It’s a familiar routine. I sit cross legged on the pink shag rug in Evelyn’s room, trying to coax her out of her clothes and into pj’s. She resists, frantically emptying every last thought from her head before the door is closed and she is left alone with her thoughts all night.
There’s always a bit of a tussle because she can’t get the shirt over her head without temporarily pausing her train of thought (impossible), and in the waiting I’m zoning out a bit – watching her without really hearing, marveling at this funny, curious person I brought into the world. (To be sure, there are also plenty of times when I’m just ticking off the seconds until I can interrupt her without feeling guilty. It’s definitely a mixed bag. But occasionally we achieve delight!)
We finally get the shirt over her head and the nightgown on, but a final yank of the leggings lands her hard on her bum. She tears them off and yells that they are too small and “not sparkly enough anyway!” Still in parent la la land I just grin and add “target: leggings” to my mental shopping list. But then I’m snapped back to the present with her words, “Wait, this tag says 5. I’m only 4. Mom, am I too big?”
Woah. We’re doing this already? My brain flashes with images of my own young body – in 90s stirrup leggings, my legs folded crisscross on a scratchy school carpet next to slender little girls whose knobby knees poke out at perfect angles, then on field day in the school-spirit shirt, mine comes from the “boys” pile and hugs my soft belly while the other girls achieve that adorable over-sized tee & bike shorts look, then I’m 13 and in a dressing room at the mall where the low rise jeans don’t begin to contain my behind and my friend is asking me to come out and show her, the shame memory brings heat to my neck even now.
“Mom!” Her call snaps me back to the present and I see she’s carefully examining the tag and frowning. I feel wholly unprepared. She looks up at me, her delightful little uni-brow furrowed, waiting for me to explain.
I stammer out, “Oh honey… size and age aren’t the same thing… those numbers don’t mean anything! We just try on clothes until we find the ones that feel good. If those aren’t comfortable anymore, we’ll find some that are!”
She is, of course, immediately satisfied with this answer and tosses them in the donate pile in her closet, chattering about what color she wants to get to replace them and how they should have sparkles so they can match the glittery dress she wants to wear to the valentines party.
But the weight of this moment sticks with me. The weight I felt, at least. She has no concept of self-loathing, no irritation about the features of her skin or the softness of her belly. So why does it feel so loaded when these things come up? Are these moments really as weighty as they feel? How can I possibly guide her into a self-assured adulthood when I am still mired with so much of my own body shame baggage?
In her book Mothers Daughters & Body Image, Hillary McBride explains the concept of “choosing the ladder” as an alternative to staying stuck in our own shame. Her research shows that when mothers nurture and affirm their daughter’s sense of self confidence and body image (even if they don’t totally believe it for themselves), their daughters are able to experience greater self confidence and self love than their own mothers. In fact, mothers who “were able to look at their lives with honesty and courage, and name the things that they had struggled with most” (p.10) were actually transformed by the process themselves. They offered a “ladder” of perspective and growth to their daughters, a path to a healthier self-image, and in the process many found healing and eventually even a hand up from the adult daughters they had been nurturing for so many years.
This idea is so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes every time I think of it. So many of us battle messages from our families, our social circles, our online communities, and especially our own minds that we are not good enough. That we do not deserve the space we inhabit. Sometimes these judgments are pointed and overt, but I find that I am most beat down by the everyday language and cultural rhythms that shape our sense of what it means to be whole. Shame is so hard to shake, and I am desperately afraid that it will get its claws in my child too.
In those moments of fear and panic I am clinging to the examples in Hillary’s book – stories of mothers and daughters who manage to grow in spite of their personal baggage or the influence of others. Not because they never encountered these patterns in the world and not because their mothers were perfect, but because they faced the shame head on, deliberately, together.
This weekend Evelyn and I are going shopping for some new leggings. Since our chat earlier this week I’ve noticed that a bunch of mine have holes forming along the inseam – something I’ve been ignoring because I keep telling myself this horrible story that I don’t deserve new clothes until I lose more weight. What a gift to have a daughter with such a keen eye for style and clothes that feel good! I’m sure she’ll be able to help me find a few new pairs to replace these punishment leggings I’ve been holding onto. (Sparkles optional, but who knows! I’ve never tried them and I hear great things!)