2011. Flora is six and lives in a bit of a bubble. There’s no TV—and thus commercials—in the house. No glossy magazines. The meme videos she watches on Youtube are big brother-tested and, while generally in poor taste, rarely an assault on the self-worth and identity of a young woman. She chooses her clothes among her favourite friends’ hand-me downs, and loves them because of who they came from. “Designer jeans,” to her, are an ethically troubling line of scientific research.*
She eats real food—and lots of delicious, sweet things. She never has to clear her plate. She can eat dessert first. Or never. For breakfast or in the middle of the day. She eats when she’s hungry, and does not eat when she’s not.
She loves herself.
And then, that stupid bastard, he tries to wreck it. When she’s six.
He’s not a bad man, you know. Just a guy. With a TV and without a daughter. I think he was just trying to be nice, make conversation.
This is what he said:
You’re eating a second ice cream? You are going to get so fat.
To my six-year-old daughter.
He moved on. Forgot. The effect on her? That evening, as she comes out of the bath, my six-year-old daughter looks at herself in the mirror—for the first time in her life, critically. She thrusts out her belly. And asks me:
Mom? Am I fat?
And I, who have spent much of my adult life struggling against the eating disorder and body image damage inflicted on my teenage self, I freak. But manage to hold it in, for her. And hear the story, what’s prompting this. And engage in a little bit of deprogramming. And tell her, that the next time I see him, I will explain to him why what he said was inappropriate and wrong and ensure he will never say that to another little girl again.
I figure by the time I see him, I will be… less angry. Because, you know, I know he’s not a bad man. Just a guy. With a TV. And no daughter.
But I’m still furious, seething. And so, what comes out of my mouth, instead of the rehearsed, rational statement I practiced, is this:
I understand you tried to give my daughter an eating disorder.
And he’s shocked—hurt. Doesn’t understand. Then, as I explain—a little appalled. Both at me, and I hope, at his lack of reflection? But perhaps not. I do think, however, he won’t call a little girl fat again. Or suggest she might be getting fat because she’s eating an ice cream cone.
But he hasn’t changed, he doesn’t understand. No, I don’t think I was that effective.
He’ll never do it again, because he’s afraid the little girl’s psychotic mother, who clearly has issues, is going to go medieval on his ass. As I did.
And you know what? That’s good enough. Not perfect. But good enough. That’s what I think in 2011…
2013, now. Flora’s eight and a half. A specimen of physical perfection: healthy, strong, athletic, beautiful. She kicks ass in Tang Soo Do. Does one-handed cartwheels for fun. Can outrun just about every boy on the Common, except for her big brother.
Eats when she’s hungry. Doesn’t eat when she’s not. Snacks on chickpeas. Loves ice cream. There’s no TV or glossy magazines in the house. She’s still lives in a bubble, at least some of the time.
But when she gets out of the bath tub, when she’s in the swimming pool change room—not always, but every once in a while, I see her looking at herself in the mirror—critically.
It rips at my insides.
I thought I could save her. But how can I? She has nine-year-old friends who talk about diets—who are on diets. Too many women in her life, around her torturing themselves, hating themselves. Unhappy with themselves. Passing the message on.
It’s everywhere. She’s learned “fat” is a horrible insult when thrust at a woman. She’s learned the look, shape of her body is what matters the most to too many people.
She’s not even nine yet. She still doesn’t know about designer jeans. But she knows this.
I thought I could save her.
But you won’t let me.
* My kids are brilliant. Deal with it.