Sitting on the couch, I apply a liberal amount of sunscreen followed by little dabs of cover-up on some of my darker freckles. I look down for my eyeshadow and immediately see my 2-year-old daughter below, holding the eyeshadow brush up to her eyelid. She smiles and says, “Eyes.” It occurs to me that she is watching every move I make and mimicking. She takes my lipstick out and pretends to smear it over her lips. She points to my purse and says, “A brush!” because she knows my hairbrush is inside and she wants to brush her hair, too. She’s at an age where she understands more than she can say and notices more than I give her credit for.
Of course I’m proud of a lot my daughter has already picked up just by watching me. I always laugh with pride when I see her taking a wipe and cleaning off the table. She yells to be lifted to the sink so she can wash her hands when we get home from shopping. I find it positively darling when I see her throwing away empty wrappers and bags into the trash like a pro. Now she insists on having her soap poured into her hands so she can wash her own armpits and belly when she’s in the shower. She’s becoming more independent and eager to learn with every day that goes by.
“Do these jeans make me look like a whale?” I ask my husband.
He rolls his eyes and then stares at me with that look that tells me he’s heard this question a thousand times, and he’s sick of answering.
“Stop it,” he says. “You look like a toothpick.”
I frown and stare at myself in the mirror, turning so I can see myself from the side, weighing the imperfections apparently only visible to me.
My daughter walks in just then, as I’m telling my husband, “I really need to lose a few more pounds. I’ve been eating badly.”
He shakes his head and goes into the bathroom to brush his teeth. I pick up my daughter and she hugs me. She looks like an angel in her sweet yellow dress.
“You look so very pretty honey,” I tell her. She laughs and begins to twirl when I set her back down on the floor. She’s watching the skirt fan out as she spins. Lately, she loves dresses; probably because we always tell her how adorable she looks in them.
At lunch, I scan over the menu wondering which choice to make.
“Why don’t you get the penne vodka? It’s your favorite,” my husband asks.
I wrinkle my nose at him. “It’s too early in the day for something so heavy. I’m looking at one of the salads. I don’t need the extra calories. We had pizza last night.”
He goes back to his menu and says nothing. My daughter sits playing with her toys, waiting for her French fries and grilled cheese to arrive and I’m hoping she will be in the mood to eat, as she’s often distracted at restaurants.
“You need to stop this,” my husband says later, on our drive home from lunch. “She’s going to think it’s normal.”
I look over at him then, and ask what he’s talking about. “Your obsession with food, with being thin. We don’t want our daughter growing up thinking she’s never thin enough.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard him complain about my issues with food. A few months into dating, he’d blown up at me, telling me we didn’t live in a third world country and there was no reason for me to be starving to death. In fact, that was the moment I realized how much he cared for me.
I give him a look, telling him he’s out of his mind and brush it off; but in reality, I’m starting to think about it. I’m starting to realize that all the years of obsessing over my weight, deciding which meal is less fattening, commenting on how one outfit makes me look big and delighting when one makes me look tiny has become a habit; a bad habit. She’s too young to think she’s fat. She’s only 2.
When we arrived home he wasn’t ready to let the conversation go. “What are you going to do when she looks in the mirror and says she’s fat because her mother always claims to be? Put her on a diet?” my husband asks. “It will break my heart if she never thinks she is pretty enough, good enough. I don’t want her to have the same obsession.”
I know he is right, though I hate having to admit it. When we started dating, I was at the height of my weight loss. I stood 5’7” tall and weight in at 107 lbs. It was my husband who told me I was too thin; he was the person who got through to me and let me know that I was starving myself and it was making me look sickly. He also let me know that he loved me for me, not for what size bikini I could fit myself into. Though I no longer starve myself like I did in those days, I have yet to shake the terrible habit of over-analyzing every piece of food I consume. And the sad truth of it is, I feel ashamed. My daughter gets her eyes from her dad, hair color from her grandfather; I don’t want to ever say she gets her eating disorder from her mom.
Those years in middle school and high school, though so long ago now, always haunted me. I was never thin enough. Kids made fun of me. One called me “Moose,” while another called me “Dog.” Sometimes I felt like no one wanted to be around me; boys didn’t notice me until I started starving myself. With the loss of weight freshman year came the gain of attention and approval. Though I knew it was wrong I did it anyway, starved myself, and slowly I began to see myself in a different light; a warped light.
I no longer saw what was in the mirror, I saw weight and where I should lose it. I obsessed over any imperfection and wished my thighs weren’t so full. In my early twenties, I started modeling, which only magnified the issue. The images always looked better when I was at my thinnest. And the more weight I lost, the more I’d get hired.
Perhaps most damaging of all, though, was that I once dated a guy who placed great importance on how much weight I gained. He told me, “I could use to lose” and would often point out if he thought I was eating too much. He took too much pride in having a trophy and not enough in caring about what kind of person he had for a companion. I looked in the mirror every day and wondered if just a couple more pounds would make a difference. I’d been in this mindset for so long it just became normal for me. I never thought about it affecting others.
Until now, that is.
I started to think about all the times I saw my little daughter copying me. Brushing her hair, pretending to put on lipstick, trying on clothing … and I realized I was at all times setting an example for her. She models herself after me and I need to be aware that some of what I do will have consequences. Sure, when she copies my cleaning methods I cannot say that it’s a bad thing, but when I accidentally swear, she swears. When I’m sad, she notices. When I look in the mirror and declare that I’m overweight it’s only a matter of time before she begins to start doing the same; growing up questioning if her body is normal. I know the pain of never feeling good enough. I know the hard road and constant battle it is to constantly feel judged and to judge oneself. It isn’t something I want for her. She is beautiful no matter what, and she needs to know that it isn’t her weight that makes her the amazing human she is.
I look at my husband and tell him, “I know. I need to be more aware and I’m going to be. I’m sorry.”
I tear up feeling like a failure; hoping I’ll be able to say the right thing when the day comes she tells me she isn’t happy with the way she looks. I pray she never comes home crying because the children at school made fun of her. I hope she never dates a guy who makes her feel she needs to be a perfect little Barbie doll when there are men out there — men like my husband — who will love her for the person she is, and not care at all about the numbers on the scale. I know I cannot protect her from the harsh realities of growing up, but I can let her know she is loved no matter what. I can set a more positive example and teach her that it’s not alright to allow others to make her feel ashamed for the way she looks and let her know it’s wrong to judge others for the same reason. I’ll tell her one day just how painful and influential the words of others can be and how long those words stay in effect. There will be times in the future when someone will say or do something to make her look at herself in the mirror and judge.
That person doesn’t need to be her mother.