Has anyone in your family ever made you feel terrible about how you look? Has a family member ever made it clear that they thought you were so fat that they refused to be in a photograph with you?
You heard, perhaps, reports that President Donald Trump prefers to be photographed with the daughter he considers desirable, Ivanka, but does not like to be in pictures with the daughter he considers overweight, Tiffany. Such things happen in the best, and the worst, of families.
I grew up in a family where my 31 female first cousins and I were routinely compared to each other on the basis of who was cute, who was dumpy, who had good legs, who had high cheekbones and who had the most impressive figure. But even we wouldn’t go so far as to tell one anyone to step aside when a camera appeared. We elbowed each other to get into the frame, turned sideways to look as skinny as possible, put our chins up and smiled.
True, when the pictures were developed weeks later, invidious comparisons were made: “Who told Bea she could get away with capris?” “Is Josie pregnant? She looks pregnant,” and the inevitable “She has such a pretty face — too bad about her weight.”
Family members disrespecting one another’s looks has always been a staple of kitchen conversations. Only recently has it been recognized as body-shaming and recognized as the cause of lasting emotional and physical harm.
It happens to boys and men, too. Boys can be ridiculed for being too skinny as well as too heavy, for not taking up enough room in the world instead of taking too much. Yet women’s bodies remain more objectified in our culture and are a more common topic of public discussion.
Within the last decade or so, studies published by the American Psychological Association and elsewhere have shown that when you torment somebody about their looks, it doesn’t help them look better. Big shock.
Every potato chip I ever eaten has added another chip to my shoulder. They’re a lot heavier to carry around than the pounds, somehow.
Even when I thought my family’s comments couldn’t bother me any more, they found ways to hit their target. When I was in my early 30s and appeared on CNN, Oprah, 20/20 and Entertainment Tonight, my loved ones didn’t say, “Good job!” My loved ones said, “The camera adds more than 20 pounds.” One detail-oriented aunt said “Not for nothing, but don’t wear red. You look like an ad for Red Lobster.”
Compared to some other families, however, mine was supportive.
“My maternal grandmother hated fat girls, and she had three fat granddaughters,” explains my friend Christina Smith. “At first I didn’t understand why she looked at me with distaste. As my brother’s flower girl when I was 10 years old, I was I told that I ‘ruined the wedding pictures.’ Grandmother sent me beautiful dresses from the best stores but they were always several sizes too small; they were for the girl she wished me to be. She’s been gone since the 1970s and I’m 62, but I feel her coldness as acutely now as I did then.”
Leslie Jacobs’ story echoes Christina’s: “My father died when was 16, and my mother was determined that I would get thin, because her goal was for me get married and give her grandchildren. What I wanted wasn’t important to her, but my weight sure was. Mom was a travel agent but wouldn’t travel with me, not even to family events to which I was invited, until I was thin, which never happened. Never. Her disappointment with how I looked never abated. She passed away and it still haunts me.”
“When a parent judges you for your appearance,” argues Mary-Ellen Bucko, “you carry that judgment for the rest of your life,” adding with hard-won wisdom: “The good news is that the weight of their assessment can lighten as you get older.”
What would you think about a father who held one of his grown daughter’s looks in such contempt that he’d refuse to appear in a picture with her? Would it matter if the father was not exactly a fitness fanatic himself, or would that irony not figure into the emotional calculation?
Would it matter if the father was the president?
Gina Barreca is an author and professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com