"I wanted to spare her pain."
Watching my daughter belly dance last year brought tears to my eyes. Jess was 28 at the time, and she was splendid. She wore a costume of bright blue and a gold hip scarf with jiggling coins. Her midriff—also jiggling—was bare. She was graceful in her shimmies, graceful with her arms, graceful when she flicked her naked feet. I loved watching her.
All the years of sitting through the plays of Jess's childhood came back to me, plays in which she spoke her lines in a sweet, clear voice but could never get over the awkwardness of being herself. I had thought that at the heart of Jess's discomfort, on stage and off, was the fact that she felt bad about being fat. Yet everything I did to spare her insecurity about her weight turned out to be a source of pain for her—and a thorn at the heart of our relationship that we're still trying delicately to extract.
As a baby, Jessie was spectacular. Huge blue-gray eyes, a corona of golden curls—my husband, Jeff, and I were delighted with the way she looked, the way she laughed, the way she smelled. To us, she was perfect.
Which is why I was so surprised by an offhand comment made one evening at a local restaurant. The owner's wife was fussing over Jessie, who was about 9 months old. "Ooooh," the woman said happily, "I love fat babies."
Fat babies? What baby was she talking about? My baby? I had a fat baby?
I was 26 at the time, and I had body issues of my own. Growing up, I was always aware of being chunkier than other girls, and the misery that came with that awareness had never quite left me. I didn't want my little girl to grow up with that kind of unhappiness. Maybe—smarter in 1980 than my mother had been in 1953—there was something I could do to spare her that psychic pain.
By the age of 4, Jessie weighed ten pounds more than the charts said she should. Not fat, just chubby—and I knew I shouldn't overreact. "I'm trying very hard to ignore it," I wrote in my journal, "so I don't make her self-conscious and create a problem where there is none."
Of course, that's exactly what I did: create a problem where there was none. I was on the heavy end of my own lifelong weight-seesaw then; our second daughter, Samantha, had just been born, and my postpregnancy weight was stubbornly hanging on. When I dreamed one night that I was shopping at a plus-size store, I woke up in a panic. In the grip of this self-disgust, I turned to my beautiful Jessie and decided I had to fix her.
Meals soon became a battleground. I packed abstemious school lunches—half a sandwich, a fruit, no junk—and used smaller plates at dinner to limit her portion size. I hid the cookies I bought for Sam, and wouldn't tell Jessie where they were. And when Jessie asked for seconds, I'd say, "Are you really hungry?" I thought that sounded supportive. I see now how harsh it was. If she asked for the food, she was hungry. I should at least have trusted her to know her own body's cues.