Sturdy Girl

By Elizabeth Daley
Web Exclusive

Mother kissing daughter goodnightEmily was articulate and tall for her age, a sturdy girl by any measure. On stout little legs she participated fully in her world. She sang with gusto in the children’s chorus at the university. She volunteered to perform in junior drama classes at the local rec center, while the other children hung back. She taught herself to read and write, asking hungry questions about words in books, on signs, in the grocery store. Perched in her car seat, she rode around town expectantly, as if any moment might hold the seed of her next adventure.

Friends came easily to Emily, perhaps attracted by the confidence she carried. The antics of her silliest playmates were rewarded with a full-bodied laugh, while more sensitive companions could count on her sympathy. Once, at her preschool, she was found comforting an upset child who was characterized by their teacher as “unapproachable.” Though the child hated to have anyone touch her, the two were seen sitting next to each another in the art room, Emily’s arm slung around the child’s shoulder, whispering in her ear.

Emily was big-boned, larger than her peers. In those carefree preschool years, she moved among her many friends with a blessed lack of self-consciousness; but by kindergarten her blithe spirit had begun to wilt, poisoned by the notion that there might be something different and unacceptable about her. Her transformation began with a single word: fat.

I remember clearly the day she mentioned an incident that had taken place on the playground. We were ambling to the car in the shade of a massive live oak, a cool breeze muting the heat of the late spring sun. My mind was busy with everyday concerns–groceries to buy, unanswered phone messages, the checking account balance. Suddenly Emily’s sweet voice interrupted my mundane reverie. “Mama,” she said, “do you think I’m fat?”

I stopped as if the ground before me had fallen away. My mind raced, anxiously sifting through five years of parenting advice from friends, books, magazines, and assorted strangers. I sought a reply that would obliterate the very word and all its connotations from Emily’s consciousness. Turning to squat face to face, I looked directly into her eyes. “No, you’re not fat,” I said firmly, pulling her close to testify softly in her ear. “You’re perfect,” I whispered. “You’re perfect just the way you are.”

Emily put her arms around my neck, and I hoisted her to my hip. As I carried her to the car she pressed her cheek against mine. “Matthew said I was fat,” she confided as she climbed into her car seat. Heat shot into my head and throat; a deep instinct to protect Emily from a pain I knew too well had been aroused. I could feel the spirit of Mother Superior, the holy terror of my parochial school days, rising in me. Stifling an urge to condemn the character of a five-year-old boy, I kissed Emily’s forehead, offering quick assurances.

“Everyone is beautiful in a different way,” I said carefully. “You’re the best you there is, you know.” Before I shut the car door, I looked into Emily’s eyes and was relieved to see neither suspicion nor history there–no memories of teasing by family members, of dreadful summers around lean bikini-wearers, of the hated euphemism “pleasantly plump.” Such were the travails of my life, not hers. I never would have swallowed reassuring platitudes from my mother, who once laughed about my “big behind” (to the delight of my little brother) as I walked from her room. But Emily had every reason to believe me, and she did.

Emily trusted me, I think, because I’d always tried to listen to her, carrying the wish to be heard and understood all the way from my own childhood. Infant tears, toddler tantrums, preschool tirades–my husband and I treated them all like vital messages in need of decoding. Rather than cajole or threaten, we’d listen closely and hear “I need sleep” or “I’m overwhelmed” or “I’m afraid.” Then we’d understand, and know what she needed from us. Except that this time, I didn’t.

For one thing, I was not at all sure that Emily’s size was in fact a problem. One hundred years ago, I reasoned, before Twiggy and Kate Moss and Gap ads featuring waif-like children in seductive poses, Emily’s hearty body might have been seen as a sign of health and prosperity, not a cause for shame. Still, I had to admit that I’d fretted periodically about her devotion to typical kid foods like macaroni and cheese and ice cream, and compared her solid frame to the willowy five and six year olds at swim lessons. But I’d restricted discussion about her size to quiet, late-night talks with my husband, scrupulously avoiding references to diets or weight problems in Emily’s presence.

That night I lay awake considering my options. A strict change in diet might have short-term results but create the conditions for a later eating disorder. I could carp about materialism and the fashion industry–but to a five and a half year old? When asked about Emily’s weight at her last checkup, our pediatrician had assured me that she would “grow into her body” in time. So I stuck with the idea that seemed to make the most sense: Offer healthy food, keep Emily active, and simply insist that her body was fine as it was.

For the next six months, we lived blissfully free of the topic of weight. Then one day, Emily went to spend the afternoon with her best friend Katie, a petite, elfin child with red hair and perky disposition. At bath time that night, Emily asked me not to look when she took off her clothes. Once submerged she suddenly looked perplexed. “Mama, why do I have such a big belly?” she asked. “Am I fat?” In a flash, I knew that Katie had shared some keen observations with Emily. Without missing a beat I said with conviction, “Honey, you’re perfect. You’re perfect just the way you are.”

And so I embarked on the path of denial and evasion in response to Emily’s poignant requests for the truth of who she really was. I didn’t want to deceive her. I wanted to convince her of a wholly unpopular notion: that one’s physical self was infinitely less important than the depth of one’s heart and the breadth of one’s mind. I hoped to shield Emily from the tyranny of “lookism” by giving her the same reply each time she asked about her weight: “You know, you are beautiful. Everyone is different. Your body is just right for you.”

One night, I had kissed Emily’s cheek, whispered a wish for sweet dreams in her ear, and was reaching for the light on her nightstand when she implored, “Mama, I feel so fat.” My deep sigh contained a message, and Emily knew it. “I do,” she moaned, “I am fat.” Mechanically I commenced my reply. “Sweetie, you are not fat” Swiftly, Emily sat up, weeping angrily. “Mama, you aren’t listening to me! I know I’m fat! You aren’t listening!” I sat down heavily on the bed. She was right.

In all other matters, in her greatest disappointments and smallest displeasures, I’d worked hard to validate even the most disagreeable of Emily’s feelings. I’d read How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk, taken parenting classes, and role-played active listening techniques with my husband. I’d breathed through Emily’s early outbursts, trying to convey the message that while particular behaviors might be inappropriate at times, all feelings were appropriate all the time, anytime. I’d aspired to be a mother Emily could talk to about anything, so that she’d never have to hide her anger, fear, or sadness. And suddenly I saw clearly the extent to which I’d failed.

All these months I’d assumed that the evil in our midst was this profound and ubiquitous bigotry of body. I’d railed against it and resisted it, and ultimately I had failed to protect Emily from the force of its intolerance by pretending it had no power. I sat on the bed next to Emily, put my head in my hands, and cried. I’d left my beloved little girl alone in the face of an onslaught of image-hype from the covers of magazines at the grocery store, billboards on the highway, and kids at the playground. No wonder she kept asking me to tell her truth.

Emily set her hand on my leg and asked what was wrong. In an instant the wall between us, the accumulation of 43 years of my own fear and self-loathing, disappeared with her touch. I lay next to Emily, her small head resting on my shoulder, and told her a story about a “pleasantly plump” young girl who became a mother and couldn’t bear her child’s pain. About a mother who held a wish for her daughter’s spirit to fly free, unburdened by concerns about her precious little body. I told her I’d been wrong. I asked her what she thought and felt. And then I listened.

Elizabeth Daley lives with her husband and two children in North Florida . She has a PhD in communication and assumes many hats, including homeschooling mother, grant administrator, voiceover talent, and freelance writer