The Weight of Motherhood, by Guest Blogger Lauren Fox
Chloe is dancing. We’re at a summer jazz concert, and my 3-year-old daughter is the only small child in an audience made up mostly of residents from the Laurel Oaks retirement community. My little girl, a bright, funny bundle of energy, is using the situation to her advantage: she waves her arms and twists her little body dramatically to the music, then glances coyly around the room — hello, hello, thank you all for coming to my show. Every so often, she yanks on the back of her shorts, which, because she refused to wear underwear this evening, are riding up her backside. I’m trying not to laugh as Chloe performs her impressionistic pirouettes, then reaches back to pluck polka-dotted material from her bottom. My chest tightens with love for her, and something else, a kind of fear: I can’t help but wonder when this perfect ease she feels in her body will end.
I have always been at odds with my own size-12 body, disparaging of my curves, frustrated by my bargain basement low metabolism, locked in endless battle with myself over the same fifteen pounds. As a teen, I believe that I existed on the continuum of eating disorders that are not diagnosed, where the majority of young women uncomfortably dwell — hating our bodies, obsessively dieting and thinking about little else. I lived out my adolescence and much of my early adulthood in a banal and endless zero-sum game of calories minus exercise, celery plus grapefruit minus donuts divided by sit-ups; I was a hungry, grumpy accountant of calories, perennially dissatisfied.
And then, when I was 33, my daughter was born, my sweet perfect girl, and it hit me like a labor pain (although without the attendant foul-mouthed cursing): I wasn’t going to waste any more time hating the body that could produce such a gorgeous wonder. I simply wasn’t going to do it. I would finally learn to live with, even love the extra roll at my belly, the blobs and bulges that would never be taut or firm, because they were the flesh that created and carried my little girl. And, as an added bonus, I would be setting a good example for her — our healthy bodies are a gift, I would be telling her with my confidence and self-acceptance, and every imperfection makes us unique and beautiful. She wouldn’t grow up consumed with insecurity, scrutinizing her body when she ought to be living comfortably inside it.
But it’s not so easy. Like every parent before me, I find myself surprised by the realization that my husband and I are not raising our child in a sweet, insulated bubble of our own making.
At 3, Chloe is sturdy and athletic, not one of those little girls who seems to exist on air and fairy wings. She’s a climber, a jumper; she loves taking all of the pillows in our living room and piling them on the floor, tumbling and rolling, playing gymnastics. And she eats. I feed her healthy, organic food, and she loves it all, from broccoli to yogurt, lentils to kale. I dole out small portions, try to encourage her to set her own limits, to listen to her body. Still, at her yearly check-up my anxiety zooms in on the dreaded height and weight charts, and my finger traces the graph’s pink trajectory – from here to a lifetime of fighting the same battles I’ve fought.
It sneaks up on me. It’s everywhere. Last Halloween, as Chloe, crazed, green-faced witch, ran like lightning across our neighbors’ lawns, an acquaintance, the mother of a boy, laughed and said, “She’s working off all that candy. She has to! She’s a girl!”
Another friend tells me of coming upon her 4-year-old daughter, Eleanor, wearing a dress and new boots, scrutinizing her reflection in the mirror. “I can’t go anywhere like this,” Ellie said sadly. “I’m a fat cowboy.”
More than her weight, or whether she’ll grow up to be heavy or thin, I worry — I know — that my daughter has been born into a culture where even preschoolers are aware that it is wrong to be fat, horribly wrong, and if you’re a girl, you’d better start worrying about your body right now, before it’s too late.
The other day, Chloe bounced and leapt around our house with her sophisticated 5-year-old friend Liza (a tiny girl who refuses to eat anything except sliced ham and sesame seed bagels). My heart jumped into my throat when I overheard Liza announce to Chloe, “You have a fat tummy!”
Her mother had warned me that Liza had been making this proclamation to everyone she knew. Still, I gasped when she said it to Chloe. I was about to intervene when I saw my daughter raise her shirt and pat her perfect belly in a proud, proprietary way. “Yes,” she said. “I’m big and strong, and my tummy is fat!”
I wonder how far Chloe’s self-esteem will take her, and what, if anything, my own hard-won physical self-acceptance will give her. In a society where fat is a dirty word, where body mass indexes are sent home from school like report cards, where up to 10 million American women struggle with eating disorders, I feel practically helpless against the swelling tide of negative messages. (And so far I haven’t found quite the right words to explain to my 3-year-old that women’s bodies are cannon fodder in a political and cultural war. Maybe when she’s four?) For now, I do what I can: I hold her close, and I tell her she’s beautiful.
Lauren Fox is the author of Friends Like Us, now available in trade paperback, and Still Life with Husband. She earned her MFA from the University of Minnesota in 1998, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Marie Claire, Seventeen, Glamour, and Salon. She lives in Milwaukee with her husband and two daughters.