I was picking my daughter up from aftercare, but once again, she didn't want to leave. She was sitting at a little preschool-size table with one of her BFFs, and they were drawing pictures together. She had on leggings, a t-shirt, and a puffy zip-up vest. As I coaxed my girl to hurry up, her little friend pointed at my girl and said while laughing, "She's so fat!"
Instantly, my blood tingled. I felt my face get a little hot.
"That's not nice. We don't say that to people. She's not fat," I said sternly with a voice that indicated I meant business.
I didn't yell or say anything else, but the little friend looked at me with a face that read somewhere between, "Oh, I shouldn't have said that," and "Wait, what did I do wrong?"
Finally, she said, still laughing, "Her vest makes her look fat."
My daughter barely noticed the whole conversation and simply got up to go home as if nothing had happened, but something had happened.
How could I get so upset over some 4-year-old's remark to my child? Why did it matter? Why did it hurt? I couldn't wrap my head around why I was so injured as I drove away from her preschool until I did a little soul-searching to discover these things.
The First Insult
It was the first time another kid had insulted my child in front of me. It was the first time I wanted to protect her from someone else's supposed (but certainly unintended) cruelty. Sure, I had received tough reports from my daughter's teacher before, so I was already used to criticism about my child, but those reports seemed warranted, as my kid has acted out during my divorce process. This comment, however, was not warranted, and my mama bear instincts rose to fight . . . a 4-year-old child.
My daughter is on the petite side. The only chubby things about her are her cheeks and baby belly, which are both perfect. However, I remember full well how cruel girls could be — how cruel kids can be. My ex-husband was teased for being chubby, and I spent my whole seventh-grade year being picked on for having breasts. I wore a jacket in 90 degrees of humidity. I, a formerly well-liked and sociable girl, spent lunches sitting by myself in the cafeteria. It stunk.
When that innocent child commented on my daughter's "fatness," all I could hear were the voices of many girls from my past and potentially, many girls in my daughter's future. I know that soon enough my child will be out of preschool and in elementary school where all that drama like bullying and catty-girl behaviors really grow and thrive. A part of me wishes I could keep my daughter right where she is — independent enough but still innocent and sweet. Four might just be the perfect age.
How will my kid handle bullies and the complications of girl social networks later on in life? If I could hold her in my arms forever and shield her from all of that, I would, but I can't. I can only teach her how to survive and strive out in the real world, because one day, she won't have me to answer for her, nor will she want me to.
The Importance of Weight
My ex was teased for his weight, although when we married he was a slim guy and also happens to be attractive, but he had plenty of friends growing up. Girls, on the other hand, are shamefully evil to overweight girls, and we all know this! That BFF of my daughter's was simply poking fun at a puffy vest and not body fat, but in my mind I thought to myself briefly, "If my daughter were to be fat one day, how mean would her classmates be?"
As a tiny woman, I've never had to endure that pain or hear those words like "chubby," "fat b*tch," etc., but I have watched as other women (not me!) tear other ladies down for their weight. It makes me wish so hard that the world was not so cruel to women and our bodies. That we, as women, were not so cruel to both each other's and our own bodies. We obsess over our pregnancy weight. We obsess over losing the baby weight, and then when that's all done, we obsess about getting into goal jeans, a bathing suit, a dress for a wedding. It never ends. There is almost never a time during which women don't set a goal for their bodies. I personally never weigh myself and just go by how comfortable I am in my clothes, but it's a cold day in hell when I don't hear a female friend, co-worker, or colleague talk about some weight goal they've made. Yet I will never hear my guy friends verbally chart out their diet plans unless they've either had a health crisis, gained sympathy weight during a partner's pregnancy, or gained an enormous amount of weight. Still, you won't hear your guy friends talk about their goal jeans, their suit for a wedding . . . it just doesn't happen too often.
I hope that by the time my daughter hits puberty that the dialogue around girls' and women's bodies will be drastically different, and if it isn't, that I can teach her to love herself as is, whether big, small, or otherwise.
A Shadowy Body-Image Past
I'm not proud to admit this, but in my 20s, I battled with an eating disorder. I have been recovered for over 13 years, but I remember what it felt like to feel like a champion after fitting all too comfortably into children's clothes. Yes — it was a sick victory, but it was one of my many "goals" as a woman struggling between overexercising, anorexia, and bulimia. Yet every time I reached one of my unhealthy sick goals, it wasn't good enough. I was never perfect enough. I could sit and pull at my "fat" and find another toxic reason to torture myself and control every morsel of food and drink that touched my lips.
I spent my whole life being a small and tiny person. No one had ever told me I was fat — ever! — not even when pregnant, but it wasn't truly about weight . . . it was about control, low self-esteem, and abuse from my past.
Now, as a recovered mom of a girl, I am hypersensitive to how I portray myself and how I speak to my daughter about food and body image. Even if I am going out to dinner with friends, I eat something when she eats dinner. And if she has a snack, I have a snack. I don't comment on my thin size around her, and while I can't help but call her pretty, I like to tell her other good things about herself that have nothing to do with looks or body image. When we do talk about food, we talk about healthy choices and what foods are proteins, dairy, grains, veggies, etc., and what these different types of food groups do for our bodies. And most certainly, we have treats. At a party when the cake arrives, nine times out of 10, I'm enjoying a piece or some kind of special treat. Of course when I talk about myself and my life with her, I enjoy discussing my work, family, and friends with the hopes that she understands that at the end of the day, beauty is nice, but it doesn't make a full life. A small waist and perfect thighs don't equal happiness. Self-love does. I never ever want my daughter to go through the hell that was my disordered-eating life!
I will never forget how I felt that day when that innocent child called my daughter fat. It taught me something about myself that perhaps I didn't want to face: that weight, in some way, still matters to me and that if it matters to me, it will matter to my daughter, and I don't want that. I hope for the day when all women can walk away from the detrimental body-image dialogue we have ensnared ourselves in to find a freedom of accepting ourselves, as is.