Sunday, May 27, 2012
Jocelyn and Abigail--by Jocelyn
I never much worried about my weight. I’m 5’5” and roughly 140 lbs. I’ve been that pretty much since I stopped growing sometime in early high school. I say roughly because my family didn’t often have a scale around, and it’s still that way at my house. I think I might have one in a closet somewhere that we use for weighing luggage before flights. I’ll fluctuate to about five pounds on either side, but that’s about it. That excludes pregnancy, of course, but even post-pregnancy I dropped back down to right about 140 lbs within a couple of weeks. I was not-so-nicely teased about that a few times, dropping the pregnancy weight so quickly, but for the most part I haven’t thought about it much. I never really have. It’s just how I am. I guess that makes me one of the “skinny girls” even if I do have curves. Especially in light of the other stories I’ve read here, I know that I have been incredibly lucky. Though I did have the common enough teenage phase of “I’ll never be pretty enough” I have a strong foundation, a supportive family and a bit of a tough-as-nails personality, and between all these things and the grace of God I have stayed pretty content with how I look and feel. I should confess that I do still fight the urge to seek reassurance that I’m not fat, that I am pretty and desirable. I haven’t ducked the societal bullet of “this is beautiful and nothing else; seek it” quite entirely. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you know, it matters what you feel, and society is very good at making a normal, healthy young mother feel fat. I know I am not, but sometimes I seek reassurance anyway, and I wish that weren’t the case. Nonetheless, I know I am blessed and I am deeply thankful for it.
I guess it is pretty obvious that I don’t have many of the usual body image problems in any intensity; not with being too heavy or too skinny. I worry sometimes, but not too much and it isn’t too hard to shake. So why I am I writing this? It’s certainly not to “rub it in”—I’ve been profoundly moved by the stories I’ve read here, the testimonials I’ve seen. The strength of all these women to grow and change and overcome obstacles is inspiring. I’m writing to offer a point of view that isn’t yet represented: addressing body issues as they pertain to someone else, that is, as a mother. Let me tell you about my daughter. Her name is Abigail, and she just turned one year old. Abigail is thriving. She is very intelligent and certainly plenty healthy. She got her father’s build and my eyes. He’s 6’5” tall and roughly 185 lbs—to be clear, he’s a tall, thin man (and this is the heaviest he’s ever been, and he’s by far the most fleshed-out member of his tall, thin family!). Abigail is off the charts for height, and 60th percentile for weight. So, that makes her look a good bit like Daddy. She eats plenty and has chubby little baby thighs, a round belly, and curvy cheeks. Those eyes like mine are even bigger in her little face, blue and shiny. She’s adorable, in fact (okay, so I’m biased, but she is! Just look at the picture). She’s smart and quick. She is a little behind the curve on physical skills (she isn’t walking yet, but she’s working on pulling up; if you don’t spend much time around babies, that means she’s about 2 months slower to gain those skills than the average kid). However, she’s been that way since day one; precocious intellectually and a little slower to gain physical skills. It’s been posited that this is in part an effect of her build. She has more bulk to move around and it’s in a different distribution than that of many kids. One way or the other, it’s never before been anything to worry about. It’s not even a developmental delay, in the clinical sense. She just has her own, easily measurable pace for growing. It’s a delight to watch her learn and change and take charge of her world, even as it is also a challenge to deal with some days!
Abigail’s relative slenderness has never been a point of difficulty or concern … until her 12 month checkup at the doctor’s office. She had gained weight and height, as usual, but her percentile weight had gone down some, as had her percentile head circumference. Her height was still off the chart, so who knows about that. Apparently, when more than one stat goes down we’re supposed to start making concerned faces. Now, let me clarify—she still gained weight between appointments, just not enough to keep her at the same percentage marker on the charts. It couldn’t be that she is growing into her body type or anything <sigh>. Instead, I got lots of advice about how to adjust her eating to contain more fats and proteins and a “gentle” mention that, if Abigail’s stubborn aversion to eating chunkier foods (she likes things pureed and isn’t a huge fan of this “eat the green bean by chewing it yourself” plan—we’re working on it :D) wasn’t worked out by her next appointment she’d be recommended for “food therapy” (that exists?! For babies? What??). I was upset when I got home from this appointment. No matter how many different ways they say it, a mother still hears “your baby is broken, you did a bad job feeding her, now go be a better mother and fix it.” For the record, my baby eats a lot. She’s always been a vigorous nurser and she slurps down her solid foods. As every member of my family, extended and immediate, went out of their way to say, Abigail is healthy and the doctor clearly just doesn’t understand her body type very well. When I had pretty much gotten over it (though I must admit, I still worry some now even though I don’t need to), I got an entirely unsolicited and unexpected letter in the mail from the doctor. It was entitled “how to fatten up your baby” (what a hurtful title!) and listed most of the same suggestions the doctor said at the appointment. It sent me right back into the spiral of worry.
It’s amazing how much one little comment, one chart created from a generalized survey and societal expectations about growth, can destroy someone’s confidence. I talked about my own history of relative non-issues with my body to give a baseline; I am not particularly susceptible to body image problems. I don’t have a history of worrying about this stuff. But someone tells me my daughter isn’t quite right and all that resilience goes right out the window. I never thought I’d have to start wrestling these questions when Abigail was this little. Sure, right now the doctor is just expressing mild concern based on health, but my child is fundamentally and demonstrably healthy. She routinely startles this same doctor with her intellectual development, activeness, and playfulness. She’s fine. But what I’m hearing is focus on how her body isn’t what the charts expect, and I can’t help but think: is this what my baby is going to hear for the rest of her life? “You’re too skinny”? Not just, as others on this blog have talked about, from people who are jealous or think they’re joking, but from her doctor? From people about whom I, her mother, can’t really say “They don’t know you and how God made you to be, so let their criticisms roll off.” After all, her doctor should know her body type, should know that this is how she grows and that she is healthy, eating well, exercising and all those good things (should they be true, of course, as they are now).
I was lucky; my mother and relatives told me that I was healthy, that I was pretty, and they were correct and meant it. I’ve always planned to pass that support on to my kids, but will that be enough? How do we raise our children, especially girls, to know that their overall health is what matters, no matter how they’re built, when we’re hearing from age one that they don’t conform to the standard and that we must take action to deal with it? When will that become “you don’t have enough curves like the rest of the teen girls, take action to deal with it?” These are the questions that others writing here have talked about, of course, the questions that drive this entire discussion. What shapes our body image, who tells us what it should be, and how do we deal with the negative messages that come with a cultural assumption of a single kind of beauty. But what I never realized was how early these messages start turning up, and how insidiously. Yes, I do believe that Abigail’s doctor was speaking out of genuine concern for her health, not because she isn’t pretty or some such nonsense. But Abigail is rapidly acquiring language. Though I’m sure she wasn’t tuned in to any of the talk at this last appointment (she was happily playing with the doctor’s aide in other corner of the room), what if such concerns are raised when she’s three, or five? Certainly old enough to hear what we’re talking about, to absorb that this figure of authority thinks something is wrong with her and that we should do something about it. Just how young do our children begin to see their normal bodies as something that need to be fixed? When does it start? As her parents my husband and I fully intend to give her all the help having a healthy idea of her own body and growth as we can along with all the other support one wishes to give a growing child. We’ll do our best. But why, oh why, am I already hearing “Your daughter isn’t what my stats say she should be. Maybe you should do something about that”? Maybe, just maybe, we should all watch what we say: to our friends, to our family, and, most of all, not just to our children but around our children.