Wrote this piece after it happened this winter when the blog was inactive. Been thinking about it, and decided I’d run it this week…
There are times when the magnitude of Ula’s words is inversely proportional to the strength with which she says them.
“Mama, I’m worried about my belly.”
Her voice is tiny, almost imperceptible. She has scrambled up to the stool at the kitchen counter across from where I’m caramelizing onions in lard and butter.
“Are you sick?” I rush around to the other side and put my hand on her forehead, doing the parental calculation of whether I can get her to a bowl or the toilet faster.
“No! It’s just….well, I know you like it, but are you sure it’s not too….round?”
“You’re beautiful!” I shout it defensively. I’m frightened by her words. Where is this coming from?
“And my butt. Is it too big?”
She’s eight, for crying out loud. And she has the kind of body that a mama can’t get enough of… One that is filled with strength throughout the day as she turns one-handed cartwheels, attempts to climb ropes to the ceiling and scales up and over fences…one that makes my heart beat slower as it crawls into my lap beside the fire, one that wipes away the chill when we pile into bed for story time on winter nights.
“It’s just that…in school today…Maura said she noticed that I was wider than her.”
Ula is homeschooled. But as part of her vision therapy, she takes a special class at the school every afternoon. Maura (not her real name) is one of the kids she sees while she waits in the library.
I want to pull Ula out of the program. I want to build isolating, protective walls around my child. I want to call Maura’s size four mother and give her a piece of my mind. But Ula loves her class. And Ula loves Maura.
Ula is my social butterfly. She thrives with a constant stream of friends in her life. Unlike Saoirse, who finds herself played out after a two hour social engagement, Ula craves the pleasures of company. And with that, I’m noticing, comes heightened social awareness.
Saoirse hears our conversation. I’m rapidly firing off about the importance of self acceptance, the importance of healthy weight….some stupid, prattling diatribe that can only ring hollow to an eight-year-old who loves her friends and values their opinions.
Meanwhile, Saoirse, who will unabashedly accompany her little sister to her classroom dressed as a 1920s flapper, dances across the room, humming to herself. I see her fiddling with my ipod. My words are cut short as Meghan Trainor’s song, All About the Base, comes over the speakers:
Yeah, it’s pretty clear, I ain’t no size 2,
But I can shake it, shake it, like I’m supposed to do…
Saoirse, in her wisdom, comes up between us and imitates a move she’s seen from me all too often as I dance around the kitchen, arms in the air, booty in full shake. I get the point. I shut up and join her in the dance.
My Mama, she told me, don’t worry about about the size,
‘Cuz boys like a little more booty to hold at night…
Ula laughs. She soon seems to forget the whole incident.
But my vision is no longer clouded. I begin to notice the parade of girls with frail wrists that comes through my house, politely pushing away each offering of comestibles. It doesn’t matter whether it is meat loaf or pizza, salad or chocolate. “No thank you,” “I’m just not hungry,” “Wow, so hard to resist, but I’ll have to say ‘no.’”
I don’t curb my language in front of my children. I don’t refuse to show them movies that may have sexual content. But suddenly, this behavior, which I used to think was just finicky eating, is looking different. I want to censor it. This, to me, is looking like violence in the form of self-deprivation. And I don’t want my children to see it.
I can’t just drop the curtain. They’re all good kids.
But these refusals to eat are coming in the form of grown-up words. I have heard them before. From myself, even.
I want to blame the media for these girls’ premature worries about their bodies. I want to blame the Barbie dolls. I want to blame other children. But in those grown up words, I see where it starts.
It starts with us. The parents.
…with our worries that we are not keeping our bodies toned enough… That carrying our children has loosened our curves, drooped our breasts, slackened our abs. It starts with fear that our partners will no longer see us as beautiful; with our tendencies to scrutinize our butts when we think our daughters aren’t looking, with compulsive cardio workouts done in place of walking in the woods with our kids.
I like to think I’m liberated from these concerns. At 42, I am more free of them than I was at 29, when I first became pregnant. It was around that time when Bob let me in on the secret to feminine attractiveness. “It’s not actually about the body shape,” he confided when I wept over my first stretch marks. “Sexy, to me anyhow, is more about how a woman is feeling about herself.” It didn’t sink in right away. But 12 years later, as he still likes to run his hands over my ample posterior and my softened belly while he touches his lips to the back of my neck, I’m beginning to understand.
I cannot pull the curtain across my daughter’s friends. I cannot stop the words they will hear about body types. But I can love myself for who I am. — whether I’m in the fat jeans or the skinny jeans. I can shake my butt across the kitchen floor, dance naked after climbing out of the bath, carry myself with pride across the field before I slip naked into the farm pond for a skinny dip. My daughters will hear many things in this world about how they should regard their bodies. But the lesson that will resonate most strongly is how they watch their mother feel about herself…and how good onions can taste when caramelized in lard and butter.