It started at a birthday party.
"Aww ... are your pants too big for you?" a nearby mom asked my daughter, whose pants were sagging. I quickly tried to move the sinking stretch pants up over my daughter's squirmy rear end. "What size are they?" the mom asked. We peeked together at the tag. They were labeled for age 5, but my daughter was 6 years old. "Wow! She's small, huh?" the size-two mom exclaimed. I nodded in agreement.
The mom then positioned herself directly in front of my child, and looked intently into her eyes. "But you know that's a good thing, right? To be small? I am telling you as a compliment. Trust me, you want to be small!" The woman beamed triumphantly at me, basking in the it-takes-a-village moment she had just shared with us.
"I didn't want her to think it was a bad thing!" the woman said. Never before had I felt more like the size-14 mom that I am.
My husband and I thought we had a foolproof plan for raising a confident daughter. Let's not focus on her appearance, we said. We'll tell her she's smart, she's funny, she's creative. She's got plenty of time to obsess about her looks when she gets older. Our blonde, blue-eyed little cherub was already receiving an onslaught of flattery from the general public.
"Hello, princess! What pretty eyelashes! Aren't you beautiful?" passersby cooed as we strolled down the streets, ate in restaurants, and waited in checkout lines. But never did I imagine that these compliments would go beyond just her face. Suddenly, people were praising the shape of my young daughter's body.
"Look at those long legs!" the lady in the supermarket gushed, as if my daughter had aerobicized and cut carbs to earn those shapely gams that were filling out her SpongeBob Squarepants shorts. "What I wouldn't give for legs like those, sweetie. Good for you!"
My daughter turned to me and asked: "What did that woman mean about my legs, mommy?"
"That she bets you can run really fast," I told her.
When I learned I was having a daughter, I made myself a promise, one which I have diligently kept: I would never once disparage my body in front of her. I thought that maybe, if she didn't hear it from me, she could perhaps be spared some of the internal self-ridicule that robs so many women of the contemplation that could be spent on loftier goals than looking hot in a romper.
And it hasn't always been easy. Over the years she has clung to my leg while I struggled into a pair of Spanx, and twice heard me tell an acquaintance, that no, I really was not expecting again. But she has also grown up with a daddy who tells her mommy everyday how beautiful she is. A mommy who masterfully delivers jokes, takes center stage in musicals, and loves to wear pinup girl dresses and fake lashes. A mommy, who after a lifetime of self-derision, can see a bit more clearly what a dynamite package she offers to the world, belly rolls and all. When my daughter draws my picture, she makes me beautiful. The only people I have ever heard her refer to as "fat" are comically proportioned cartoon characters.
So I visibly bristle every time my daughter is bestowed one of these seemingly innocuous comments. The "Wow! I wish I could eat so much and be soooo tiny!" or, "If I had a flat tummy like that, I would wear a two-piece too!"
In those moments, what kind of conclusion is she shaping about the worth of her own body? The message seems clear: To be thin is an accomplishment to be celebrated, just like the 100 percent score on her spelling test, or her yellow belt in Tae Kwon Do. I am not naive: I knew that society's "thin-is-in" messages would eventually enter her consciousness. I just didn't imagine they'd come barging in while she was still saving errant worms on sidewalks and begging to bring stuffed animals to restaurants.
When you grow up a chubby girl, you get the backhanded compliments. "But you have such a pretty face!" they would tell me. "You need to trim down now before you get older, and it gets harder!" my grandmother, who was eternally obsessed with her own weight, would implore as she roused me at 6 a.m. to do the Richard Simmons workout, fearful I was condemned to inherit a body like hers. Sure, I am relieved that my daughter doesn't seem to have the "fat gene," and that she'll never have to dread "Kids-Pay-What-They-Weigh" night at the local Ground Round the way that I did.
But now, she's 8, and puberty looms.
What will happen to her lithe physique then? Her mother was wearing a 36C bra by 7th grade. What if, instead of going all Blake Lively, she goes all Melissa McCarthy? Both beautiful women, in my book. What if she ends up somewhere in between ... like me? Our foolproof plan didn't include the world heaping her with adulation for "keeping it tight" in the first grade.
So we continue to praise her true accomplishments. We laugh when she makes her belly button talk. We applaud when she crafts a song. And when puberty strikes, we will face what all parents must: Learning how much of our own message got through, and how much of the rest of the world seeped in.