I am sitting, cross legged, on the bathroom floor trimming my five year old daughters’ toenails. My nine year old son showers his muddy body as I lean against the tub. My three year old daughter wrestles herself into pajamas in her bedroom. My eleven year old son bursts in from football practice and hollers upstairs about reheating leftovers and having a sore throat. My husband is out dropping our minivan off for a tune up. The sun has set and we’re putting another day to rest. In the confusion of this typical weeknight, I glance up from the floor at my seven year old daughter, standing on the step stool, completely undressed, brushing her teeth. I don’t like the way she is looking at herself in the mirror. I don’t like the way she pokes at her belly and frowns at her profile. I watch her for another minute and step in.
“What’s up, girl?” I ask. “I’m fat.” she responds without hesitation. I’m instantly weak. She continues, “My stomach jiggles when I run. I want to be skinny. I want my stomach to go flat down.” I am silent. I have read the books, the blogs, the research. I have aced gender studies, mass media, society and culture courses in college. I have given advice to other mothers. I run workshops and programming for middle school girls. I have traveled across the world to empower women and children in poverty. I am over qualified to handle this comment. But in reality, my heart just breaks instead. I am mush. Not my girl.
I rally some composure and stay cool. “You are built just perfect – strong and healthy.” And she is. But this doesn’t soothe.
I flounder. This child – my first and wildly celebrated daughter – was breastfed girl power. I read picture books with only central female characters, I insisted she wrestle her big brothers, demanded family call her words like smart and brave as much as cute and adorable. I tell her we are all different – straight and thin to round and plump and millions of ways in between. I tell her it’s what makes us all beautiful. Unconvinced.
I send all the other kids away. I shut the door and we sit face to face on the floor. There is more here and I need to see it through. I tell her I looked just like her when I was seven. I tell her she will grow to be tall and strong and fierce, like me. Not good enough. I reach and scramble. I tell her how fast she runs. Remind her of the goal she scored in soccer. What an expert she is on her bike and the amazing balance and tricks she does on her scooter. I remind her of her high level reading, her artwork, her mastery of math facts. “Fat.”
I grow desperate. “Child! What is the first thing everyone tells you when they meet you?” She sighs, “I’m beautiful.” Beauty is not helping me here. I’m failing. Pleading, I ask her why. Her blues eyes meet mine. She tells me on two different occasions friends have called her “kind of fat” when they were talking about bodies this summer in their bathing suits. And she felt sad. But she also felt good because finally she confirmed that what she thought about her body was “mostly true”.
I think a few bad thoughts about her peers and their mothers and wonder what messages are being sent. I am out of tools. And now twenty minutes later, I’m out of patience too. I feel powerless to what seems certain to her. And I cannot understand how she does not see all of life’s perfection in her reflection.
I stand her up on the step stool in front of the mirror. I strip off my yoga pants, my tee shirt, my bra and underwear. We are side by side completely naked together. She laughs. I start singing a song that I’m making up as I go. It’s rap meets Raffi with lyrics like “We are perfect, just the way we are.” It’s wild and silly, but I cannot be stopped. We’re shaking everything, and she’s belly laughing and totally thrilled. I pick her up. We are a ridiculous and magnificent pair. The other kids hear the commotion and barge in. They are confused and horrified. I carry her to the bedroom raving about all the ways we are powerful and naked and women. We settle into comfy pajamas and read a story together. Fat is not mentioned again.
On this night, I have no idea if I have succeeded. I’m not sure if what I said and did had an impact, if I fixed anything, or even if I changed her mind. But I do know that I must continue to infuse myself and my children with bold confidence. I must check in, ask questions, take the time. I must build and undo. I must be open and genuine. I must but willing to dance naked in the mirror, resist the urge to see all the ways five babies have changed me, and stare straight into my reflection with love. Then together, with a twinkle in our eyes, we only see radiance shining back.
Janell Burley Hoffmann is a writer and modern day abolitionist who leads empowerment programs for girls on Cape Cod. She is a lover of life and enjoys the wild ride with her husband and five children ages 12, 9, 7, 5, and 4.