by Wendy Bradford
My daughter told me she’s fat. My seven-year-old daughter told me casually one afternoon that she is fat; “I wish I was skinny,” she added. She didn't seem upset, and it came not from a conversation about clothes or bodies or anything that would prepare me for this statement. When I asked where she heard something like that, she said, “It was on my brain.”
I took her out of the living room, where the rest of our family was hanging out, watching television, coloring on the floor, and into my bedroom. I needed to concentrate. My own brain was scrambling to find the “right” thing to say.
“You know you are perfect the way you are. Those aren't terms we use to describe ourselves or other people.” Is that right or is it bad to say “perfect”? “Did you hear that in school? Or on one of your iPad apps?” …That I shouldn't let you play with in the first place.
“No. I just know it.”
“Did you hear that on one of the Disney shows?” Damn Disney shows with all the perfect teenage hair.
“No, I just wish I was skinny.” She was giggling and fidgeting on my bed, a little embarrassed and definitely not upset. But where would that come from?
I say many things in front of my children that I immediately or eventually regret. Talking about weight, however, is forbidden. They see me step on the scale—often—but I never visibly attach a value to the number; I never express disappointment or satisfaction. At least I didn't think I was.
As crazy and delusional as I can be about body image—because I am crazy and delusional—I don’t let my children witness it. And I thought I was extremely good at that. We talk about exercise being healthy, and too much sugar being “unhealthy.” We never say fat and skinny. Hearing my little daughter talk about her body that way is excruciating. Never in one thousand years would I guess she was clued in to the overused, devaluing words we use to describe our bodies. And it’s possible she heard those words and still doesn't understand what they mean, what they imply, the inevitable comparisons they bring.
The issue ended when she said she was done talking about it: “Can we go back to the living room? I’m tired of this.”
It is not over for me though as I realize how easily it is for girls to funnel any bad feelings they have into their beliefs about their bodies. I know I could do that still: My writing isn't going as well as I would like? I feel fat. Someone’s mad at me? I need to lose three pounds. What a waste of energy and time.
Everything I can do to protect them from the vicious cycle of equating success and worth with body weight, I will do. I will try to do. Protecting them may be less effective, however, than arming them with knowledge that the images they see and the messages they get from out there aren't real and ultimately, don’t matter.
I’m a little grateful, albeit still shocked, this came up in second grade and not later. The uphill battle may even out a bit if we start fighting it now.