She mumbled under her breath. I snapped in exasperation, “Can you just spit it out? Please stop slow playing.”
She looked down and mumbled again.
“Seriously, just say it. I don’t have time for this.”
My daughter turned away, so I put my ear up to her mouth, ready to hear another banal question meant to drag out our already-too-long bedtime routine. She whispered in an uncharacteristically soft voice, “I don’t like my belly. My belly is fat.”
I felt like someone had sucker punched me. My daughter is five.
I sat there with my mouth agape, stalling so I could come up with the right words.
The words did not come, which surprised me. I write about body image all the time. I spent many years coming to terms with my own postpartum body and getting to a place of “okay-ness.” Therefore, I assumed I would address my daughter’s future body concerns like a wise sage, dispelling nuggets of truth no child could refute.
I also thought I had years, YEARS, before this came up. Secretly, I even had believed I could immunize my daughter against fat talk. I don’t diet. I don’t criticize my looks in front of her. I talk openly and rationally about bodies. I thought my behavior might create a vaccine against toxic body norms.
Was I really that naive? Apparently so.
She looked up at me, waiting for her mommy to say something. My mind was blank. I had to say something. Finally, I hugged her and asked, “Why do you say that?” When in doubt, ask questions.
She touched her belly and said her preschool friends tell her she is fat because her belly isn’t flat like theirs. My daughter is not even marginally overweight. She doesn’t have a “fat belly.” Like many little girls and like myself as a child, it is rounder than most, but it ain’t fat. I didn’t know how to explain this to her without normalizing a preoccupation with weight or bellies.
I kissed her stomach and tried to laugh it off.
“Oh sweetie, they don’t know what they are talking about. You don’t have a fat belly. You have a muscular belly and that’s awesome.” This wasn’t a complete lie. My daughter is strong for a five year-old, plus all people technically have a muscular belly, But, this answer didn’t satisfy me because it felt like a belly fib. Her belly isn’t round because it is muscular. It’s round because that’s just the way it is.
Nevertheless, the muscle talk temporarily excited my daughter. “Mussulir?”
“Sure. We all have muscles under our skin, and your belly just happens to have more developed muscles.”
She lifted her shirt and marveled at her “mussulir” belly. This knowledge made her feel special, but also a little superior. She said she was going to tell her friends that her belly had more mussuls.
Okay then. She was happy. I guess that worked. I told her to go brush her teeth.
As she scurried away, I was oddly unsatisfied with how the conversation had played out. I was glad she felt better, but I didn’t want her going to school and telling her friends something was wrong with their bellies.
I followed her into the bathroom. “Sweetie, umm, I want you to know bellies aren’t supposed to look a certain way.” She looked at me blankly. I tried again. “Bodies are all different and beautiful and umm…” That didn’t sound right to me either. Too Oprah-ish.
My words weren’t helping. She was looking at herself in the bathroom mirror, and I could see the muscle enthusiasm fading away. She touched her belly. “But I WANT a flat belly. My belly LOOKS fat.”
I again didn’t know what to say. When in doubt, ask a question: “Umm, umm, why do you need a flat belly?” She looked up at me with bright eyes and said, “I don’t know.”
Amazingly, that question had cleared the air of my verbal clutter, of my awkward attempts to assuage her. I didn’t want to tell her she wasn’t fat, as if fat was the enemy. I didn’t want to tell her she had a better, more muscular belly than her friends. I wanted to tell her to question the entire conversation, to question the premise, to ask “Why.”
And I realized I wanted that for me as well. I thought I had come to terms with my wrinkly, stretched out belly, a gift from carrying three large children in my tiny frame. I thought I had accepted the parts of my body I couldn’t change.
But maybe I hadn’t. Very few women can come through our culture without internalizing what a body is supposed to look like. I’m no exception. I had told myself to think about the children I had grown, not the belly it left behind. I had told myself to focus on treating my body well, on moving it and feeding it right. All that had helped. But I hadn’t questioned the premise. I hadn’t asked myself “Why do I NEED a flat belly?”
I lifted up my shirt, saw the muscles underneath my stretch marks, saw the roundness and extra skin that would never go away, and I answered my own question:
“I don’t know.”
Guest post written by Meredith Riley. Meredith writes about the postnatal body and body image on her blog Motherfigure. She has an ACSM personal training certification and a MA in English Literature, a logical combination. She also knows more about diastasis recti and pelvic floor disorder than any sane mother should. She can be found on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo by Illuminest Photography.