My youngest daughter Talia is fiery and fun-loving and knows how to make me laugh. But I was not laughing when she spoke the words that lodged themselves like burs in my chest. When it happened we were on our way to the farmers market. My oldest daughter, Amara, was chattering away in the back seat of our Subaru, telling me about all the things she was going to do in Missouri when she visited her dad for the summer. I was trying not to dwell on the fact that they would be away from me for five weeks—the longest period of time they had ever been away from me. And then, two blocks from the parking garage,Talia piped up, letting loose the thorny sentence. I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly.
“What did you say, sweetie?” I asked.
“I want to be skinny and weak,” she repeated.
I felt hot and cold simultaneously. And in a state of what felt like semi-paralysis I asked her what she meant. She pointed out the window to a woman on the sidewalk, a woman who was not just skinny, but emaciated, her cheeks sunken in and her collarbone, elbows and knees jutting out sharply.
“I want to look like that,” she said.
I gasped for breath. I felt a geyser building pressure within me. The traffic light turned green.
“I need to talk to you about something,” I told Talia. “I just need to find a place to park.”
I tried to think during the two long minutes it took me to drive to the parking garage and find a place to park. I tried to figure out how to begin. But when I had parked and removed the keys from the ignition, I twisted around to look at Talia in the backseat and upon seeing her serious and beautiful 7-year-old face, I began sobbing.
I told her that TV and magazines make people think they have to look a certain way. I told her that even the women in magazines don’t look like that in real life and that their pictures are changed for the magazine. I told her it would be boring if everyone looked the same and that every single person is beautiful because they are unique and because no one else looks like they do. I told her that in our country women are conditioned to believe that we have to be white and blonde and skinny to be beautiful and I asked her what it would be like if every woman she saw looked like that. I cried and cried and told her about how sometimes women try to fit this mold and hurt themselves to do so. I told her about how my ex-girlfriend almost died trying to become too skinny, and my aunt, too. I told her they’d been hospitalized for a very long time.
Amara spoke up then. Her eyes were as big as dinner plates. “Really, mama?!”
“Yes,” I said. Tears were still creating rivulets down my cheeks. I paused to gasp for air and collect myself. Talia had not taken her eyes off of me the entire time I had been sobbing and talking. She was silent and still, her seatbelt still fastened. I had no idea what she was thinking. Was I making things better or worse?
“I love you, Talia,” I said.
“I love you too, mama,” she replied quietly.
We got out of the car and I circled around to her door to hug her tight.
“You are so strong and beautiful and amazing just the way you are,” I said. “I love you so much.”
We walked slowly down the sidewalk to the farmers market. I wondered if I’d messed up. How had my words and tears landed? How could I continue to talk to her about this? And in a feminist and body-positive home, how had my 7-year-old arrived at such an idea?
Among the vendors in the first row of booths we perused, I saw a homemade doughnut stand.
“Do you guys want doughnuts for breakfast?” I asked.
Amara and Talia both beamed.
“Yes!” they shouted.
I rifled through my purse, uncrumpling dollar bills to exchange for three cake doughnuts with lemon glaze. Then, doughnuts in hand, we settled onto the grass near the river savoring each bite of sugary goodness. Talia’s hair glistened red in the sunlight and the constellation of freckles across her nose seemed brighter. I silently whispered thanks that she did not yet associate food with body size. Not that she should have to worry—she and her sister are both petite already and I keep sugar out of our house for the most part anyway to make sure we all maintain a balanced and healthy diet. But I do want both my daughters to be able to enjoy the pleasures of a treat sometimes.
More than that, though, I want Amara and Talia to love themselves and their bodies. I consider the ways in which I have struggled to love my own body, and the ways in which I have been careful about not voicing my unhealthy thoughts around my daughters. I deal with my own body criticism internally. I avoid full-length mirrors and have never owned a scale so that I can sidestep feeling guilty when my weight fluctuates. I realize now that although I do not speak about it, our household is not as “body positive” as I’d like to think it is. How might my silent thoughts be manifesting themselves in my daughters’ subconscious?
Talia’s quiet statement in the backseat of the car helped me to see that I am also not where I want to be when it comes to loving my own body. I know that I must do the work to see myself as strong and beautiful and worthy if I have any chance of helping my daughters to love their bodies, too.