Loco Parentis: Living Large

Why do boys get to be as big as they want?

My son, Jake, has finished supper. He carries his plate to the sink, gets a bowl from the cupboard, finds the ice-cream scoop in the silverware drawer, and takes a brand-new half-gallon of Rocky Road from the freezer. Humming to himself, he pries open the lid, applies the scoop, and drops a huge mound of ice cream in his bowl. He repeats the process once, then twice. Then he returns the ice cream to the freezer, opens the fridge, gets out a canister of whipped cream, and squirts hefty snowcaps onto his Rocky Road mountain range.

He sees me looking. “What?” he demands.

“Nothing,” I say, but he hears the disapproval.

“Is it too much?”

“A serving’s half a cup.”

“Do you want me to put some back?”

“You can’t put it back now. It’s covered in whipped cream.”

“Why don’t I just throw it out?” he says fiercely, moving toward the trash. But he stops before he dumps it in. He knows this dance.

“Never mind,” I say. “Go ahead and eat it. But next time, remember: half a cup.”

“Right,” he says, and heads out into the living room, to his computer desk. He’s humming again.

Food makes my son happy, on what seems to be a cellular level. Tacos, spaghetti and meatballs, stuffed peppers — these are his favorite things. Macaroni and cheese is his Xanax, General Tso’s chicken his ecstasy. On the downside …

“Is that eggplant?” he’ll demand, staring into the wok as I stir-fry veggies.

“A small eggplant. A tiny eggplant. And the pieces are big, so you can pick them out.”

“I hate eggplant.” He’s in a funk for the rest of the night. And I can’t say I blame him. When it comes to food, my son takes after me. Our tastes are simple. But our appetites are vast.

AN HORS D’OEUVRE: I had normal-size parents, and my three siblings are normal-size. Me, I’m plus. Except for a few brief stretches like the run-up to my wedding, I always have been. This was a source of great consternation to my mom and dad, who shamed, cajoled and bribed me well into adulthood to lose weight. I swore to myself that when I had kids, I’d never, ever say anything to them about their size. I didn’t want food to be a battleground. I wanted it to be sustenance.

And this was fairly easy, in the beginning. After all, with babies, you want them to eat. To a new parent, size equals strength. Infants need cushioning, in case your suburb’s struck by cholera or plague. But by the time Jake’s older sister Marcy got to middle school, I was starting to worry. She was big like me; there wasn’t any denying it. Fortunately — unfortunately — society was on her like a leech to get skinny, so I didn’t have to say a word. By 10th grade, she was Kate Moss-thin. I was impressed by her self-control — until her hair began to fall out in clumps. With the help of a therapist, she conquered her eating disorder. But now I was totally confused on what messages to send my kids about food. Of course I wanted Marcy healthy — but damn, she sure had looked good when she was thin. Except for the hair.

And then Jake got big.

JAKE GOT BIG like a beanstalk, like a fairy-tale mushroom, big like Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Jake got big overnight, went from boy to man in a twinkling, so quickly that I really thought if I sat by his bed, I could see him grow. His feet and hands turned massive. His forearms became immense. He hit his head on the ceiling pipes every time he went down to the basement.

And he didn’t show any signs of stopping. One year, he hit the 200-pound hash mark on the doctor’s scale; was it the very next visit he was 250? He loomed larger than life, took up entire rooms, was Brobdingnagian. I took care to make our already-pretty-healthy fridge and cabinets even more spartan. But Jake found sustenance somewhere, and continued to grow. And it’s not like he was sedentary. He was playing soccer, was in the high-school marching band, threw shot put and javelin for the track team.

His school’s new football coach spotted him lifting in the gym and seduced him away from soccer. “I’m going to be a lineman,” Jake told me.

“What does a lineman do?”

“Pushes people out of the way.”

At his first game, I opened the program I’d bought and almost fainted. It listed every player’s height and weight. If Marcy’s hockey or lacrosse teams had listed players’ weights, they’d never have fielded a full contingent. Jake, I was horrified to see, was bigger than any other kid on his team. But then …

“See his calves?” a mom sitting near me said happily to another mom, pointing to her son on the sideline. “He’s got those good, thick calves.” I looked. Her son’s calves were nothing compared to Jake’s.

I felt a frisson of … could it be pride? Pride in bigness, in size? The concept was as unnatural as showing off one’s serial-killer son. Fat is bad. Poundage is poison. Girth is a source of shame. My thick calves had meant buying jeans in the Chubby Girls section at Sears when I was growing up, and never once being able to fit into a cute pair of boots.

But things were different for Jake, now that his massiveness had been deemed acceptable — nay, advantageous. To his football buddies, size still meant strength. The team booster club even fed them, stoked them with pizza and hoagies before away games, served breakfast — at seven a.m.! — to prep them for the big Thanksgiving Day rivalry. These boys were like foie gras geese. They celebrated wins with half-price appetizer nights at Applebee’s. They mourned losses the same way.

“Doesn’t Coach ever worry that you guys are eating too much?” I asked.

Jake gave me a withering look. “When you work as hard as we do, you have to stoke the engine.” Food as fuel: It was the connection I’d always wanted my kids to make. But sometimes I suspected Jake took up football just for the excuse it gave him to cram in calories.

It could be I was jealous, though.

WHEN I LOOK at my son, at his huge head and enormous arms, I can’t help wondering: If he quits football, what will happen to all that him? To his neck, which has acquired those signature lineman ripples? To his broad barrel chest? I ask my husband Doug, who’s built like a whippet and works out like a madman.

“It will turn to fat,” he tells me.

“But it’s muscle now?”

“It’s muscle now.”

“Do you think he’s … on steroids?”

He shoots me an amused glance. “No. Do you?”

“It’s just that he got so big,” I try to explain.

“That’s what teenage boys do.”

Well, yeah. But teenage girls do, too, some of them, and get slapped down for it in a million different ways. I can still feel the mortification that consumed me when I was in eighth grade and wildly in love with Danny Taylor, and Danny Taylor told me to come around when I lost 20 pounds. Even at 13, he knew what would hurt the most.

Jake doesn’t walk the way a big girl does, with shoulders hunched and neck bent, trying to be invisible. He walks like a jock, with the side-to-side swagger that big athletes share. He doesn’t perch gingerly in unfamiliar chairs, worried they might not hold him, like I do. He doesn’t squash himself in at a table in a restaurant, terrified lest he be perceived as taking up too much room. He slams himself into seats, sprawls across sofas, drapes himself over diner booths, uses his avoirdupois to assert himself: Jake is here. I envy his ease with his size, so unlike my constant shamed self-consciousness. I wonder what it would be like to stride in his size 15 Nikes for a day.

LAST SUMMER, a few months before my dad died, Marcy and I went to visit him. As she settled in beside him on his sofa, he observed, with cruel accuracy, “You look like you’re putting on some weight.” Marcy burst into tears and ran out of the room. I wanted to run as well, from a rush of old memories: Dad tucking a slim sister on either side of me before snapping the picture for our Christmas card. Dad frowning at me at Thanksgiving dinner, scolding “Not so much pie!” in front of everyone. Dad offering to pay me a hundred bucks if I’d just lose 25 pounds … He was a kind man, a good man, but he didn’t understand about girls and size and shame. Though he did realize something was amiss, at least: On our next visit, he confided to me that he’d told a number of female friends about his remark to Marcy, and that every last one of them upbraided him for being a heartless pig. Jake happened to be along on this visit, and Dad took the opportunity to ask him: “So, what do you weigh these days?”

“Three hundred 20,” Jake said.

My dad smiled indulgently. Then he turned and asked me, “How can two kids be so different?” But it wasn’t the kids who were different: It was the way he — and everyone else — made them feel.

There are moms and dads who actually envy me because of my big son. Ask any red-blooded American boy if he’d rather be built like Jake or like Beck, and guess which he’ll say? I see those boys now and then — at the Y, at the grocery store — standing beside Jake, staring up at him in awestruck admiration, basking in his bigness, clearly hoping that they, too, will be huge someday. And it still seems strange and unnatural to me — as if Michelle Phillips longed to be Mama Cass.

It makes Marcy furious. She watches her brother go for thirds on spaghetti with her mouth set tight: “Aren’t you going to say something to him?” I understand her rage. Where’s the celebration of size and strength in women? Marcy’s powerful, too; she goes to the gym every single day. She works like a dog to keep her weight in check, while Jake gets a free pass to chow down. I’m sorry for her. I’ve stood in her sneakers all my life. But I’m also weirdly fascinated by Jake’s size, and by the world’s reaction to it. Marcy gave him a DICKLENBURG COLLEGE hoodie for Christmas, and he loves to wear it, because strangers ask him: “Do you play football for Dicklenburg?” They assume the best of him — Hardworking athlete! — and not the worst: Out-of-control pig! And a little of that fairy dust sprinkles down in a wider circle. He didn’t get those calves from Doug, dammit. He got them from me.

WHEN I WAS a kid and my family spent two weeks of every summer in Wildwood, there was a guy on the Boardwalk who would guess your weight for a quarter. He had a scale, and after he guessed, you stepped onto it. If he was within 10 pounds, you lost. But if he was more than 10 pounds off, you won a stuffed-animal prize. Not long ago, I reminisced to Marcy about the guess-your-weight man, and she recoiled in horror: “You got weighed in public? In front of everyone?”

The funny thing is, I loved the guess-your-weight man. Every summer, I couldn’t wait to hand him my quarter. Because the guess-your-weight man always, always guessed that I weighed less than I did. Whether the guy was just lousy at his job or felt pity for a miserable fat girl, I’ll never know. But when the scale rang up 12 or 15 pounds more than his guess, just for that moment, I was proud of my size.

Football is Jake’s guess-your-weight man. For now, he’s delighted with his listing in the program — biggest on the team! He pays in suicide runs and bench-lifts and bruising tackles for this respite from a fat-loathing world. Who knows how long it will last? Through college, if he’s lucky. More than two minutes on the Wildwood Boardwalk, at least. Thirty, 40 years from now, he’ll be able to look back on a time when his massiveness was a plus, a blessing, cause for celebration. It’s something Marcy never will be able to do.

I hope she has sons someday. I hope they’re big, too. I hope she gets the chance to revel in what otherwise has been a curse for her. It doesn’t make up for society’s scorn, not completely. But it’s oddly, beautifully empowering, just the same.