What Third-World Children Taught Me About Body Positivity

My 11-year old daughter flopped down on the couch, frowning, eyes downcast. I was reading (see also: how to avoid household chores) so I nudged her with my elbow.

“What’s up, shorty?”

She was wearing running shorts, having just completed a 3-mile run with her older brother. My girl was a born athlete, lean and lithe. Still, she jabbed her lean little thigh and groaned.

“I’m fat. Look at my fat move!” She jabbed her thigh again.

“Of course it moves,” I said. “It’s flesh, not bark.”

She was visibly distraught, however, and young girls—or perhaps all girls—are incapable of distinguishing the nuances of the word “fat.” Fat is what our brains are made of. Fat keeps us alive and gives us that bewitching wiggle when we walk. Fat even makes salads worth eating. But I understand that fat can leave some of us distraught. The good news is that as we get older, it shifts in the dead of night to places we can’t see, like the back of our arms.

However, I needed to put an immediate stop to this ridiculous cycle of declaring your body to be your mortal enemy. It was time for a truth bomb. Or a story.

Frankly, I’m better at stories.

“Have I ever told the story of the time my butt joined the pantheon of minor gods in a faraway country?”

She wiped her nose, dabbed her eyes and sat up a little straighter. “What?”

Nestling my book against my built-in bookshelf, also known as a tummy roll, because who needs Ikea once Mother Nature realizes you’re over forty?, I began the absolutely true tale.

“Long, long ago, your mother traveled to a distant land to teach English in a small village. 26 hours by plane, two hours by jeep, and a long walk through rice fields and roadside temples. The people there had rarely seen a white woman, let alone one with flaming red hair and a Dallas Cowboys jersey. Their religion was unknown to me and we barely shared two words in a common language.

Nonetheless, I was led to a tiny hut where a class of kindergarten-aged children sat cross-legged, anxiously awaiting their new teacher’s arrival. The windows of the class were holes cut into the walls, and the teacher’s lounge consisted of a closet with a sink, a toilet and a giant lizard who made his home in the bowl.

I began the lesson plan, working on counting and a few simple words. If these kids learned English as a second language, they’d have a chance to escape poverty by finding work at one of the many resort hotels along the beaches of the area. English lessons were a big deal.

And, apparently, so was my rump.

When it was time to line up and walk to another hut for lunch, the children whispered to each other behind cupped hands, their little eyes casting furtive glances between their friends and me. Something was amiss.

Suddenly one boy was pushed to the head of the line. I’m not sure if he won or lost the argument.

I turned to lead them and felt a finger push in at the center of my rump-cheek. Whipping around, I caught this boy, index finger extended, obviously having just poked me in the rear.

His eyes were wide as he looked at his finger in disbelief.

The entire class was silent, spellbound by the experiment.

Surely it was a prank. I scowled at the boy and turned back around…and then he used his finger to push in at dead center of that cheek, again.

I turned back around, angry now to be the object of the joke, and then I realized: They weren’t making fun of my rump.

They were in awe of it.

They’d never seen a rump so…plentiful, we’ll say, a cornucopia of Western abundance, as if the gods were sending a message to the people of the humble village: Nothing was impossible for the dreamers among them.

In fact, I believe my rear end came close to being deified while there. The children would dance in their seats as they drew pictures of it. Their little faces lit up whenever one of them had a chance to stand next to me, or it, I should say.

In that culture, they knew the truth: fat is not a four-letter word. Sometimes it is an impressive achievement. And truly, to them, my rump was an omen of good fortune, like the birth of a white bull.

After I left, I wondered what the teachers in the future would think, seeing drawings of enormous fluffy rumps and rays of light streaming from all sides. Future generations would hear the legend of the American Rump of Splendor, the White Moon of the West that eclipsed the sun.

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing, I told my daughter. Maybe the one thing we’d change about ourselves becomes the set piece in a really good story, the one thing that makes us beloved to someone else.

Or a whole village.

So, don’t write the narrative for your body, not just yet. Someone else will enter the story who has a completely different version.

“And you know what?” I asked my daughter. “I like their story so much better.”