It’s possible you’ve always been a skinny girl. But far more likely, you have traveled through life in a myriad of body shapes, like most of us. Skinny at 10, chubby at 13, the Freshman 15 at 19, skinny at your wedding, pregnant, flabby post-pregnancy, pregnant again, and so on (and on, and on). Most women I know, especially mothers, are all too familiar with the shifts—sometimes dramatic—that happen to the female body over a lifetime.
Hormones, adolescence, pregnancy, dieting—I’m not sure most women stay the same weight or shape for more than five years at a stretch for most of our lives. Boys may experience this feeling of body morphing too, but the relentless glare of the public eye on the feminine shape puts female bodies under a harsher spotlight: Our relationship to our physical selves is generally more intense, more fraught. The womanly form also possesses more of the attributes vilified by society: curves, cellulite, a tendency to expand and shrink on even a monthly basis.
You’d think that changeability would make women more compassionate, more understanding and accepting of chubby girls, fat girls, too skinny or too tall girls. But that’s not so. Women judge each other by size and shape more harshly than men do. We compare, we disparage, and we mentally assign points or demerits for body shape and size, starting at a very young age.
The instant puberty hormones begin to kick into gear, usually around age 9 or so, the range of body shapes among girls becomes astoundingly varied. Some remain stick-thin well into their teens; others get thighs and bottoms and tummies; some shoot up above their mothers’ heights by 11, while others still look like little girls at 14. My 10-year-old, while not especially big, looks older than some girls two years ahead of her in school. My seventh-grader has many friends who have already surpassed me in height and weight. None of this is surprising, but the way we think about girls this age is rotten, and parents are culprits too.
If you are the mom of a skinny girl, are you secretly (or openly) proud of that? Do you feel you’ve done something right? Do you hope desperately your thin daughter will stay that way? Whether you’re a skinny mom or perhaps even more likely if you are not, chances are you answered “yes” to all three of those questions.
Conversely, if your daughter is overweight, are you really troubled by that? Do you find yourself watching her eating habits with an eagle eye, or obsessing over every change you see in her body? Do you worry that she will have a lifetime of unhappiness because she’s fat? I imagine many of you would say yes to these questions, in your hearts.
All these responses are reasonable, considering the grief that many women feel over their own body shape. And “grief,” by the way, is not too strong a word to encompass the shame, anxiety, inferiority and depression that so often result from women’s feelings about their bodies. I can’t tell you exactly how to shake those sentiments. After all, that’s how we are conditioned and even encouraged to feel by the world around us. But what makes me so sad is how these feelings can obscure or impede the way we see, truly see, our wonderful daughters.
You may say that wanting your daughter to be a “healthy weight” is something you are doing for her sake, and to some degree I don’t doubt it. We all want our children to be as healthy as possible. But when parents of skinny girls gloat, or parents of chubby girls feel ashamed, those reactive emotions get in the way of how we need to love our girls to ensure they grow up mentally healthy.
So please, try to take weight off the list of things you love or dislike about your child. At the very least, can you push it much lower down? Chances are very high you’re projecting your own feelings—and society’s biases—onto her, when I know what you want is to love her for who she is. When your skinny girl puts on the Freshman 15, do you want her whole identity to be rocked? Do you want her to avoid getting pregnant as an adult because she doesn’t want to gain weight? Will you be happy when your chubby daughter avoids beaches for the rest of her life because she can’t bring herself to put on a swimsuit? Do you want her to feel unworthy of being loved?
This is what it really boils down to: You really, really don’t want your daughter to feel that your love for her is connected to what she weighs. I know you don’t.
A mother of two daughters who are complex, funny, sweet and always beautiful to me