Even before my second daughter was born, I knew she would be a lot like me. Her spirit and I understood each other from the beginning. When I announced to my husband that her name would be Lindsay, it was her decision more than mine; she had told me what to call her in a dream, and it had been fairly clear that there was no room for negotiation.
Even before she was born, I knew how Lindsay would look. She would have the beautiful skin and hair of anyone who is half white and half Indian, but she would look much more like me than my older daughter, who resembles my husband. Lindsay would have slightly paler skin, lighter hair, and a short, sturdy body – a healthy body, but one that lends itself to being clinically overweight in childhood.
In the 1980s, I was an overweight (occasionally obese) kid. Looking back, I can see that my family had a very unhealthy relationship with food. For reasons that are probably even more complicated than I know, my mother rarely cooked and we ate out frequently. Overeating or “being stuffed” was the sign of a successful meal. My mom and I were constantly struggling with or failing at our diets, which were a fixture in our home for as long as I could remember.
To put this into perspective, I attended my first Weight Watchers meeting around the first grade and was an expert at filling out my own diet log by the second. I was also sneaking food out of the fridge before the fifth grade, binge eating by the seventh grade, and engaging in fasting-binging cycles by the ninth grade. Add in daily teasing, occasional bouts of legitimate bullying, physician-delivered fat shaming, and your typical teenager obsession with a fashion and beauty industry that was not designed for girls who looked like me, and I’m not really ashamed to say that I developed some chronic, difficult-to-correct body image issues.
I’m not and never have been oblivious to the fact that mothers play a profound role in how daughters see their own bodies. I’ve always known my children would be at risk for body image issues.
For me, more education has always been the answer to everything. I read. I experiment. I find creative ways to meet all the experts and I ask them all sorts of questions. I also tend to plan ahead. Therefore, when my daughters were still in car seats, I was reading up on and talking to people about girls and body image.
I learned that I had to limit their exposure to the toxic marketing of the junk food industry that targets preschoolers before they can even read. I learned that I had to limit their exposure to beauty magazines and mainstream media. When we watched the Disney Channel, it had to be with a running commentary on systemic racism, sexism, ableism, and the treatment of body types.
I learned that I had to stress healthy eating and exercise and never diets or weight. I had to redefine my own relationships with food and exercise. I had to learn to cook. I had to learn about whole foods and exercise – and I had to learn to love it all like it was natural. I had to learn how to teach my kids to take charge of their own food choices and educate them on reading food labels, identifying proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, fiber, omega fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, and proper serving sizes. I had to teach them to enjoy fun foods like ice cream and chips in moderation.
And finally, I had to be a healthy role model. I had stop openly judging myself in the mirror. I had to stop asking people if I looked fat. I had to stop dieting. I had to exercise. I had to be okay – really ok (because they can tell) – with the way I look.
I can and do put in the work to talk my girls through their exposure to the toxic world of beauty politics. I can and do teach them about nutrition. I can and do take the time to cook their meals. I can and did stop dieting. Incidentally, I found out today that Lindsay did not know what a diet was – score one for me! I can and did learn to love a moderate amount of exercise. I can and do look to see who’s around before I ask someone if I look fat.
But to actually be really comfortable with my body…this is a paradigm shift of monumental proportions.
I recall thinking over the years that it is possible that we are in trouble.
I may remember this summer as the one with all the swimsuit blog posts. Maha Bali wrote one, describing her own newfound respect for the hijab bathing suit in the context of class, culture, and western colonization. Lee Skallerup Bessette wrote one too, discussing her struggle to become comfortable in a two piece bathing suit (a symbol of freedom and lack of self consciousness in one’s own skin) despite a thirty pound weight gain.
I read both of these posts just days apart and marveled at how two academics that I admire could be writing almost simultaneously about swimsuits (of all things) with such different perspectives. However, both women mentioned one thing that struck a chord for me:
Maha and Lee ventured into these uncomfortable waters (pun only slightly intended) because of their daughters; Maha hadn’t even thought to enter a swimming pool until her daughter began to swim and Lee wanted to set an example of positive body image for her daughter (who, incidentally, is just a few years older than Lindsay). I know Maha and Lee well enough to know that they are extremely conscious of their daughters’ gazes. They fight their way through personal conflicts or hangups because they love their children fiercely. I can identify with this.
For the sake of my children, I drove myself into a decent (not perfect, but definitely decent) relationship with food. I’ve mostly worked through my phobia of having my photo taken (I took daily selfies for months to desensitize myself), and I’ve made total and complete peace with the (one piece and I’m totally ok with that) bathing suit.
However, I still have my moments of self ridicule – too many of them – as I struggle with the manufactured images of beauty and the assumed deference to the male gaze that pervades…well, mostly everything. What’s worse, sometimes my kids see me waver.
Never forget, our kids are watching.
Last night, I officially ran out of time to get it right.
I’ve been watching the build up to this for a while now (and doing things to slow its progress), but last night Lindsay cried herself to sleep because of her body shape and size. I asked her to sleep on it, because in my experience nothing looks quite as bad after nine hours of sleep, but this morning we needed to have a long talk and it went something like this:
Here’s the thing, baby girl. The concept of “fat” in our society is a hot mess that means a lot of different things to different people.
Some people automatically equate larger body sizes with unhealthy eating and a lack of exercise. Sometimes this is true, but definitely not in your case. As your mother, I watch what you eat and what you do. I understand your choices better than any doctor, teacher, neighbor, or other kids. You experiment with any number of physical activities. You consistently make brilliant nutritional choices. You know more about nutrition than many doctors. You are so good at making healthy choices that you could run your own TV show about it. This knowledge will serve you well when you get older – you will be way ahead of the kids who are not paying attention to their food choices right now. You are a queen of healthy nutrition and activity and don’t you ever let someone tell you otherwise.
Other people confuse thinness with beauty and largeness with ugliness. They are horribly wrong, but this is not always their fault. The confusion is driven by multimillion dollar industries that train us to think this way. They photoshop real women until they look like mannequins. In reality, Lindsay, beauty is a more complicated construct than body size – and I think you know this. You have this focused energy about you which is so compelling. You see, hear, think, and express things with an intense curiosity and joy. Your face is so expressive and body movements are so graceful…I think it is because you are really present – you’re really here, paying attention to what is going on in the world. You are as beautiful as you are smart. Never forget who you are or what you bring to the table. You. are. special.
Finally, people call you fat because they think it gives them some sort of power or it makes them feel better about themselves. Even if you know in your mind that they’re idiots, it still makes you feel awkward or bad about yourself. And feeling like you look different because you don’t look like the people in movies or on TV…that doesn’t feel great either. I get that. I really do.
I’ll be honest with you, I do not really know how to make this go away because it happens to me too. If there’s something that I wish for you, it’s that you will not be like I have been. Please know that I am with you. I am your partner in all of this, figuring out how to always love our bodies no matter what. And we always, ALWAYS, keep trying until we figure things out. It’s what we do.
I’ve been writing this blog post for most of the day. At this point, I’m wondering why I’m writing it or – when I hit the publish button – why I needed to do that. Maybe it’s to hold myself accountable. Like Alan Levine once said, we blog for ourselves, not our audiences. This morning, I promised Lindsay I would become comfortable in my own skin. That means I’ve got to do it. No exceptions or excuses. It’s going to happen. And if I ever forget I made her this promise, I’ve got it documented here.
I’ve only got one more thing to say. I am a better person – to myself, for my kids, and for others – because of my children. My children are my heros.
Anyhow, that’s all I’ve got.