“Hello, Chubby!” The daycare provider said enthusiastically, taking my 1-year-old daughter, Lucy, from my arms. I smiled, but the comment echoed in my head all day. I kept imagining how I could have replied:
She’s not chubby, she’s just strong.
That word is insulting to my pre-verbal daughter.
If she’s chubby, then what does that make you?
Each possibility made me cringe; none of them were exactly right. The daycare provider hadn’t meant it maliciously. But the comment stung anyway. It stung not just because I’m protective of my kid as any mom would be, but because I see so much of myself in her and that scares me.
Lucy is in the 99th percentile on the growth charts for her height and weight, and I’ve been hearing comments about her size literally since she was born. When I delivered her via C-section, one of the nurses in the OR said, “That’s a really big baby.” She was 9 pounds, 4 ounces, definitely on the larger end of newborns. At my postpartum appointment, my OB assumed I was supplementing with formula because she was so much bigger than typical 6-week-olds. At her baby movement classes, other parents express surprise at the fact that she’s the same age as their own children. “She must love her food,” one said. I smiled through gritted teeth.
I know people are just making conversation. It’s hard not to comment on a pre-verbal infant’s appearance; it’s not like you can point out their recent career accomplishments. And yet, I cringe every time Lucy’s size makes up at topic of discussion.
My daughter’s best friend right now is three weeks older than she is and is small-framed. In photos, it’s clear they are on opposite ends of the growth chart. Lucy’s friend is always referred to as “delicate” and “tiny” and “adorable.” And her mom and I talk about this, wondering if these descriptors are as damaging as words like big or chubby. Are these labels about looks limiting our babies’ potential?
If Lucy had been a boy, I wonder if the daycare provider would have called her “strong” instead. Because she is. She loves climbing on the play structure on the playground and is just starting to take her first uncertain steps. She’s rough and tumble with her baby friends and only cries for a few seconds, even when she takes a nasty fall. I love these traits about her. But I’m worried she, like everyone else, will focus more on the size of her body than what she can do with it.
Perhaps these are my own issues, but I think about them constantly because I don’t want them to be hers. I remember worrying about being fat when I was 3 or 4, remember comparing how much bigger my thighs and arms seemed than my nursery school peers. Of course I wasn’t fat. I was just a bigger kid than most.
Up until I was 12 years old, I was the tallest person in my grade (including boys). It sucked to not be seen as the tiny one or the cute one in class. I hated being the one to have to stand on the top riser of the class picture, instead of being the kid who got to hold the class sign on the first row. When I was 8, I went on my first diet. I taught myself to purge at age 15. At age 23, I was purging multiple times a week. When I confessed this to a therapist, she expressed surprise, since, in her words, I “wasn’t that skinny.” When I was pregnant with Lucy at age 31, five years after I finally broke the purging habit, a doctor lectured me on how much weight I had gained, saying that I should have been more careful, and I broke down crying. Her response was not to question why a simple number on the scale would cause such an emotional meltdown. Instead, she simply told me to lay off the carbs.
A lot of my own confusion and shame related to body image is that I was never able to comfortably discuss it. When I was a teenager and unhappy with my weight, my mom recommended I come with her to Weight Watchers. As an adult, feeling bad about my body was far more likely to lead me to sign up for a juice cleanse or start training for a marathon than actually talk about my feelings.
What I hope for Lucy is that she has the language to talk about her body, to talk about all the conflicting feelings that come from living in a world that places so much importance on how people look. I know that in order to teach her how to do that, I need to continue to work on my own self-esteem. The fact that the “chubby” comment still bothers me weeks later is a pretty clear sign that even though I’m a lot better than I was in the past, I still have a long way to go in terms of not letting other people’s words affect the way I view myself … or my daughter.
I’m going to start with small steps. For one, I want to make sure I use only positive words in describing the way I look, especially when I’m in front of Lucy. In other words, no “I look fat” comments, plenty of “I look awesome” observations.
Second, I vow to speak up when I hear comments that make me uncomfortable. Every day at daycare drop-off, I’ve meant to say something. Every day, I’ve chickened out. Now, I’m finally going to speak up in a way I wish I had when I was a kid and my eighth-grade geometry teacher said, in front of the whole class, that she could tell I was a swimmer because of my “big shoulders.” I’m going to tell the daycare provider that comments about looks aren’t benign – they can become a part of someone’s identity. And if she has to comment on my daughter’s appearance, she can stick to the universally approved baby descriptor: cute.
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