“Mommy, aren’t I skinny?!”
I may have gasped. Skinny. It’s stronger than you might think. It knocked the wind right out of me.
Within seconds I was searching the file folders in my mind, sifting through pages of old conversations I’d had with her, near her, around her. I typed “Skinny” into my search engine. File not found.
Skinny. Where did she hear that word?
In an instant I remembered being sprawled out on the floor watching television on a box with a dial that clicked. Pat Sajak was smiling when a relative tapped my bottom with her foot and said, “You’re going to look just like me.”
I looked at her and thought, “But I want to be skinny.”
I was in third grade. I stopped putting syrup on my pancakes. I tried to understand the side panel of my cereal boxes. I ordered dry toast. I chased Skinny.
Who taught me that word? Who taught me that idea? Was it in a board book of opposites I read once? Was it on the lips of the boys who chased me on the playground? Was it hiding with me under the table when my aunts tallied their Weight Watchers points?
Maybe it’s an apparition that waits in the darkness of our nurseries, watching and waiting for the perfect time to slither into our psyches and take hold of our insides.
I don’t know. But it found me.
Skinny made me pinch and grab and pull while I stood in front of the mirror. Skinny made me stand sideways and suck in my stomach until it hurt a little. Skinny made me analyze and dissect and criticize my reflection. Skinny whispered, “Not good enough.”
“Mommy, aren’t I skinny, I said?”
Skinny: it’s just a word at first, but words grow into ideas, dreams, and obsessions. That’s the way it is with words.
I looked at my girl, who had wrapped her karate belt around her midsection again and again. I gave it a pull, and she giggled and twirled like a top while I answered her:
“You are brave and curious and strong.”
“You are kind and funny.”
“You are Chloe.”
She fell to the ground in a silly, dizzy heap and then stretched out her arms. I imagined my words raining down on her until they soaked into her skin.
I picked her up because I can because she is still a little girl, my four-year-old who is growing up too fast. As we walked downstairs, I hoped that in her spinning, Skinny couldn’t hold onto her and was catapulted years and years away.
Now, when my sweet girl is pirouetting to the music in her head, when she’s swinging the bat over and over until she makes contact, when she’s wrapping up household treasures and delivering them to her siblings, when she’s writing notes in her crooked script, I will Skinny to leave her alone.
But I know Skinny.
It will come back.
I just hope by the time it does that it doesn’t have the power to shake my strong, brave girl.