These are the exact words uttered by my 6 year old straight shooter as she watched me get dressed a couple of days ago.
“I can see the fat on your body mummy.”
What. The. HELL? My head snapped to face her, mouth agape in disbelief. My dress lay hanging in my fallen arms as I turned my whole apparently fat body to face her. I was livid.
“Why did you say that?” I boomed. “Tell me, why would you say that to me?”
I saw the smile fade from her sweet face as she realised she’d made a mistake, without quite knowing why. In that split second I caught myself. It took only a moment but it felt like a lot longer as a torrent of understanding tore through me. Hang on a minute. This was my daughter. My kind, funny, joyful, affectionate baby girl. This was not one of the mean, shit kids at school who delighted in calling me porky and commenting on my thunderous thighs. This was my daughter who loves and adores her mother. She did not want to hurt me. She was simply talking to me. There had to be an explanation, and how I responded in that moment was critical.
Suddenly I recalled, with great relief, the careful conversation I’d had with the girls on the school run that very morning. I started the intermittent fasting program (Dr Michael Mosley style) a week earlier when I realised I needed to take action to come back down to the healthy weight range I was 10 kilos and 2 years ago. I had agonised over how to explain that I was, in fact, ‘going on a diet’ (a word I’ve literally never used in their presence and very little over the past 9 years), without saying that I was ‘going on a diet’. In our house we do not own scales, we do not discuss weight, we celebrate our soft strong bodies as they are, and we are not afraid of food.*
“Is this because of what I talked to you about this morning”? I asked her, softening my stance.
She nodded, still not trusting herself to speak lest she invoke the angry mummy face again.
I sighed. “Right.” I managed a smile. “Yes honey, you’re right.” I rubbed my paunchy belly and hips lovingly. “This is the extra fat my body isn’t getting rid of like it usually does, like I told you this morning. We all need fat on our body, and remember fat is good, it keeps us warm, it feeds our brain and it keeps us alive. If we don’t have enough fat we die. But sometimes our body stops working so well and starts holding onto fat we don’t need, which can actually make us uncomfortable and more likely to get sick. And I don’t want that.”
“And that’s why you’re doing the…” she searched for the word I’d used to explain my new healthier eating habits/lifestyle changes “…the program?”
“Cool!” She looked relieved now that the crisis had been averted and skipped cheerfully out of my bedroom.
I checked myself. That was close. This is what I hate about caring about my weight and trying not to. This is what frightens me. It frightens me that I work so hard to teach them that we all come in different shapes and sizes, yet I could undo all that good work in a moment of limited self awareness. I have made a point to never ask them or hubby for their opinion on ‘how I look’. I do not spend hours getting ready and analysing my body from different angles in different outfits. Regardless of my own struggle at times, I don’t want to model for them the need for external affirmation to feel good about oneself. Lately they’ve started asking anyway. Every time I answer, “How do you think you look? How do you feel?” When they invariably say “Good!”, I tell them that’s all that matters.
Of course I’m learning all this myself too, and I do try not to beat myself up for being hypocritical. I’m just trying to be mindful, self aware, and doing the best I can on any given day. I would never tell them, for example, that one of the reasons I love wearing long, pretty, floaty feminine dresses is that they accentuate my feminine figure without highlighting what I consider to be my heavy legs. I would never tell them that I refused to wear dresses most of my life. I also never advise them how to ‘dress for their figure’. I never tell my eldest how lucky she is to have long slim legs like I wish I’d had. No way. Even though the intention may be to compliment her, (while simultaneously objectifying her), what I would be teaching her, as her number one role model, is to criticise herself and yearn to be different. Not on my watch.
But man it is hard. I almost blew all that hard work by responding to my daughter as though she had insulted me, hurt my delicate feelings and dented my fragile self esteem, when all she’d done is articulate an observation- an accurate and contextually appropriate one at that.
It’s funny, how in that moment, my 6 year old probably taught me so much more than I taught her. I am eternally grateful for the gift of this child, and her big sister. They certainly know how to keep me on my toes (and generally, off the scales!).
* This is not the whole story of course. See my post Surrender for a more accurate reflection of my thoughts on the complexity of body image, self esteem and raising young girls.