My daughters are still pretty young, and as parents do, I constantly and inadvertently eavesdrop on my kids. It’s fascinating. The shit that comes from their mouths when they don’t know an adult is listening offers a glimpse into their thoughts and perspective. I’m not talking about sneaky, espionage-like eavesdropping, but more of an accidental happening-upon a conversation or soliloquy, and lingering in the background to see how it plays out.
I became privy to a snippet of my eldest daughter’s inner dialogue several months back and it left me with a sense of impending doom. She was butt-naked, fresh from the shower and standing in front of the mirror, wiggling and squiggling her body in a strange dance-like manner.
“Look at my long, beautiful legs!” she whispered to her reflection.
She continued her twisty and bizarre dance as her eyes roamed up and down her body. Her 8-year-old body.
She knew I was in the vicinity but she was in her own world of fantasy, unaware of my observation nor that she was doing anything out of the ordinary. The giggle that welled up in my belly was crushed by a violent gurgling of anger, and fear snuffed any light-heartedness that this moment may have called for. A montage of freeze-framed snapshots whirled through my mind.
“Look at those long, beautiful legs!”
“She is so thin and beautiful!”
“She is going to have an amazing body.”
Comments made by friends and acquaintances over the course of the past several years jumped from my memory to the forefront of my mind. It’s all true: she is skinny, she does have long, beautiful legs, and will most likely have the body of a super-model when she is older, but this… this is not the shit I want her to know about herself. This is not the way I want her to find her place in the world. These are not the best things about her or the things that give her value. How could I stop her descent into the lie so many of us have bought – that beauty determines worth.
On her birthday, her teachers made her a picture, each child scrawled a compliment onto the paper to be laminated and presented to her during her classroom celebration. The compliments were redundant and unoriginal, but she cherished the picture and was most excited to discover that one person wrote, “You are smart”.
“Smart” was valuable to her, but there she was, my smart child, staring the mirror and admiring her beautiful, skinny legs with unabashed adoration and a tinge of conceit. Had “beautiful” suddenly shoved “smart” to the wayside, and if so, what did that mean? My baggage, my history, the horror of bulimia and self-loathing… were they to be hers as well?
Dear god, please let it be no.
A parent controls but a fraction of their child’s life; the words she hears, the things people say can’t be undone. She has relatives that possess a strong disdain for overweight people and have no problem saying so. Well-meaning adults bombard her with comments on her thin body and beautiful face. I can’t blame them, they are being genuinely nice, but they don’t realize they’re perpetuating the lie that holds us prisoner – that thin people are the beautiful people.
I am a long-time prisoner to these lying lies, and the life I’ve wasted stewing in the hatred of my bones and flesh is almost laughable if it weren’t so fucking tragic. I feel powerless to stop the ball from rolling towards my daughters, like their suffering is written, inevitable, and in their DNA. I fear they will be flattened and smashed into a broken mess like me, but I won’t give up hope that they’ll know that their value and beauty is totally separate from their appearance.
Appearance is dumb luck, beauty is cultivated.
I do what I can to cultivate a healthy perspective in my daughters. I talk about strong bodies that can run, kick, swim, and climb. I talk about food that feeds our brains, guts, and bones. I talk of beauty in kindness, sharing, and love. I tell them they’re beautiful and hope that it adds up to more than long, beautiful legs.
My daughters, my smart and clever daughters, know this: you are loved for your hearts and for the simple fact that you are mine. Take the legs that you have and run hard, jump high, and kick the fuck out of anyone who says you aren’t enough.
Your legs are legs and that is all you need to know.
Jill, your daughter has a secret weapon. You.
Two ideas come to mind. First, would your social circle make ‘fabulous body’ remarks about a son? No? Maybe ask them? Make the point. Or just eye roll with her, on the quiet.
Second, your lovely girl senses what looms just below her event horizon. The most valuable complement for her? That she’s smart. People who conform to the norms of ‘beauty’ know it’s a genetic lottery, and hence, meaningless. But to be told she’s smart, she’s a hard worker, she’s someone who gets things done – that sinks deep into her personal bedrock. And you have so got that.