Friday, May 10, 2013
Like mother, like daughter -- only better
"No, baby, you are absolutely not fat."
"But my belly is so big."
"Well..." I trail off. I am at a loss for how to respond. Her belly is a tiny bit big. I mean, it's not huge. She's not grossly overweight. But yes, she's got a belly. And not just a little poochie belly. It's a little plumpy, maybe. But I can't say that to her. I can't answer, "Yes, honey, your belly is big. That is because you eat too much bread and chips and you spend too much time watching SpongeBob and playing on your iPad simultaneously." I am the parent and I still have a fair bit of control over her activities. So if she's allowed to eat too much and watch too much tv, whose fault is that? Exactly.
On the other hand, I can't quite bring myself to tell her "No, your belly is not big." Because that doesn't feel entirely honest. What feels honest is what I tell her, which is that we are going to work on being more active this summer and making changes to her diet and maybe her belly will get smaller but even if it doesn't, I'm confident that her body will go through changes during adolescence that will make her belly not seem like a big deal at all. And I am in no hurry for those changes. She is my only baby and I don't want her to grow up too quickly.
I also don't want to whisper one single word that will make her self-conscious about her weight or her body image. I asked her if anyone at school ever called her fat and much to my relief, she answered no, in a tone of voice that implied that this was the craziest thing I could ask her, that the very idea that anyone would ever call her fat was so preposterous she just could not imagine it. Good thing, because the kid who insults my kid? He (or she) is going down. Figuratively, of course. Not like Nancy-Kerrigan-knee-clubbing down, but just, you know, they better watch out. I'm the momma bear and I will protect Martha from as much pain and heartache as I possibly can and this includes protecting her from my own misguided parenting sometimes.
The problem started when she was a toddler and was plagued by sensory issues and picky eating. There is no shortage of judgemental women of my mother's generation who tersely proclaim that if you feed the child what you are eating and she doesn't eat it , then she just doesn't eat. That's her choice. She'll eat when she gets hungry. Well, if I wanted to be a cold-hearted bitch to my child and let her lie in bed at night with an an aching, empty tummy, I could certainly have tried that approach. Instead, I let Martha eat buttered toast for dinner when she refused everything else. Yes, I fully enabled her picky eating, I won't deny it. And I'd do it again the exact same way if I had to do it over.
This is kind of our issue to this day: the salty, crunchy, chewy carbohydrate. It comes in many forms and it is delicious. It is buttered toast, buttered english muffins, buttered waffles, potato chips, various other forms of snacky, chippy, corn- and/or potato-based puffy, crunchy things; it is french fries, buttery croissants, any form of deep-fried breading (but rarely the foodstuff that is inside deep-fried breading), dinner rolls, bread sticks, garlic bread, croutons, crackers. Martha is kind of a bottomless pit for this form of food.
And I am a sucker and even though I have created a thousand rules about what I, myself, can and cannot eat, I let her slide by on a lot more of the starchy stuff than I should. In my defense, however, she rarely eats fast food, McDonald's is forbidden and she never drinks soda. She knows high fructose corn syrup is bad, GMOs are evil, and sugary cereals are to be avoided, even though she tends to stare longingly at the boxes of Trix and Cinnamon Toast Crunch in the cereal aisle.
The whole issue of weight, for me, is an unbearably complicated, sticky, emotionally-loaded mess. In terms of the big picture, it's incredibly difficult for women and girls in our culture to maintain a healthy self-image when so much of the media and entertainment and even toys promote unrealistic standards of beauty. I started to worry about my daughter's body image pretty much the day I got the ultrasound showing I was carrying a girl. No exaggeration, I swear. Add to this the fact that my daughter has a mother who has spent some 30+ years criticizing her own body, obsessing over her weight, restricting her eating, working out, trying to make her body more attractive, more like the images I see all over the place or like the millions of women and girls I've compared myself to who clearly have perfect bodies unlike my lumpy, ill-proportioned self. One of the most important things I have ever wanted to accomplish is to raise a daughter who loves and accepts herself in a way that I may never accomplish with myself. I work on it, I will always work on it, but it is work, every single day.
I could tell you about my eating disorder in my mid-20s but really, my self-perception has been distorted since I was about 8. And I doubt I'm alone among my friends when I remember putting myself on diets way back in elementary school, always trying to lose 5 lbs. The problem certainly was at its worst around age 26 when I invested pretty much every ounce of energy I had into exercise and restricting calories. I never achieved that state where I was all skeletal and hospitalized and eating 3 tic tacs each day like you see in the after-school-specials about girls with anorexia, but let's just say you don't have to be quite that bad off to still be kind of fucked up. With help, I worked my way back to "normal" fairly easily and I eat like a fairly "normal" person now-a-days and I threw away my scale at age 30 but then went and bought a new one when I was pregnant. All in all, though, I consider myself healthy these days.
But I don't really trust myself to be a good role model for my child without paying excruciating attention to every word out of my mouth and every way in which I might possibly influence Martha's attitude towards food and her weight. And that makes my summer project with her all the more important and difficult, you see, because I've told her we will work on her belly. I didn't say she has to be smaller or thinner or anything of the sort. I've talked about being healthy and active. Mostly I just detect some level of self-awareness developing in her about the size of her stomach and while I don't want to encourage her to think she needs to lose weight (unlike a classmate of hers who came to Martha's birthday party once saying her mom said she's not allowed to have cake -- so I served her two pieces) I do want her to be aware of what is healthy; I want her to feel comfortable with her body, to feel strong and powerful. Every girl deserves to feel strong and powerful. I'm pretty sure I can do this.