Fatso, Big Head and Other Names My Parents Called Me

It was a miracle I didn’t have body image issues growing up

Black mother talking to her daughter outside.
Photo: digitalskillet/Getty Images

I’ve called my son “Big Head” twice in public. The first time was at his pediatrician’s office while he was being examined. His pediatrician looked at me horrified. I was outwardly embarrassed, but slightly amused internally. The second time was with a friend and her child, and she had the same reaction as the pediatrician.

Both times I said “Big Head” affectionately. It’s a term of endearment used in my family and, to us, has the same connotation as dear or honey. My parents called my siblings and me, and now, their grandchildren, “Big Head.” I refer to my nieces and nephew as “Big Head.” My family says the name so often and so generically that one day when I asked, “Where’s Big Head?” my sister replied, “Which one?” in reference to her kids.

We both chuckled.

No one has an abnormally large head, nor does anyone remember who crowned the moniker, but it has become generationally accepted. Other names, however, were hurtful.

As a child, I was cherubic. Chunky. Rotund. It didn’t help that my eldest brother and sister were as thin as rails despite eating the same foods– often in larger quantities. At our staunch, predominantly White Catholic school, the popular girls in my class were slim. By sixth grade, I don’t recall them eating very much, yet I ate all the food on my lunch tray and usually wanted seconds, especially when chicken sandwiches, rectangular pizza, and chocolate milk were the items du jour.

I once received a final grade of a B or B+ in physical education. My Nigerian dad was furious, saying he didn’t pay tuition for me to be a B student. The irony was that most, if not all of my other grades were As yet he focused on that B. I was a fat kid in gym so, to me, a B grade was an accomplishment.

Throughout my childhood, my dad called me Fatso Blow, which he’d abbreviate to Fatso. He used this pet name often, which made him chuckle at his ingenuity. I don’t recall being offended, at least not regularly. I have a sliver of a memory suggesting I was miffed, but may have normalized it to reduce the sting. Repetition dulled the sharpness of the offense and I embedded it in the recesses of my mind, which surfaced when I became a mother.

When I was a kid, I spent much less time with my dad than I did with my mom. And while he was in the home, he was distant, partly due to time — he worked long hours. The other part was cultural — Nigerian families raised their children to be exceptionally high achievers in education, profession, and finances. Showcasing warm and fuzzy affection for a fat daughter wasn’t on the list of things he needed to do as a father or culturally.

I spent more time with my mother, who was the parent who took me shopping for new clothes. That was always a painful experience. In front of her, I hated my body. Once, during my preteen years, I tried on unflattering acid wash paper bag shorts in a junior size 13. They wouldn’t button and I asked her if we could look for shorts with an elastic waistband or a bigger size. Finding a junior size 15 was uncommon, but she queried the fitting room attendant anyway.

My mother returned to the room and sneered, saying, “You’re just too fat,” and began to complain about the challenges of finding well-fitting clothes for her chubby child. “You’re so big I’ll need to start buying clothes in adult sizes,” she continued. In my mother’s presence, fat was more than weight or size; it was a deep feeling of shame that made me always want to cover up, a subconscious decision to hide my body.

Most peculiar was that my mother wasn’t slim. Throughout my childhood, she was closer to Oprah Winfrey’s late ’80s size. As an adult, I wondered if my mother suffered from self-hate and projected her body image feelings onto me. Like my dad, she too was an immigrant, arriving in the U.S. tall and slender. Years later, photos illustrated her svelte figure in a white wedding dress, but after three children, she was thick. Ironically, the women in my family — my grandmother Selinda, great-grandmother, and cousins — were all plus-sized so my mother’s slimness pre-children was an exception. My mother had the experience of being told that she “looked like a model,” and I wondered if she wanted the same for me so I would be deemed pretty or beautiful or acceptable by a vain society.

By my early teen years, I started comfortably shopping by myself or with friends. I also began losing weight naturally and grew taller. I didn’t feel the need to fit in at school except for one day when I wanted to be accepted by the White girls and Ana Maria, the one Filipino girl who always hung out with them. Ana Maria kept a daily “nutrition” journal with lists of her daily food intake. She inspired me to diet, and at 13 years old, my attempt to cut carbs, meat, and sweets led to tuna on lettuce for lunch and skipping dinner. My diet lasted one day; getting slim fast wasn’t my thing.

I lost a lot of what my parents later called baby fat the summer before high school; over the next year or so I slimmed down to a size five, eventually weighing about 130 pounds at 5 foot 10 inches. Throughout college, I gained about five pounds, yet my eldest cousin made it a point to remind me “not to follow those White girls who don’t eat” or she would tell my mother to watch me because I was too skinny. The twist was my cousin’s comments were always during holidays like Christmas, when we gathered at two tables covered with platters of stew chicken, ham, turkey, curried goat, mac and cheese, peas and rice, yams, potato salad, plantains, rum cake, and so much more.

Food was love and it was presented in abundance. Instead of cutting my cousin off, my mother redirected the conversation to how fat I used to be. Her words still hurt. My father, on the other hand, opened his arms wide to exaggerate my girth. He looked at me, laughed heartily, and then beckoned me in his arms for a hug like it was an inside joke we both delighted in.

I still found his comments annoying.

The differences in my parents’ delivery may have affected how I processed their name-calling. My father’s laughter diminished the bite and was always said at home whereas my mother openly belittled me, sometimes in public. I felt like I embarrassed her.

As I reflect on my childhood, my parents’ description of my body and the name-calling could be described as problematic, body shaming, and/or verbally abusive. Perhaps I normalized their negativity. It was a miracle I didn’t have body image issues and to date, I have a never-ending appreciation for liberal eating at all times.

When I asked my dad about calling me “Big Head” he immediately started laughing heartily, saying it was a joke. He stopped momentarily when I queried him about the name Fatso. “You gained a lot of weight,” my dad started. “Only I can say that, no one else.” He again reiterated that it was a joke and “not serious” then resumed laughing. My mother’s response was the opposite. I hesitantly asked her about calling me fat and she said she had no recollection of that. She admitted that I was “thick as a child” then added: “Only you remember old things like that.”

I spoke to my sister about our mother’s response. My sister said she vaguely recalled our mother calling me fat but remembered hearing Mom conversationally tell other people about my childhood weight over the years. My sister’s recollection was a salve to my mother’s forgetfulness, unintentional or intentional.

Observing other folks’ reactions to me calling my son “Big Head” made me think back on Fatso and the other nicknames my parents gave me. During my pregnancy, my partner and I had a long conversation in which we agreed to never use derogatory and unflattering names with our son, who would have enough to contend with as a Black boy in America. The last thing we wanted to do was reinforce negativity or the fetishization society places on Black bodies.

Despite our best intentions, we fell into the habit of calling our son “Big Head.” My partner and I talked about this again and recommitted to ceasing with the silly, little, benign-to-us name but one that could make him feel hurt and shame in the future. “Big Head” has been replaced by “Beautiful Boy,” the name my father calls my son.

Essayist + lifestyle writer. Bylines in Thrillist, Catapult, Essence, The Globe and Mail, Atlanta Journal-Constitution + more. Literary agents, holler.

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