After six years of parenting two "spirited" children, there's not much that they can say or do that surprises me. But when my first grader came home from a normal day at school and told me she had a "big belly" compared to the other kids, I admit, I was taken aback . . . and immediately pissed at whatever jerky kid had called out her perfectly adorable midregion.
"Your belly is perfect," I told her, probably a little more aggressively than I needed to, a lifetime of my own body issues boiling over. "Your whole body is perfect because it's strong, and it helps you run fast and swing from the monkey bars and play with your friends. Who told you any different?"
She wouldn't name her body shamer, probably because she could sense that I could potentially be making a stern phone call to his or her parents. Five minutes later, she had moved on and engaged her 3-year-old brother in an intense game that involved her bossing him around, per usual. Not wanting to make a bigger deal out of her comment, I let it go, but it has continued to bother me ever since.
Of course, I'm sad that my 6-year-old is already having to deal with body issues at such a young age. I know they're only going to get worse. She's inherited my sturdy, athletic frame; she'll never be that girl who eats whatever she wants and stays naturally thin. She will undoubtedly have someone, probably a man or a mean girl, call her fat at least once in her life.
And, regardless of the girl-power messages I've given her since she was born and her inherently high levels of self-esteem (she recently got angry with me because I wouldn't admit she was the smartest person in our family), it will hurt, and even more devastatingly, a tiny piece of her will agree with that jerk.
I understand that she's at an age where she's becoming more aware of her body and how it's similar to and different from the bodies of her friends and classmates. It's a natural part of growing up. But as her mother, I also want to keep her in her little-girl bubble for as long as possible, where everyone is kind and nice and she isn't worrying about whether her t-shirt might show her belly during gym class.
I decided to sit her down again to have a bigger, still age-appropriate discussion about body issues. "Honey, what you said the other day made me sad because I want you to always know how beautiful and perfect I think every part of you is," I told her. "We all only get one body, and we need to love it and take care of it by eating good foods and exercising and stretching and giving it cuddles. Every girl is given a different shaped body, and none of those shapes are better or worse than others, no matter what anyone says. Do you understand that?"
"Yes, mom," she replied. "And my body is very strong and healthy, and that's the most important thing." I told her I agreed, wishing that she'd feel that way for the rest of her life, knowing that it's never that simple.