By Lorri Barrier
I am sitting in a large, rectangular dance studio with other parents. They’ve put chairs around the perimeter of the room, and we’ve all squeezed in. It’s parent watch week—a time for us to see what our children have been practicing, and get a sneak peek at the recital number. As I watch the girls tumble, some doing somersaults, others perfecting cartwheels, a horrible thought creeps into my mind. She’s getting fat.
I am looking at my own child, and my immediate reaction to the thought is to beat it back with the mental witches broom I’ve created to banish invasive, negative thoughts. I vigorously club the thought until it retreats to a corner, a defeated spider. But then the rest of it crawls from the shadows. Just like I was. The words hover there like smoke, start to spread. Instead of bringing out the broom again, I switch off the light. I look at the other girls, laugh when they laugh, casually chat with the other parents. But later it comes back, and I allow myself to face it.
My daughter looks so much like me it is painful. Painful because it is disarming to see such a copy of oneself, and imagine this other self, this self I love—this wonderful, complex little human being—having the experiences I had, experiences that often hurt and harmed. I want to spare her that, but how? How, when even I, her own mother, have such thoughts about her?
As she’s grown older, her hair has become thicker and straighter. As a very young child, she had a mass of loose, dark blonde curls just like my own. The same round blue eyes, the plump, apple cheeks, a dusting of freckles across her nose. People often exclaimed, “Oh, what a beautiful little girl! She looks just like you!” Then there would be an awkward pause where I mentally brought out the witches broom (because I couldn’t be beautiful), and finally managed to say, “Thank you.”
My daughter is not fat. She is within the normal range for her height and age, though at the upper end. Just like I was. My father put me on a diet when I was eleven. I am sure he was trying to help me, to spare me the humiliation of the looming teen years as a fat girl. He wasn’t mean, but I was required to weigh in every week. I was allowed one sugary treat per week. I remember going to a sleepover and stopping at McDonald’s for ice cream. Only I’d had my sweet for the week. I told my friend I was allergic to ice cream, because I had no idea how to articulate why I couldn’t have it without being embarrassed.
I don’t remember if I lost weight, but I remember how I felt. I take up too much space in this world. Too fat. My body is not the way it is supposed to be. It was the beginning of a lifelong struggle against my natural body type. As a teen I was extreme. I became hyper-aware of every calorie I consumed, every exercise I did, twice a day without fail. I remember being ill once (I’d missed school), and I asked my mother if she thought it would make much difference in my weight if I skipped my exercises that day. She insisted I stay in bed.
I grew thinner and taller (though I stopped at an average 5’5″), but I was still larger than most of my female peers. “Big-boned” my grandmother said. After years of trying and failing, then trying harder, I finally made the cheerleading team at my small, rural high school for 10th grade. People reacted with surprise. When I went to have my uniform altered, the seamstress asked, “Are all the girls as big as you are?” For all that effort, it still wasn’t good enough. I was the thinnest I had ever been, ever would be. The holy grail of female beauty was forever unattainable for me. I cheered that one year, then quit the team.
As an adult, this in an endless loop that plays in my mind—this body image gallery. I can see some pictures clearly and objectively cast them off. They no longer have power. Others have a distorted form; they sneak away only to pop up again, raging. I have tried embracing my full figure. I’ve had boudoir photographs done. I wore a sleeveless top last summer. I’ve decided to (gasp) try a two-piece swimsuit, though the warmer it gets, the less I feel like going through with it. I exercise regularly, though not obsessively. I have re-learned the joy of dance with Zumba classes. I think I might like to try belly-dancing next.
Sometimes I look in the mirror and think, “Damn! I look hot!” Until the shadowy thoughts creep in. This would look so much better if you weren’t so fat. I bring out the mental broom, sweep it away, try on other outfits until I’m satisfied. Sometimes I can’t sweep it away, and I just decide not to go out after all. I don’t want to burden my daughter’s psyche with any of this. When I look back at pictures of myself from childhood, I don’t see a fat child. I see a big child, yes. I see a healthy child. I see a happy child. Just like my daughter.
Compared to her peers in acrobatics class, she’s a tad taller than many, thicker in the middle, with muscular legs. Solid. She is broader in the chest and shoulders. I smile when I think of how she grabbed one of her smaller friends around the waist and lifted her off the floor, both of them laughing. She is strong. She might become good at acrobatics if she wants to stick with it.
I tell myself things are different these days, better. So many places for a girl to fit in and excel. So many things about my girl have nothing to do with her size. She is artistic, she is bossy, she is an incredible story-teller, she is quick to anger, eager to speak her mind. She is not just like I was.
Later in the backyard, she practices her cartwheels. She runs back and forth, comfortable with the movement of her body, not questioning the way she looks, sometimes skipping, dancing, singing. She pretends she is the teacher, and she has a class of acrobatics students. “That’s pretty good,” she says to the air. “Keep trying. You’ll get it.” I take her words deep into myself, a panacea for my critical heart.
About the Author: Lorri Barrier lives in North Carolina with her husband and three children. She teaches at Stanly Community College in Albemarle, NC. Her work has appeared in Mothering Magazine, Wild Goose Poetry Review, and Brain, Child. Women’s issues are of particular interest to her. Her blog is available at lorriann16.blogspot.com.
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