conscious, and I find myself worrying about the impact of allowing her to watch Disney films that historically have put so much emphasis on the heroine’s appearance, not to mention the inherent vulnerability so common among them. For all of Disney’s recent efforts to revise its old-fashioned conventions—a girl, usually while in some form of captivity or enslavement, is rescued by a boy; a “happy” ending that’s defined by a love match; a girl whose value is measured in terms of her obedience to father figures—there nonetheless remains, even in more progressive Disney films like Brave or Moana, heroines that are thin and beautiful, and who in turn reflect pervasive cultural ideals.
At least Moana, who is of Polynesian descent and thus is drawn with a slightly stockier frame, deviates in shape from the Barbie-esque, waifish archetype that characterizes the vast majority of Disney’s heroines. Let us not forget Ursula either, the central villain of The Little Mermaid, a sea witch whose sinister intentions are reflected by a plus-sized body type reminiscent of Chris Farley, whose comedy often relied on self-effacing jabs about his obesity. For Sylvia’s sake, I hope she inherits Cindy’s metabolism. So far, it seems as if she has. But the real test comes later, most likely when adolescence comes along. By the time she goes to college, I think we’ll know for certain.
If My Daughter Is BOTH Princess & PEAR
To be absolutely clear, I’m a strong advocate for body positivity. If Sylvia becomes round like me, I will insist on her beauty and her worth because bodyweight has nothing to do with either. The problem, the challenge, is helping her to maintain body positivity when the universe does its best to contradict the values I hope to instill in her. On a slightly unrelated note, I think often about another friend, a colleague whose professionalism extends to the way she dresses. She’s younger than I am at 30 years of age, but she knows her stuff and is an adept educator.
She tells me stories about how some of her students—they’re always male—challenge and disrespect her, and they do so in the classroom for all to see. Understandably, this arrogant, wholly inappropriate form of male-oriented performativity frustrates and angers her. I don’t for one second believe her experiences reflect her teaching methods. As a woman, she is challenged in ways that I, as a man, am not. It’s that simple. She’s also far more physically fit than I am. She’s smart, prepared, and looks the part. And yet the pushback she receives is indicative of a much broader systemic problem.
Worries of Complicity & Fears for My Child
In a certain way, I’m complicit, or I worry that I am, and I need to rethink what I’m doing. I tend to dress casually when I teach, and it has occurred to me that I benefit from an inherent bias, one that allows for slightly unkempt-looking guys such as myself, to do my job without any fear of being undermined or humiliated. I am highly professional in my pedagogy, but I have never—not once—been met with outward, public resistance by a student.
We don’t get a say in the bodies we’re born with, and I am anxious for Sylvia, my sweet and brilliant little girl. I want her to grow up feeling empowered and confident—and if she does inherit her mom’s metabolism, it will, I hope, make at least one small aspect of her life a little easier. And if she inherits mine instead, I will do everything I can to teach her the necessary skills to love herself, no matter the obstacle that comes her way. Actually, I’ll be doing that regardless of whose metabolism she inherits.