“Mom, how do you spell ’skinnier?’” she asks me, holding a notebook close to her chest, pencil poised and ready. My heart falls into my gut and lodges itself somewhere underneath my kidneys. I fight the urge to double over in pain. These conversations threaten to break me in half.
In the most casual tone I can muster, I quickly rattle off the letters and then say, “Why do you ask?”
“I just wanted to know!” she says and writes something down on her paper.
“What are you writing, honey?” I ask.
“Just something!” she says and then she is gone, out of the kitchen and up into her room. I hear the door at the bottom of the stairs bang shut behind her.
Fear washes over me and I feel suddenly crazy and helpless. Unlike the inspiring mother who danced naked with her seven-year old, I am not overqualified when it comes to talking about female body image with my daughters. I am still working diligently to love my own imperfect mess of hair and skin and bones. I still wince imperceptibly when I am told that I am beautiful, a tiny alarm bell going off somewhere in the back of my mind that reminds me to quickly, quickly find out what this person wants from me.
I do not want this for my daughters.
Absolutely nothing frightens me more than the thought of my girls, my smart, compassionate, gorgeous, healthy girls, believing that their bodies are anything less than spectacular. Which makes me wonder: Can a mother with demons of her own raise strong, confident daughters? The answer, of course, is yes, if I can be careful not to let the fear take over. If the girls come to me and say, “Mom, I wish I was skinnier,” I must try not to not to bulldoze the moment with well-meaning platitudes (”WHAT DO YOU MEAN, YOU ARE PERFECT EXACTLY THE WAY YOU ARE, EVERYTHING IS OKAY.”)
Instead, I will say: ”Tell me more about that.”
And then, when I’ve listened to what they have to say, and given them a safe space to air their worries, thoughts and fears, I can remind them, gently, that they are smart, compassionate, gorgeous and healthy. That their value doesn’t come from looking like a toothpick, it comes from their innate, indestructible goodness. That there will be times when they don’t believe this about themselves, and that’s ok. Because my job is to believe it all the time, no matter what. And I will always be there to remind them.
I spend a few moments gathering my thoughts, and then follow my daughter upstairs. There, abandoned on the top step, is her notebook. Before I can stop myself I flip the cover open and skim the page she has filled with notes about her day.
Mom is making dinner. My homework is hard. I think the answer is E but Mom says no. I am very tired. Olive is getting skinnier.
I am weak with relief- she has written about our old cat, whose new wet food diet is agreeing with her.
I walk over to her bed and sit down beside her. She’s playing with her stuffed animals, and I pick up her favorite little tiger and kiss the top of its fuzzy head, and then I kiss her. The time will come when I will sit with her and listen to her worries and thoughts and fears about her body, but I’m glad it isn’t tonight. Even so, I say to her, “You know what I think?”
“What?” she says.
“I think you are smart and compassionate and gorgeous and healthy.”
“Okay,” she says. “I’m hungry.”