Mom, am I too big?

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.

 

selective focus photography of vine plant crawling on brown rod

Photo by Thanh Nguyễn on Pexels.com

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!)

 

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My confident little love, proudly sporting a Halloween costume she created to look like her favorite podcast host, Mindy (from Wow in the World!)

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a love letter to my large, soft, magnificent body

Hi there.

I forget you are me, sometimes. The other day I was listening to one of my favorite therapists/podcasters talk about embodiment and how easily we separate our consciousness from the bodies we inhabit. What a fascinating idea, I thought. Until this moment I wasn’t aware there was any other way to exist!

The more I think about this duality, the more I realize how I have treated you, beloved body, more as clothing for my soul than a living, breathing home for my being in the world. I am so sorry. I can see now how my need to separate my spiritual thoughts, my intellect, my emotions from the flesh that sustains them has hurt us both. How the shame that I feel about you, dear one, has kept me from nurturing and nourishing you with the sort of healthy choices that would, in turn, sustain my inner life. I’ve been taking some time to reflect on where these ideas came from and how this shame narrative took root.

One of my earliest shame memories happened when I was just 7 or 8. We were getting a family photo done at a studio and mom had matching outfits for us to wear. I was supposed to wear a skort, but I remember it was too small for our growing body. I felt bad that I was making trouble for mom, but I was also so uncomfortable with how it felt -tight across my legs and belly and looked with my also-tight shirt tucked in. I remember trying to smile nicely and stand perfectly still as we were positioned under the watch of a strange man who told us how to move our bodies. I remember someone telling me several times to stand up straighter, and how I thought I was and didn’t understand their urgency until we were in the dark room afterwards looking at the photos and the photographer said “Well, this one is the best of their smiles but her belly is sticking out in front” and I realized the “stand up straight” command was a missed cue to hide this unsightly part of our body.

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preserved in all our 90s side-scrunchy & corduroy button-up glory

I remember my mom saying she loved it anyway, and it hung prominently in our house for years. I hated it. I knew my hatred of a photo was irrational, but I hated living beneath this display of my apparently undesirable body. Oddly enough, it was just a few days ago that she texted me that photo, totally out of the blue, and in seconds I was snapped back 20+ years to the the sharp sick feeling of self loathing under some creepy male gaze.

And then there was that time when we had just moved across the country and I was 10, a few weeks in at my new school and wearing a brand new outfit I was so proud of: floral glitter t-shirt, white bike shorts, and some very visible flower print underwear. I tried not to cry while a boy and a girl I thought I was becoming friends with kept trying to get me to turn around so they could laugh some more. I tied my windbreaker around our waist and stayed in my seat for the rest of the day. I remember being most angry that I didn’t know about this rule. Why hadn’t anybody told me! And who looks at someone else’s underwear? It was so petty and so cruel and they brought it up over and over again  for the rest of the year.

As we grew older, got braces, boobs, hips, and hormones things only intensified. I tried desperately to follow all the rules – clothes that fit in enough not to draw ridicule but also weren’t vain or indulgent or immodest. Oh how the tyranny of modesty ruled our adolescence! I turned 13 and suddenly every adult woman in my life seemed tasked with reminding me that our body was a weapon, that we were causing “sin” simply by existing in the world unless we were properly covered and avoided male attention. This shame was heavy to carry, but I understood the gravity of the offense and faithfully followed the rules.

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please note the punny christian sweatshirt “upon this rock” that I wore for about a year straight

I have journals full of prayerful confessions of every crush, my longings to wear eye shadow, to be pretty, my daydreams about a someday boyfriend who would hold my hand and share a fanta and curly fries with me in the cafeteria at lunch. You remember, I fervently tried to pray these dreams of love and happiness away. I went to the accountability groups, small groups, youth groups, read the devotionals, wore the true love waits ring, went to the conferences and wrote the pledges and truly believed that maybe I could stop the shame weight bearing down on us if I was just good enough. If I just did all the things that were required of me. If I surrendered and repented and denied my every longing.

And then I felt betrayed by you, body. I realized I had sexual desires inside myself, that it wasn’t just the boys and men out there being forced “into sin” because I existed alongside them. No, I was horrified to realize that I also had those feelings, and I didn’t even have to be near anybody else to have them! (Oh my dear body. How I wish I could have a do-over of those years!)

I began to run cross country around that time, solidly a back-of-the-packer, but full of joy to feel the wind in my hair and the exhaustion in my muscles at the end of a long run.  (Thank you for those magnificent feelings. I still ache for the warmth of the Colorado afternoon sun kissing goose pimpled skin.) Once our muscles built up some endurance I was able to use my runs to process my churning thoughts, releasing the stress and anxiety about my “disturbing” sexuality and problematic existence in the world. It was so satisfying, putting those miles on the road day after day. Still, even as my times steadily improved and my joy of running left me effervescent after practice, I couldn’t help but notice it was all the thin girls who had the best times, the coach’s praise, the welcome into the heart of the team. Their long, lean legs easily carried them through races, sometimes in half the time it took ours. I looked at our short, curvy build with shame and hatred. Our thighs rubbed together and chaffed while I ran. I didn’t know about running tights or chafing gel and shame kept me from asking for help, as if I deserved the pain as penance for my missing thigh gap.

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I literally shit talked myself for months while pummeling myself through daily workouts to fit into this dress. The day I put it on I felt enormous next to the other bridesmaids and felt guilty that I would ruin the pictures for the bride.

I have felt great joy to be in this body. I think of the many times when your strength carried me through dark seasons, up steep hills, even through the wildness of a twin pregnancy and three years of nursing them after. I am grateful. But I have also been so cruel to you. Somewhere along the way I started to believe that good exercise was the kind that left us totally miserable and in pain. That things that felt good and restorative couldn’t possible BE good, because I didn’t think I deserved goodness. That a large soft body doesn’t deserve to feel good about herself. That a curvy, jiggly body shouldn’t enjoy running in public where other people have to look at it. That a “plus sized”, passionate woman doesn’t deserve to have her needs met, her feelings considered, her voice heard. If she wanted those things, she should be smaller, more beautiful, more put together, less than she was.

Sometimes you would delight me before I could get my guard up. Moments of intimacy with Drew, the soft quiet of middle of the night nursing sessions with squishy toddler bodies, the rush of endorphins on a random Tuesday on the trail – me lost in thought to a good podcast, you running your heart out. Magical moments of oneness.

I want more of those. I want to spend more time meditating on your strength, your wisdom, your nurturing love. Bur first, I need to thank you for your faithful work, for showing up for me all these years while I resented and mocked and ignored you. You are a beautiful being, and I am so lucky to have a home in you.

To my strong legs and somehow ever-widening feet, you have made quite the journey. None of the last decade has gone according to any of your plans, but you have been quick to carry us forward into the adventures. You’ve literally carried the brunt of the weight that emotional eating has brought into our life. You’ve waited patiently for me to be ready to walk or run or swim or dance out the heartache and fear.  I’m sorry I have only had eyes for the dimpled flesh that covers you, not an admiration for the strong muscles beneath that have allowed me to carry the weight of the unexpected twin pregnancy, to keep up with two wild, growing children, to stand and cook countless meals to feed my family, and to escape to the beautiful outdoors for hikes and bike rides – soul soothing refreshment that can only be found out of doors.

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Soft, freckled arms. In middle school I learned that beautiful girls could easily encircle their wrist with their fingers. I couldn’t. Still can’t. But that hasn’t stopped a steady stream of little hands from tugging on those wrists over the years. Tugs of excitement, pulling me along to explore, tugs of anxiety, little fingers curling into my own. Thank you for your sturdiness. I remember someone in college calling her arms “bat wings” while waving her hand back and forth, un-flexed muscles waving along with them. I was fascinated by this new way to hate something I had previously thought normal and natural. Suddenly I noticed every jiggle and the small stretch marks that trailed along the length of you. I made a note to stick with longer sleeves, always layering a cardigan over a tank top even in the summer, only removing it when the sweat became more embarrassing than the sight of my milky skin. But your strong, soft arms have cradled and comforted those I love most in the world. Tiny crying newborns. Weary, exhausted adults. Your short stubby fingers, the ones that haven’t fit in the wedding band for years, they have gently caressed our children through sleepless nights, stomach viruses, heartaches of all kinds. They have guided our children safely from home and back again, they have been an anchor point in bewildering times. One soft reassuring squeeze helps your anxious husband to exhale, your children to flash you a smile while they raise your hand to their lips for a sticky kiss.

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Beloved torso. Last night when I realized we were finally one payment away from owning our car it brought to mind how I couldn’t drive it when we first bought it because you were pushed to your limits and beyond growing a baby shelf that shot straight out of our hips, defying gravity. If I pushed the seat back far enough to be able to turn the steering wheel, my feet couldn’t reach the pedals! The kids thought that was hilarious. How could a belly stretch so big? How could it carry two 8.5lb babies to full term? You mystify me. You have always been a little squishy, like a soft pillow, but now you are like pillowy bread dough turned out on a counter. You have lumps and wrinkles and sags, some of you even spills down past our hips. I worry so much about this, always tucking you into tight, high-waisted pants so nobody else will see you. I’m sorry. You deserve to be showcased, celebrated for your nature-defying feat. You are pure magic, the way you stretched yourself to the limits of elasticity for the sake of two creatures you had never met. I love how they love you. How they smoosh you around to create the perfect pillow. In the same way, your once full, round breasts now rest low and soft, spent fully for the children you nourished. They endured tiny gnawing gums and then teeth, faithfully feeding needy babies who refused bottles and demanded your golden milk around the clock for years. Now, sometimes, you get little pimples where sweat gets trapped under your floppy curves. I’ve been so embarrassed by these I haven’t really considered how I can better care for you and your skin. I want to do better. You deserve the moon, beauties. Thank you for giving life to my babies.

 

 

Finally, our head. This is the weirdest to consider because I find it easier to live in you than the others. But that doesn’t stop me from resenting you. Your large nose. The cystic acne. The large wide forehead and caterpillar eyebrows. Over the years I have swung from obsessing about your care and appearance to neglecting to even wash your face or run a brush through your hair. I have resented you, blamed you for loneliness and for lack of love. You have been endlessly resilient. You allow me to express the full range of my emotions, and there are so many. Your soft, full lips allow me to cover my children with kisses. To connect deeply with my beloved even when our words fail us and the chasm between us seems too wide to conquer. Your mouth is a willing instrument of all the thoughts and hopes and dreams I drum up inside. You allow me to speak words of love, of passion, of anger, connection, understanding, joy. I can sing just enough to ham it up to the Frozen and Moana soundtracks. I can ask my million questions, exploring the mysteries of the world through conversation with cherished friends.  You give me eyes to see the brokenness and beauty around me, ears to hear the needs and cheers of my friends. You give me those gifts. I am so thankful.

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Thank you Jen Lints Photography for this photo! ❤

Dear body, I am so sorry that it has taken me so long to understand the narratives I was blindly believing about you and your worth. I’m sorry I have accepted the patriarchal story that a female body only has worth if she is sexualized, and that she is shameful for being a temptress if she exists beyond her objectification. I am sorry I have allowed insecurities to become facts, sorry that I have participated in self-hating conversations with friends as a way to bond with them, sorry that doing so further convinced me how true they were. I’m sorry I have allowed toxic cultural stories about our body size and shape and ability to define our value. I should have protected you the way you have protected and carried and nurtured me. I should have celebrated rather than deprived you. I should have delighted in your movement, not critiqued your every jiggle and exposed inch of skin.

You are magnificent. It’s me, your brain, your spirit, your soul, that needs to heal. I have been riddled with toxic self loathing and comparisons for years. Even after escaping the patriarchal purity culture I have held onto the shame as a kind of penance. I want to release it. You deserve so much more. I want to join you in showing our children what it means to live fully embodied. To flourish. To dance. I promise I will do a better job of listening to your needs, of celebrating your hard work, of nourishing you with rest and food and exercise and love.

I promise to re-familiarize myself with your curves and folds. To mother you, to speak love into your pimples and stretch marks as I massage lotion into your thirsty skin. To stretch your strong muscles after they have worked hard. To listen to you when you tell me we need sleep more than a completed to-do list.

Thank you, my beloved. Your faithful love, your strength, your joy radiates from the tips of my toes to the top of the my head and into the very core of my being. You make me come alive with your power to love and transform the world. I’m ready to honor your work with my own.

Thank you.

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