I remember that I was carrying my infant daughter, wrapped tightly to me as I wandered through a church bazaar when a voice said, “What a beautiful baby!”
I thought so, of course, but it was nice to hear it from a stranger, so I turned and thanked the person behind the voice. I don’t remember what she looked like, but I want to judge her, in retrospect – in my mind, her perfectly coiffed, single-hue dye job was oversprayed, her skin showed the damage from too many tanning booths and she wore too much expensive, cloying cologne – but I really don’t know. She looked into my baby’s beautiful eyes and returned her bright, cheerful smile – and then looked at me and said “You’re going to keep her thin and pretty, right?”
To be fair, my post-partum body may have made me sensitive, but in my moment of confusion I could only nod dumbly, and she walked away. I stood there, mouth open, trying to weather the sting of tears and the wave of heat that colored my face.
Nine years, and a thousand unprintable comebacks later, I am still dumbfounded by her remark. But as my daughter has grown from that beautiful baby into a spirited, engaging, happy little girl, I have this to say:
This is how I am going to “keep” her.
Her style, up to recently, could only be described as Boho Fairy Mermaid. She creates her own ensembles. She has worn tutus and sequins and faux fur with cowboy boots and paisley. She alters dresses she’s outgrown into skirts and turns the scraps into infinity scarves. She once made an entire outfit out of aluminum foil, plastic grocery sacks and duct tape. Lately, she doesn’t want to comb her hair and she has become so attached to a snowman hat with Fargo earflaps that she sleeps in it. It makes me nervous for what will come next, but – I am going to “keep” her unique and confident: unapologetically who she is and respectful of that person – because that self-respect is the only thing that will save her when someone else doesn’t respect her.
She and her BFF have made a killing in the school store this year, by selling ice cream sundaes. Copycat competitors have sprung up in every grade, but because they keep the favorites and introduce new products, they continue to lead the pack. Next time they are selling cookie sandwiches, but you’ll still be able to get your favorite vanilla with chocolate syrup. I am going to “keep” her smart and creative: thinking for herself, learning how to improve on a good plan, and creating success that will serve her far better than “thin and pretty” ever will.
I want her relationship with her body to be a friendly one. She is already taller and developing faster than her friends, and while I can’t shut out all the messages from the world that tell her she is not enough, or too much, I can keep my own self-talk positive and help her make choices that focus on physical health rather than an unattainable standard of beauty. I am going to “keep” her healthy and active, and instead of focusing on who she DOESN’T look like, accepting and loving who she IS.
I wondered, for a long time what it was about me that would make someone say something like what that woman said that day. I understand, now, that it was never about me.
I hope to help my daughter stay kind and loving; thoughtful and accepting of diversity and difference. I hope to model how to choose and foster healthy friendships with both girls and boys. I hope to “keep” her valuing herself as more than just a physical type or an extension of another person.
I will succeed in some ways, I will fail in others. But the groundwork has already begun.
I will do my damnedest to “keep” her from holding herself up to the damaged mirror of another person, and thinking that it is she who has fallen short.