…And so it starts.
One of the girls began crying out of the blue yesterday about a word a playmate had used to describe her months earlier (unbeknownst to us). It was an F-word. THE F-word, the one I had been dreading having to redefine for my innocent children’s ears:
Instinct rocketed an immediate protest to my lips—“You’re not fat!”—but I blocked it at the last minute. I’ve read so many wonderful articles and stories over the years about how to discuss body image with our daughters that I know better than to pick my fight with the word itself. “Fat” and “thin” can be such arbitrary descriptors, especially in a girl’s own mind. What’s more, they don’t even come close to covering the nuances of appearance, of stature, shape, skin, smile. They speak nothing of beauty, though of course we tend to associate one with beauty and one with its opposite. They’re subjective and emotionally loaded, and the last thing I want to teach my wounded little girl is to go through life relying on others to affirm her skinniness.
So I wracked my brain for tips on how to proceed in this conversation without crushing any eggshells underfoot, and I prayed a quick “Help!” and I started into every right thing I knew how to say. I told her that health matters far more than size. I talked about how each girl is born with a unique shape. I showed her this stunning photo of diverse Olympic athletes. I listed amazing things that her body is able to do. I read her passages from The Care And Keeping Of You. I assured her that she was utterly beautiful. And after a solid hour of this, we had gotten exactly… nowhere.
Someone had told her she was fat, and that one word had more weight than all of my words put together.
Finally, in desperation, I lifted my shirt to show her my stomach. This was not easy for me to do. My girls have seen my stomach plenty of times before, and we have been getting the European locker room experience for six and a half years now, but none of those times was I putting my deliciously squishable middle on display for someone to scrutinize. Besides, I haven’t worked out consistently since the marathon in October. AND CHRISTMAS HAPPENED. I was absolutely not ready for my midriff close-up.
I also had no idea what to say once I had my shirt raised. What was I even trying to convey with this? That my daughter should feel better because her stomach isn’t as big as mine? Or that the way to deal with insecurity is to become an exhibitionist? Gah, and again I say gah. I felt like an idiot and quickly put my shirt down… only to see that my girl had lifted hers and was examining her own lovely tummy with delight. When she went to bed a few minutes later, her feelings were still hurt, but she no longer seemed to be taking the F-word to heart.
Once again, I’m amazed by the power of vulnerability to heal. The stories and songs and works of art that have touched my life the most over the years have always been the ones that cost their creators dearly—the tender, raw, unpolished truth of themselves that they were brave enough to share. I’m forever grateful to authors like Maya Angelou (the first memoirist I ever read) and Glennon Melton (the most recent) for daring to hold their experiences up to the light, inviting us to look and touch and brim over with Me too!s. Artists like Frida Kahlo, songwriters like Fiona Apple, friends who whisper their hearts out over kitchen tables or email servers… their bravery makes me brave. It never fails.
In light of that, I can understand why a minute of pretending I was Gwen Stefani worked when an hour of impersonal truth-reciting didn’t. My girl needed to see a little of my skin to help her look kindly at hers, not in comparison but in recognition. I’m not sure exactly what she saw in my cookie-sculpted abs (do I want to know??), but helping her make peace with herself was well worth my momentary discomfort.
(Annnnnd as of today, I’m back to working out! You never know when the F-word will rear its fire-breathing head again, and a mama wants to be prepared.)