My newly three-year-old daughter, naked except for a bright-pink bathing suit bottom, runs through the sprinkler at our neighborhood playground squealing, “Look at me run mama! I’m so fast.”
My daughter is not ‘so fast’. Her run resembles an awkward speed-walker in training, all hips and arms, her feet barely leaving the pavement. But to me her form is perfect; I want to imprint it on my eyelids. The unadulterated pride and joy she takes in her body is the ultimate gift.
I have always struggled to find joy in my body. I was a chubby child with red hair and freckles, long before either were remotely fashionable. I put lemon juice on my face and hair and sat in the sun waiting to become a freckle-free blond. It didn’t happen. My sister went on a diet to gain weight; as early as third-grade, I was desperately trying to lose. As a teenager, I obsessively stepped on scales, ate too much, ate too little, permed my hair, straightened it and stared at photographs wondering why my head was so much bigger than everyone else’s or why my thighs and hips were two sizes larger than the rest of my body. And as I grew older and began to identify as a strong and proud feminist I coated my physical criticism with a thick layer of mental shame because I was embarrassed that my ideologies couldn’t completely silence my inner critic.
But I made a promise to myself that when I had children, they would never hear this voice, not in the form of ‘does this dress make me look fat?’ not in the never-really-funny jokes about my thighs or off-hand comments about how I shouldn’t be eating birthday cake. And I kept that promise. I talked to my children about the exquisiteness of all types of bodies, about bravery and strength, about beauty in all forms. And I believed this all, except when it came to myself. I was an imposter, pretending that I thought I was beautiful so my children would believe that they were and that they would recognize beauty in others in a myriad of forms.
Then one day I was at my mother’s house with my children and my friend Morgan who found up a photograph of me as a child. “My god,” she said, staring at it. “This could be Paige. I never realized how much she looks like you.”
This pictures is me at four. I’m wearing a white ballerina outfit, complete with headpiece, and I’m holding a small porcelain rabbit that I’m looking at in wonder. Soft straight hair frames full round cheeks and my plump thighs are covered in shimmering white tights. While we were looking at the picture, my daughter sidled up next to me, glanced at it and squealed, “Oh, it’s me mama; it’s Paige!”
People have often commented that Paige looked like me but I never really saw it. But in this picture our physical similarity was undeniable. As that thought sunk in over the next few weeks, it had a surprising effect on me.
Because the fact is I think my daughter is absolutely gorgeous. She has a delicious, round stomach and solid thighs that I love to squeeze. Sometimes I just look at her playing, her eyes twinkling, rounded cheeks, her mouth opening wide cackling in delight at a joke and I think that there could not be a more gorgeous child. She is magic and light, she is happiness in human form. She is beauty.
But if I follow simple logic, how can I believe that my daughter is so perfectly formed, accept the fact that she looks exactly like me but think so little of my own appearance? It is high school math where if A=B and A=C then C must = B. And B in this case is beauty. So if I have to let go of my disbelief in my beauty or my belief in hers, it’s an amazingly easy choice.
A month or two after my revelation, I was carrying Paige when we passed a full-length mirror. Paige pointed excitedly and said, “Look mommy, look!”
I stopped, staring at our reflection, pretending to be surprised. “Who are those two beautiful, strong, smart girls in the mirror?” I gasped.
“It’s us mama,” she cackled. “It’s mommy and Paige. We’re the beautiful brave girls.”
“Yes, we are,” I said. “Yes, we are.”
And for once, I didn’t feel like I was pretending.
About the Author
Heather Osterman-Davis is a mother of two living in NYC where she attempts to balance domestic and creative endeavors. Her writing has appeared in Time; Brain Child; Literary Mama; Creative Non-Fiction; and Agave Magazine. You can find her on Twitter.