We’re making our way out of the orthopedist’s office where my 11-year-old daughter’s broken foot has been wrapped in a hot pink cast, and I’ve made what some deem the ultimate faux pas for a mom: I’ve commented on her body.
Clearly she disagrees with my assessment that an estimated four weeks of pushing off a set of crutches will give her buff upper arms.
She gives me the look I’ve begun to call the tween. Nose scrunched up, nostrils flared, smile playing on her lips. It says, “My mother is ridiculous, and now I get to show her how smart I am.”
“No, Mom,” she tells me, her eyes rolling. “My other leg muscles will get really strong because I’m going to have to stand on it for four weeks.”
This is how we talk about her body. She is buff and strong. She has muscles.
There are countless articles out there offering parents step-by-step tutorials on how to help our daughters develop a healthy body image. Most start with some variation of: “Don’t talk about her body.”
It’s tempting. I’d rather explain sex and death to my tween then negotiate the tricky path that is raising a daughter with a healthy body image. It’s hard enough to do in the day and age of face-thinning Snapchat filters, but it’s especially hard for me, because I have bulimia.
I talk about her body because I don’t know how to talk about my own.
The width of my rear end, my own family members often told me, could be measured in the length of ax handles, at least two to three.
I was 180 pounds at my heaviest, 10 pounds larger than I’d be a decade later, waddling into the maternity ward at nine months and eight days pregnant.
My daughter doesn’t know what size I was at her age. We don’t talk about what my family used to mock as my “thunder thighs” or the stomach I kept covered with oversize sweatshirts as a teenager.
She poked at it recently, her index finger sinking into the soft flesh near my belly button as she stretched across me to reach for our puppy.
“You’re soft,” she said, laughing. Then she slapped her hand against her own taut stomach. The sound, like a drumbeat, made her laugh harder. I sucked in my breath and prepared to answer questions about the differences in our bodies, but the questions didn’t come.
Instead she made another grab for the puppy, sinking her fingers into the soft fur just behind the dog’s ears. “Who’s a good puppy pup?”
For her, the moment was over, the subject not terribly interesting.
For me, the moment is my life, the subject one that taunts me as I settle on the couch and nestle a throw pillow in my lap, hiding my stomach.
We’re told that the same-sex parent is the most important role model for a child in matters of weight and body image. We are their mirrors as they develop a sense of self-worth, but mine is a reflection I’d rather my daughter not see. I am a recovering bulimic. Much as many on-the-wagon alcoholics say they will never be “cured” of alcoholism, the fact that I no longer throw up daily does not mean the temptations to purge are gone.
I rely on depression medications taken daily, yoga several days a week and the care of a psychiatrist to help keep myself from falling back on bad habits. Most of the time, it works. I can go months without throwing up. My self-care regimen has become more effective as both she and I have gotten older, as I’ve worked on my coping skills and become better able to focus more on what is right in my life, less on the perfect body that will never be.
I want to be better as much for myself as for her, and sometimes that is enough. But not always.
I threw up after she fell asleep that night, a half pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food consumed in less than 10 minutes, spoon to mouth, spoon to mouth, spoon to mouth. She never knew.
My daughter and I don’t talk about what I do behind the closed bathroom door. Caught purging once or twice, I’ve explained that I was “not feeling too hot.” I’ve blamed our counter-surfing hound for missing snacks scarfed down at night or replaced them without a mention.
We don’t talk about the full-length mirror hidden behind the door in my bedroom, about why I buy jeans exclusively online these days or why I never join her in the swimming hole at the creek near our house. We don’t talk about my body at all, save for how it relates to hers in height or shoe size.
We put value on her body instead.
We talk about the muscles that are being pulled taut across the top of her back as she works to push down on her crutches. We talk about the legs that will power her across a soccer field again once her foot has healed.
We talk about her body now so she’ll be able to talk about it later.