Weird mom encounters at the park: Someone should write that book. After all the weird things I’ve seen go down in public spaces designed for children yet that manage to also make their parents (sometimes) act like children, heck, I should write that book. And it happened again the other day. While I am usually pretty good about letting this kind of thing roll off my back – if I had a quarter for every time someone threw shade at my parenting I could buy my own swing set – this time I’m having a hard time letting it go. I think it’s because it’s about Jelly Bean. Say what you will about me but please, for the love of regurgitated fish crackers, leave my kids out of it.
I think another mom called my baby girl fat. But maybe I’m overreacting?
There we were in the park, two women thrown together simply because of our cabin-fevered children, chatting about routine kid things. Then out of the blue she asked me what size Jelly Bean wears. Without thinking much about it, I answered, “Six.”
“But isn’t she only three?” the Other Mommy asked as I detected a small hint of superiority creeping into her voice. “My Vienna is three but she’s still wearing size 24 months!” She chuckled fondly, “Little peanut!”
“Well, yes,” I stammered, “but she’s got her dad’s long torso and I swear they make little girl’s clothing so tight and short!” (True story: I never had the midriff problem with my boys and they all have long torsos too.) I added, “Plus, that’s only for tops. She wears a size three in pants and shorts. Although frankly I’m just glad she’s wearing clothes as she’s been on kind of a naked kick lately…” As my face heated up I wondered why I was explaining all this to a relative stranger, especially one that thought that a toddler wearing a size smaller than her age was brag-worthy.
Other Mommy must have seen the expression on my face and hurriedly apologized – and this is probably what made it so painful, because I don’t think she’d intended to speak her mind quite so clearly – saying, “Oh no! I didn’t mean she’s like huge or anything. I just meant Jelly Bean is, you know, well she’s not like a little beanpole right? She’s just built big! Solid. She’s one of those cute chubby kids! ”
“Okay, stop, I get it!” I held up my hand before she could break out into an a capella version of “She’s a Brick House” (she’s mighty, mighty, letting it all hang out – what does that even mean?!). The thing is she was correct, in a clinical sense. Jelly Bean, if you recall, was a big baby. All my babies are big. My husband was a nine-and-a-half pounder. (If I could give one piece of advice to you single ladies out there it would be to ask your guy how big he was at birth and what his head size was, just so you know what you’ll be pushing out your nethers. Maybe not first date material but definitely second or third. Definitely.) My biggest baby, son #2, was nearly 12 pounds – so large that when another dad stood next to my husband at the NICU window he said, “What’s your kid in there for? He eat all the other babies??” (Also, no one has ever called my boys fat even though they were really big. Because it’s “good” for boys to be “big and strong” but apparently not so for girls?)
So it was no surprise to anyone that Jelly Bean – my smallest baby, incidentally – came into this world in the 85th percentile for weight and height. And other than a slight hiccup during her first year she’s stayed at the top of her range. Her pediatrician has always told us not to worry about it, that as long as her height and weight stay proportional (which they have) then she’s perfectly healthy. As for chubby, I dare say most three-year-olds are sporting a fair amount of developmentally appropriate baby chub. The Other Mommy had wandered away by this point but I felt tears coming to my eyes. All I wanted to do was run after her and shake her. How dare you judge a pre-schooler? All I wanted to do was run after Jelly Bean and tickle her soft little tummy just to remind myself that she is happy and healthy and safe. All I wanted to do was sit and cry.
[It’s at this point in the narrative that I really really wanted to insert cute pictures of Jelly Bean to show you how “not fat” she is and so you could all reassure me. But then I realized that what Jelly Bean actually looks like is beside the point. Whether or not she’s overweight is not the point. Whether or not her dimpled elbows are “cute” or “chubby” is not the point. She’s perfect, absolutely perfect, the way she is and her weight or size has nothing to do with that. Although if you want to see a pic that shows her hilarious personality, this one makes me laugh every time.]
So who cares if she’s not “a little peanut”? As long as she’s healthy – and oh she is! – then why should I worry about another mom making a stupid comparison? Because I know how cruel the world can be to people that don’t fit its strict standards. I know what being labelled as fat does to a little girl’s self image. Because I remember, vividly, the suffering I made myself endure as a child as punishment for being “fat.” My eating disorder started in full force at age 12, when an ill-advised middle school teacher made us keep a food journal and then critiqued everything I put in my mouth, but it really began years before that. In my journal at age 8, I wrote about doing “100 crunches, 100 leg lifts, every night, no excuses” and telling my friends that I hated chocolate when I actually loved it but was terrified of the fat in it. At 11 I wrote about attending a friend’s birthday party and peeling all the cheese off my pizza, cutting off the crust and then mopping the soggy remainder with a napkin to get rid of any residual oil before I’d eat it. In fact, I’ve been some kind of disordered for so long that that is what feels “normal” to me!
I do not want that for Jelly Bean. I, as her mother, will not let that happen to her.
Of course, willing something hard enough does not make it happen. So when I got an e-mail from lovely reader T, it really hit home. She writes,
“How do you raise a confident, secure daughter in a world obsessed with body imagine and appearances in general, especially knowing that she carries your genes which, presumably, predispose her to many of the same emotional issue you have/had? I have two boys (4 and 2) and now a 6-month-old daughter, and I’m already having anxiety about her emotional health. I know this is not a quick answer, but I wanted to pose the question to you in the hopes that you might post about this someday.”
The thing is, I’ve been so focused these past few years since Jelly Bean has been born on myself – on fixing the last few ED’d quirks that pop up so that I won’t pass them on to her – that I haven’t given much thought to what I need to do to inoculate her against this even more toxic environment. Especially since she does likely carry my genetic predisposition for perfectionism and food issues. (Man, my heart hurts just writing that.) But I need to come up with a plan because that woman in the park will not be the last person to comment on her weight or size or looks. Thankfully Jelly Bean didn’t hear the conversation this time but I can’t shield her from all the Other Mommies and the media and my own issues forever. I can only try to make her stronger. (And let’s not forget my boys either – boys can get eating disorders too.)
As I thought about it, it turns out that I have been doing some positive things. It’s not a solid plan but it’s a start:
1. Not weighing myself. I can say with confidence that Jelly Bean has never seen me weigh myself. While I have stopped weighing myself every day (or multiple times a day), I still have a complicated relationship with the scale. It’s not that I think it would be bad for her to see me step on a scale but rather that I can’t do so without having an emotional reaction to the number and she would feel that no matter how I tried to hide it. And so I just don’t.
2. Talking about the good aspects of food rather than the bad. Rather than tell her I won’t buy her Cheetos because they’re “bad”, I try to reinforce the good properties of healthy food, like pointing out that grapes are tasty and have lots of antioxidants that help our bodies heal themselves. When she does choose to have a treat, I don’t tell her that ice cream “will make her fat” or whatever but rather that she should enjoy something so delicious. And I try to point out what it feels like to be sated and to stop eating then so your body won’t feel sick.
3. Not commenting on other people’s bodies. I don’t point out “fat” celebrities on magazines. I don’t talk about how “skinny” a friend has gotten. (I also don’t talk about how that man is bald or that lady has a mustache.) Which isn’t to say I never talk about that stuff – I wish I didn’t but I’m not perfect – I just try to not talk about it in front of her. I also try not to bring any of that in the house, either via TV or print, where she or the boys can see it.
4. Remind her that God made us to be so much more than our bodies. I know it sounds cheesy but it’s true: We were created for better than this and I believe every person has a spark of the divine in them. This light exists independent of any external covering. It’s what makes every person beautiful. I think this knowledge of every person’s innate goodness is the seed of self respect and self love.
5. Being a better model. Let’s face it: I’ll never be the perfect model about how to accept yourself. There are so many things ingrained in me that I don’t even realize I’m doing. For instance, recently I noticed Jelly Bean turning sideways and smoothing her stomach in the mirror, the way I do whenever I look in the mirror. Eek. But I can be better. I can show her that a step backward is not failure and a step forward – any step – is worth celebrating. I won’t hide the fact that I’ve had issues from her – I hope to have many developmentally appropriate talks about it as she grows up – but I can show her that people are not the sum of their worst parts. I can show her how much and how completely I love her. In the end, that may be the only thing I can really do. And even then I won’t be perfect. But I can show her that imperfect people are still worthy of all the love.
What do you guys think – am I overreacting to that other mom’s comments about Jelly Bean? What would you have said to her? What advice would give Reader T? How can I help Jelly Bean and my boys avoid the pitfalls I’ve kept falling in all my life?!
Updated to add: After thinking on this some more, I think part of why this incident is still bothering me is because of what it says about my own prejudices. I firmly believe that weight is not a moral judgement. It says nothing about your character, your talent or even, in some cases, your health. And yet I was still upset when I thought someone was calling my kid fat – meaning that clearly I haven’t made as much progress as I thought? 🙁