Will I look like you when I grow up mama?
Maybe, I say, steeling myself.
Good! she says, skipping out of my arms. Relieved, I catch her back and squish her tight against my ample chest.
One day my daughter will tell me she is afraid of being fat.
Am I pretty? She nods, says yes without hesitation.
Am I clever? Yes. Happy? Loved? Healthy? Do I have a job, a family? A wonderful kid? A partner who loves me? Yes, she says, all yes.
Am I fat? This time she doesn’t answer.
Yes, I am fat. I am fat and I am beautiful and loved and I have a good life. Some people make out that if you are fat you can’t be pretty and you can’t be happy. It’s not true.
It’s not true.
School has been pretty heavy with the obesity rhetoric. Public institutions always are; we are in the midst of a war on encroaching fat, goes the story, and children and parents are on the front line. Bean comes home talking about ‘good foods’ and ‘bad foods’ and we work hard to undo this labelling. There are foods that make you feel sick if you eat too much, my partner and I tell her. No foods are bad, we say, but it’s not good to eat too much of one thing. We discourage her from gorging on sweets by saying that sometimes if you eat sugary things instead of more substantial foods, you won’t have energy later, or your tummy will feel sick. Still, I worry that we are losing at teaching her to maintain her natural child’s inclination towards intuitive eating. Already she views dessert as the premium prize, sugary sweets as rewards and bribes, some food as ‘junk’, ‘healthy’ food as inherently less appealing. Combating school and advertising and conflicting messages from other adults is just as difficult as other parents will tell you it is, and I can see the task getting harder even as the stakes get higher.
At almost-six, Bean is well aware of the imperative to be pretty. She performs her femininity in broad strokes: dresses, long hair, rejection of play that is coded as masculine. And, increasingly, she grooms and preens and worries about her appearance.
I know that pretty soon this will translate to worrying about my appearance. Bean has started to laugh at my large belly. She tried calling me fat as an insult during an argument, but I just laughed, so she knows that one doesn’t work. But despite her fierce love for me, her delight in the squishyness of mama-hugs, she is aware that I inhabit a stigmatised body.
I’m not offended. I am more than robust enough to take second-hand playground jibes from a child.
But I am anxious. I don’t know, and no one can know, what shape and size her body will take on in time. Even if she does not incline towards fatness, Bean will no doubt hit a chubby phase as a pre-teen, as many kids do as their bodies prepare to unfurl in puberty. It is already patently obvious that I can’t protect her from the message that it is not okay to have a body with more than a certain amount of adipose tissue. This terrifies me because I love her so much that I don’t think I could bear to witness her hating herself.
Can I stand on the scale, mama?
Do you know how much I weigh, mama?
How much do you weigh?
Do we have scales in the bathroom mama?
Bean can recite with accuracy to the kilogram how much she weighs, and how much my ex weighs. They have a bathroom scale ritual. My ex models diet culture with a weight chart on the wall. At shopping centres, Bean asks for money for the scales to weigh herself more than for any other ‘amusement’.
I say no but I struggle to explain why.
My partner tells her that weighing oneself is boring. I say that it’s not important, that she is more than a number, that what the scales say doesn’t tell her anything worthwhile.
I want to tell her it’s because she is breaking my heart. I want to tell her it’s because I have taught girls with anorexia and bulimia. I have watched their bright eyes fade, their ideas and writing falter, the gnawing in their guts fail to drown out the pain in their skulls. Right there in the classroom, I have watched them gradually dying.
I am afraid that fat or thin my daughter will fail to grasp how much her vitality and pluck, her bold voice, the poignant beauty of her young skin, adds to the world. I am afraid that she will feel the need to make herself small — physically, or otherwise. Girls, after all, are not meant to take up too much space.
We don’t spend money on fashion magazines, or Barbies and Disney princesses, or consume commercial media, or dwell at the make-up counter. My partner and I introduce Bean to friends with values that align with our own; women with intellect and independent spirits, women who critique and reject some of the pressure to conform to beauty norms. We express our femininity in fluid and individual ways. We talk about why we make the choices we do, and emphasise that they are choices. We like pretty things; we are more than pretty things.
I hope there is refuge in this.
Do I look beautiful mama?
Do you know what is beautiful? Your big kind heart.
At the same time as the media tells women we are all ugly, all too huge, all in need of expensive ‘treatments’, it directs mothers to model good self esteem for daughters. Body image advocates stress that mothers should avoid ‘fat talk’ around their kids, lest they pass on their hatred of their minor body ‘flaws’ to impressionable youth. There is no space to talk about what happens when mums are fat, when their bodies are unmentionable.
Bean’s parents inhabit aberrant bodies. We face stigma and revulsion. Comfort with our bodies is a hard-won luxury that is repeatedly challenged whenever we leave the house, turn on the television, go to the doctor. Avoiding negative self-talk is all very well, but what of cultural negativity? What of fat stigma, what of transphobia?
In seeing the beauty in each of us, Bean is enacting radical body positivity each day.
She will be challenged on that, too. Almost nothing, almost no one, will affirm her admiration for her parents and her acceptance of our bodies.
If she makes it through without feeling the need to strive even harder for social approbation than the average teenager, she will prove to be even more amazing than I already know her to be.
Again, we stand together in front of the bathroom mirror.
I hope I look like you when I grow up, mama. Beautiful mama.
My ever-beautiful Bean.