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As a first-time mom, I was stopped constantly when I was out with my son. People would admire his sky-blue eyes, and almost always note what a big boy he was.
I often heard that I had a future football player on my hands. I would walk away glowing with new-mom pride, knowing my son was perfect in every way.
Two years later, when I was out with my equally chubby infant daughter, I would often walk away from such encounters feeling judged and angry.
When I was carrying my son, no one ever asked me if I had talked to the doctor about his weight, to make sure he was healthy.
Yet I was asked this question constantly when my daughter was in my arms.
Jackson was just “beautiful,” whereas Lily’s compliments were usually followed with a but – “but she’s a big one,” or “but maybe you should talk to your doctor,” or even “but maybe you shouldn’t feed her on demand.”
According to the general public, Jackson was healthy, strong and robust. Lily was fat.
The first time a stranger’s words really stung, Lily was about three months old. Dressed in a pink-and-yellow-striped sundress, she was deeply asleep, making her heavy in my arms as I walked around the drugstore.
We reached the end of an aisle, and an employee looked up from straightening the shelves. Her obligatory smile melted, and her face warmed as she took a step toward us, reaching her hand out to rub Lily’s back.
“So peaceful,” she whispered as she ran her fingers down Lily’s arm. “What a big girl,” she added.
“Yes, she is,” I replied with a smile as I squeezed Lily’s slumbering body a little closer. She weighed more than 20 pounds.
The woman couldn’t have known that Lily weighed only four pounds when we brought her home from the hospital, or how carefully we’d had to monitor her during the first weeks at home.
Nor how beautifully Lily had gained both weight and health as the days passed. The woman standing before us could not have known how thankful I was for every ounce.
“Beautiful,” she said with a smile. “And I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. She’ll slim down as soon as she’s up and walking.”
I stood there, staring at the slender woman, for the first time noticing her mousy hair, her bangs perfectly curled under as if she had just been in the back room with a curling iron. She wore glasses seemingly from the same era as her hairstyle, and blue eyeliner. The nastier side of me wanted to point her to the cosmetics aisle. But I said nothing, smiled, and politely made my exit as if in a hurry to finish my errands before baby should awake.
I walked away carrying the heft of that woman’s words and her insinuation that my daughter was anything less than perfect at a mere three months old.
Fortunately, Lily didn’t understand her insinuation, but that two-minute conversation took me immediately back to the first moment I became aware of my body; the moment I became embarrassed by it.
I wasn’t particularly heavy, but I had a body shape different than most of the girls my age. One day, a group of friends and I made up a play at recess, which we later performed for the entire class. I don’t recall why, in third grade, I was pretending to be pregnant, but to play the role I had shoved a pillow up my shirt.
As I worked my way to the front of the classroom, weaving through the maze of desks with my hands on my cushioned belly, I heard a boy yell: “Hey, you don’t need the pillow!”
I pretended not to hear, but in that moment I realized that this boy I had played with almost every day for three years saw me as The Fat Girl. At eight years old, that became my new identity. Unintentionally, I gave his words power and allowed them to start the process of tying my weight to my self-worth.
It feels as though most of my life has been dominated by a struggle with my weight, and trying to separate it from my worth and capabilities. It’s a horrible, time-consuming burden, one that I am terrified of passing on to my children.
Six years have passed since I held my healthy baby girl in my arms. Now, I have to chase down my tall, active, slender daughter for the chance to steal a quick hug.
The other morning, I couldn’t get her hair exactly how she liked it. Lily’s patience, which is usually short when it comes to grooming, was holding and I was enjoying the time as we talked and brushed. As I tried to fix a bump in her braid she said: “It doesn’t matter if my hair looks bad; I’m still awesome.”
I leaned over and kissed her cheek. “Yes you are, kid.”
I know that Lily is going to be assaulted with media images, teenage pressures and all the cruelty that comes with growing up, but my hope is that she will always be able to look in the mirror and say, honestly and unapologetically: “It doesn’t matter how I look; I am awesome.”
Kathy Moores lives in Owen Sound, Ont.
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