It's a lot of pressure, raising a daughter.
When I was pregnant with her, I didn't want to raise a little girl who was cloaked in pink and frills. I asked people not to buy her pink clothes and pink toys. I didn't want the image of 'little princess' imprinted in all her earliest memories.
When I was pregnant with her, I hoped she'd be smart and funny first, beautiful later. You can make yourself look prettier on the outside, but I've rarely met a person who was funny without being smart. Pretty opens doors; smart and funny open possibilities far into the future. Beauty fades, but the ability to think critically and laugh with your whole body make you infinitely more beautiful to the core.
When I was pregnant with her, I was going to teach her everything it takes to be a woman, inside and out. I was going to be the kind of woman I want her to be some day.
Luca got lucky. I'm biased, I realize, but she has a face that draws praise from strangers for its delicate sloping nose and wide green eyes and rosebud lips. She has legs that are long and thin, a tall and lean body I now hope, as her mother, she will carry into adulthood.
Not because it matters to me whether the world sees her as beautiful. But because, as her mom, I want to protect her. And I know that growing up beautiful, and tall, and thin, and blonde might make her life immeasurably easier.
It's not in my nature to wish for a pretty little girl in a princess dress, flitting about and charming everyone around. I hope that, as she grows, she hears more compliments on her sweetness and kindness and sense of humor than she does on mile-long lashes and soft blonde hair that falls just so. I hope that for every, "She's so pretty!" she overhears, she is told 100 direct, "You're smart/capable/kind/loving/funny/a wonderful friend/daughter/sister."
But how do I marry these wishes for my daughter's sense of self-worth and value with my own obsession over my physical self? How do I follow Weight Watchers and weigh and measure everything on my plate while hoping she grows up with a healthy love of all kinds of foods and without an obsession over calories and fat? How do I stop myself from self-criticism and obsession over my mama belly and my fat thighs so that she doesn't internalize her mom's body issues? How do I explain to her that the dress she chose for me to wear is cute, but I won't feel comfortable wearing it again until _____ (I'm 20 pounds lighter, my legs aren't so pale, the world recognizes beauty in a mother's body)?
How do I tell her to love herself as she is when it's so hard to do that myself?
We talk about food to our kids, in terms of health and nutrition. In terms of, "That will make you strong so you can dance and play." or, "You're so smart and your brain needs good foods to keep growing smarter." We encourage them to run and jump and play. We take them outside, coat them in sunblock, and talk about how strong and healthy and capable they are.
And then, I count Points and horde a stack of jeans that used to fit me in the back corner of my closet, hopefully optimistic that if I just Do It All Right I will fit in them once again someday. I live with an image in my mind of who I could be and how I could look, if only I hold myself to impeccable standards and never lose sight of my goals.
A few months ago, Luca was changing her clothes and she stopped to grab her thigh. "Mama, I have fat thighs! I'll always have these big legs." she announced. It was an offhand comment, and one that wasn't rooted in any real belief that she did have fat thighs. It wasn't based in reality, as anyone who's ever met her could attest to, with her pin-thin legs. It was repeated, almost verbatim, from a comment my husband's mother had made about her own body the day before. We talked about her comment, and how it wasn't true at all. I asked her why she said it. She told me what I already knew: "Well, Gramma said she has fat thighs, mama. So maybe I do too."
"Luca," I asked, "what do you think about Gramma?"
"I love her," she replied. "I think she is beautiful."
"So do I," I answered. "So, let's make a deal. Next time you hear her say something about her thighs, you tell her what you think about her. So when she says 'I have fat thighs' what could you say back?"
"Well," she thinks through it aloud, "I would tell her 'I think you are beautiful'."
And she does. In Luca's eyes, her Grandma is nothing short of beautiful. I watch them together, Luca sitting on Grandma's lap and noticing the same curve of her smile, the same dimple just below the right corner of their mouths. I know that when she looks at her Grandma, she sees herself in many ways. And then I realize, she must feel the same way when she looks at me. And I think about what it says to her when the world compliments her natural beauty and the people she identifies with most in the world are distracted by calling out each of their own perceived flaws.
When someone she loves and admires and sees as a fiber in the fabric that defines her calls themself ugly or imperfect, how could she not grow up expecting to be flawed in the same ways?
I am guilty of saying things about myself in front of her that I have no doubt I'd be heartbroken to hear her say about herself. I am learning as I go, both to be careful how I speak of my own body and being for her sake and to change how I perceive the importance of the size of my thighs or the softness of my belly for both our sakes. I am not perfect. I may never be. I can only work to be better, and hope that I can impart on her a positive self-image that isn't rooted in her physical appearance.
And it's not just for me and for her. It's for my son, too. For the boy who will grow up with his mother and his sister as models of how women look and how they are 'supposed' to look. He's drinking it all in just like she is, and his earliest memories of the female body and how we feel about it, as well as how he's supposed to judge it, are created now. So if I can't stop the self-criticism for my own sake, I want to try to stop it for both of theirs. I want her to grow up with a positive message about how the women in her life feel about their bodies and just how unimportant that single piece is in determining their total worth. I want her to see that my belly may not be flat, but neither is my personality, and that being a kind and smart and capable and funny woman carries more weight than a pound of flesh. And I want my son to know that a woman is more than the curve of her hip or the size of her jeans.
I think we're off to the right start, but I know it will be a lifelong uphill battle. My son regularly watches me get ready in the morning, and lovingly touches the belly that's marred with proof that he once inhabited it. He loves to melt into my curves when he's sleepy and gently knead my upper arms with his hand. Those arms I don't want to show in public because I think they are too fat bring him comfort. My daughter often tells me I am pretty and points out all the ways she will 'be like me someday', a sense of pride and security in her voice. She is not worried she will inherit my fat thighs or my skinny ankles. She is, instead, optimistic about growing up to be just like me.
The day I wouldn't put on the dress she wanted me to wear, my husband kept pressing the issue. Asking me why I wouldn't just wear it. It was pretty, he assured me. But I didn't like how I looked in it, I told him. "I don't understand," he said in response. "For centuries women would have done anything to have a body like yours. There are millions of women who would kill for curves like women are supposed to have. So why isn't it good enough for you?"