She was sitting in the tub, a fever threatening and a belly full of upset. She'd been trying to get comfortable for an hour, multiple trips to the bathroom to vomit proving unproductive. At one point I even told her how to help herself throw up. It terrified me; with my history of a preoccupation with weight, it felt like handing a match to a child. She looked horrified, so I'd suggested the bath. We were quiet, nothing but the soft sound of the bubbles settling, until she spoke. "Mom, do you remember the girl I went to preschool with who goes to my school now?"
"Did she have long, brown hair? Her mom works at the school?" She looked uncertain.
"She was bigger than some of the other kids, right?" She nodded, "Yeah, that's her." She focused her eyes on the trail of her finger snaking through the bubbles. "Mom? I know her weight."
She waited. I couldn't read her face.
"What do you mean you know her weight?" I asked.
"Well, once on an inside recess day we were pretending to be in the hospital. I tried to carry her and kind of made a sound. She laughed and told me that she was heavy. She told me she weighed one..." she paused.
My mind ran through the competitiveness Ave and her sisters have -- who is tallest, who is fastest, who wears the biggest shoe. They've never lingered on weight. I've painstakingly avoided anyone discussing that because Ave, with her athletic build and extraordinary height, has always outweighed her sister. From the time Avery could sit up people asked if they were twins. I wonder now if I've made a horrible mistake.
"Yes, she weighs one hundred and sixteen pounds." She was watching my face waiting for something.
"Well, that is bigger than any of you, isn't it?" She nodded. "I've told you not to lift people, right?" More nodding. "Listen, here's the thing, you are very strong. That's great. People are all different shapes and weights, that's good too. I want you to try and promise me something. As you get older, I want you to try not to let numbers make you upset, OK? Because here's the thing, I have always, always weighed more than people thought." Her head snapped my way.
"It's true, at the doctor's office or at school when I'd have to be weighed, no matter what they said, I was almost always 10, 15 or even 20 pounds heavier. Someone who looks skinny might weigh more; someone who looks big might weigh less. It really doesn't matter. Kids used to tease me about my feet."
"Your feet?" she asked dubiously.
"Yes, my feet. I had the biggest feet of any girls in my class starting in like fourth grade. Kids will tease about anything. How can you get upset about your feet, right? I did and it was silly. I love my feet!"
She took a deep breath and said, "Can you get me the fish container so I can make a boat?" I passed her the container.
What the hell am I going to do? I thought. Just this summer we were in Cape Cod and despite these nine years of trying to watch my tongue, I slipped. My mom said she wanted to take a picture of us near a sand castle we'd built. I started to lean over and felt my stomach make a roll. "Oh, not now, I don't want my stomach in the picture." My stomach is flat, yet I still have this compulsion to think that it isn't flat enough. It was out of my mouth before I knew what I was saying.
"It's OK mom, I'll sit in front of you." This picture will forever remind me of the unnecessary shame that I blasted in front of all three girls. The cycle is so ferocious that even as I type this, I am upset that it happened AND I am holding in my stomach.
How do I avoid the deep ruts of my self-loathing as I raise these girls? My post-baby body is stronger and more slender than it was pre-babies, but my appetite for perfection won't rest. Rationally I know that we are ever changing, numbers on a scale, the fit of a waistband; they ebb and flow, nearly always related to our actions, meaning none of it is forever. The feeling of hopelessness that can engulf isn't real; there is hope.
I am tender with others, protective of my girls, endlessly optimistic, but the self-hate nips and every so often I do think it swells out of my control.
I don't want gorgeous for my daughters, I want radiant.
If they inherit my hands and feet, I don't want them to also get my instinct to apologize for being what/who/how I am.
All of a sudden, with a 6-year-old who calls her parka "chubby," because "saying it's a fat coat would be mean," and a 7-year-old who was scandalized by a classmate's weight, and a 9-year-old who seems indifferent to food, I realize that their health and self-image may have very little to do with my attempts at constructing a non-judgmental environment. The secret may be taking a deep breath and purging for good the idea that on any day the tautness of my stomach or the line of my jaw make me any more or less amazing as a human being.