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The problem started, for me, in fifth grade.

There was a class field trip to a swimming pool. The night before the field trip, my parents said something like this to me:

We've noticed that your belly is getting kind of fat, and we're a little concerned.

I don't remember ever having noticed until then that I had a pot belly. But the two most important authority figures in my life (and I've always been deferential to authority) were telling me that my belly was fat, and that it was a problem.

The next day at the field trip, I didn't want to take off my shirt to go swimming. I said something about being fat, and two of my (male) friends laughed at me and said I wasn't fat. But that didn't help.

And from that day to this, O best beloved, I have been embarrassed to take my shirt off in front of other people. I wouldn't play “shirts vs skins” in soccer; I don't like locker rooms; I get tense about taking my shirt off at the beach or at a swimming pool. When Kam and I were in Hawaiʻi a few months back, I had to point out to myself repeatedly that there were lots of men with big bellies walking around shirtless and apparently entirely unselfconscious, and that nobody was looking at me. I was still tense, and still mostly kept my shirt on. I suck in my belly whenever anything is calling attention to my body. I'm one of those people who think Fat Acceptance is great but has a hard time applying the idea to myself.

But do you want to know what's funny about the origin of my anxiety about this stuff?

My father had a pot belly. His three brothers had pot bellies. Various other men in our family did as well. Some don't, but many of us do. It's a family trait. And my father should have known that.

He once told me that his approach to staying thin was to, as he put it, “tense myself skinny,” basically tightening and relaxing his abdominal muscles. So I'm not sure at what point he started having a pot belly. But I suspect it was before that fifth-grade conversation; he would've been about forty at that time.

Of course, it doesn't really matter that it's a family thing; even if I were the only one in my family with a pot belly, I wouldn't approve of their having pointed it out that way.

Anyway. I know I've had it really easy. I think that was the only time my parents brought it up, and nobody else ever called me fat (except for a couple of doctors who've told me I was borderline-overweight, going by BMI); all the fatphobia I've had to deal with has been the internalized kind. (Well, and the ubiquitous kind that suffuses our culture. But none of it's been directed specifically at me.) In almost all contexts, I get the benefit of thin-person privilege. My parents said one small thing, and I (as is my wont) put way too much emphasis on it. I'm sure that they didn't expect that thirty-five years later, I would still be tense about it. But I have an unfortunate habit of taking criticisms too much to heart.

But all of this is, of course, ridiculously minor compared to what many other people have to deal with.

Body image is complicated and messy and difficult.

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Good for you for talking about it. That's the best approach I know to (slowly) shutting down the internal monologue and being okay with your pot belly, or whatever.

Also, WTF were your parents thinking?

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