Rebecca walks into your office distraught and despondent.
You’ve seen a lot of sad faces as a high school guidance counselor, but even by teenage standards Rebecca looks particularly hopeless. Not wasting any time you pull out a chair, pour her a glass of water, and push a box of tissues her way.
“Thanks,” she sniffles.
“It looks like you’re having a hard day, Rebecca.” You try to sound concerned (which you are) without seeming alarmed (which you might be). “What’s the matter?”
“Well, I’m not sure I want to talk about it.”
“It’s okay. Go ahead. I’m here to help if I can. But I’ll start by just listening.”
“Okay. The thing is, I hate the way I look. I hate my clothes. I hate my body. I hate myself.”
That doesn’t sound good, you think to yourself. “I’m really sorry to hear that, Rebecca. What else can you tell me?”
“Not much really. It’s just that I’m horribly fat. I’ve always felt fat, ever since I was five years old. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t wish for a different body. I’m fat and I’m ugly.”
“But Rebecca,” you start to interrupt, only to have her interrupt right back.
“I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say I’m fine the way I am. Or you are going to tell me I’m too thin. Or that I’m beautiful. Or some other garbage line. I’ve heard them before. Nothing will change how I feel. I’m fat. That’s why I have to wear these baggy clothes. That’s why I hardly eat anymore. That’s why whenever I do eat I find a bathroom and puke up whatever I just ate. You don’t understand. No one understands. I’m fat. I’ve always been fat. Why won’t anyone let me be what I am?”
At this point there is a pause in the conversation that seems to go on for hours. It lasts only a few seconds, but in those seconds a flood of thoughts enter your mind. You think about trying to get to the bottom of Rebecca’s feelings. You think about scheduling another meeting for tomorrow so you could call her parents and ask her what they’ve been doing to help Rebecca. You think about telling Rebecca what you see with your eyes, that she’s a perfectly normal looking, sweet 15 year old girl. You think about mentioning how concerned you are that it looks like she’s gone from 125 pounds to 95 pounds since the beginning of the school year. You think about presenting the biological facts about a healthy BMI and the importance of daily nutrition. You think about how you want to make sure no one is picking on her and how you’d like her friends to help Rebecca see what she can’t seem to see. Most of all, you think about how you wish Rebecca didn’t feel this way and how you want to do everything in your power to help her understand the way things really are.”
But then another thought enters your mind.
“Rebecca, thank you for sharing. I can’t imagine how hard this has been for you. I just want you to know that I believe you.”
“What?” Rebecca isn’t sure she understands.
“I believe you. I believe everything that you’ve told me. If you tell me you’re fat, I’m not going to stand in the way of you accepting that identity. You’ve suffered too long. You’ve struggled too long. I can see how hard this is for you. But it doesn’t have to be this way. You are fat. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s who you are.”
“Well, I guess that makes sense. No one has ever told me that before. People have always tried to convince me that my body is fine the way it is, even though I desperately wish it were different.”
“I’m really sorry to hear that,” you continue. “A lot of people are prejudiced toward people who identify as overweight. That’s their problem. No one can tell you what’s right or wrong with your body. After all, it’s your body.”
“Wow, that’s not at all what I thought you would say.” Rebecca is genuinely puzzled. “So what do I do now?”
“Great question. First, I’d suggest you act in accordance with how you feel. If you feel fat, then try to eat less. Second, if you continue to feel this way, I’d talk to a doctor about bariatric surgery or some other procedure that will help you get the body you would feel good about. And finally, I’m going to talk to the school board about making some changes around here.”
“Well, for starters, I want everyone to know it’s okay if you don’t eat much for lunch. Weight is only a social construct. Fat is a feeling, not a fact. And then I want to make sure none of your classmates or teachers try to tell you you’re thin or you’re pretty or you look unwell. That would be really painful to hear.”
“Wow, that sounds really good. For the first time in a long time I feel a little better. Thank you for all these amazing suggestions. I hope more people will learn to accept me like you have.”
As Rebecca walks out the door, your first reaction is to feel a deep sense of satisfaction. She left your office feeling better than when she came. That’s what you like to see. It’s always gratifying to have helped a hurting student. And yet, there’s another thought you can’t quite shake. When you think about her rail thin body, and how desperately she needs food, and how everything must change to conform to her reality, you can’t help but wonder: was this really love?