Photo: Alessandra Petlin
The Mother's Story
"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.