“It’s time to exercise, baby,” I call to Buttercup. “Did you want to play or workout with Mama?”‘
She’s in the playroom she has dubbed her “magical land,” but immediately joins me at my side and waits for the DVD to cue up.
“Are we going to get healthy and strong?”
I smile. “Exactly.”
When I was a baby, my thighs were so chubby that one of my aunts used to eat them like drumsticks. It’s a story I heard often when I was growing up, usually told with the requisite giggles from my mother and a pinch on my legs from whomever else was within reach. I thinned out as I grew, but I never thought myself skinny. Instead, “big” was how I classified my body. “Big” because I was five feet tall at eight years old. The same height as my mother and almost every other adult woman in my family. “Big” as in not dainty with curves that snuck up on me when I was 12 and muscle definition that would have put me in the “athletic” category. But that word didn’t exist in the Spanglish craziness my family resided in. Instead, children were scolded for not finishing what was on their plate and reprimanded for needing to watch what they were eating—usually in the same breath.
I remember vividly the day my father noticed my new set of hips. I weighed 156 pounds and stood 5-foot 6-inches tall. I wore a size 10 and only now realize I only thought that was a bad thing because my mother never shut up about the size 6 she could still squeeze into after five kids. If I could wake up with that body today?
My father, who stood no taller than me, pinched the curve of my hip.
“You need to lose some weight.”
I started making myself throw up after watching a news special about a woman caring for eating disordered girls in her revolutionary treatment center. The point of the special was to enlighten and educate on the dangers of eating disorders and the needs of those suffering. I took it as a how-to manual.
Sometimes I wonder if my actions are the cause of the body I see in the mirror today. The hypoactive thyroid. The polycystic ovarian syndrome. The number on the scale. I was skinny before when I thought I was fat. Just because I was the only set of ethnic hips in the sea of curveless white wonders at school, I thought that meant I needed to better control what I was eating. And because I had failed at being an anorexic previously, the consolation prize was closet bulimia. If I didn’t have the control to not eat, I could at least force my body to get rid of the evidence.
I should have just opened my eyes.
My daughter is three and often confused for a five-year-old. She’s built like her father’s side of the family: tall and lean. My nickname for her is “Little.” And I skip the word “fat” when it’s included in any of the books I read to her.
“”She’s so big for her age,” strangers often say when they realize how young she actually is. I always smile and gently correct them, whether or not she is paying attention.
“Yes,” I say, “She’s very tall.”
We eat clean: no processed sugar, no processed foods, and are gluten free, to boot. For dessert, she’ll choose watermelon over an ice cream sundae. (At least for now.) And because I can’t control what the rest of the world says or what she will hear, I try to sidestep any of the emotional triggers adults verbalized when I was a kid.
If she refuses to eat a meal after two bites of food, instead of force-feeding, I simply ask if she would like a cookie. If she says yes, I tell her that she has room for more of her meal first. If she says no, I believe her and take her plate away. I never criticize my own body in front of her. And I never diet. Instead, we all eat what’s best for our bodies.
Maybe the truth behind the sweat and the time commitment is that I would like to lose a few more pounds and firm up my muffin-top belly. Maybe I’d like to feel as beautiful as my husband tells me I am (and sometimes, I do). But I’ll be damned if I say any of that out loud to a three-year-old who thinks it’s funny to arch her back and stick her belly out after a good meal.
We are exercising to get healthy and strong.
And one of these days, after saying it enough to her, maybe I will believe that myself.