“Mom!” Rose cried last Thursday afternoon. “A boy on the bus told me I look fat in my new coat. He said I look pregnant!”
I stared down at my 7-year old daughter where she stood, holding the offensive navy blue coat I’d just bought her from Lands’ End out like it was a hand grenade.
She just got her ears pierced, I thought absurdly. How can she look pregnant?
“But Rose!” Henry interrupted worriedly. “He say that to everyone! He say that to me too!”
I knelt beside her and stroked her hair. Her face was bright pink.
“Rose, honey, we don’t have to worry about that stuff. We’re Watterson girls!” I told her, referring to my maiden name. “We’re tall, and, well, we’re not fat!”
The minute I said that, my own inner fat girl began to shriek and giggle and gasp for air.
Yes, I have an inner fat girl, and from time to time I feed her. Not with spaghetti or Oreos or candy—although I do that, too, on occasion—but with my confidence, my security, my pride. She shreds each like a piranha.
She likes to say things like, Really? Leggings on those thighs? Or I would stay away from those cookies if I were you!
I remember exactly the day she came to life. I’d gone to visit my grandmother, who was in the last stages of lung cancer and under my aunt’s care at home.
Always incredibly thin to the point of being frail—most likely from years of feeding her inner nicotine and white wine girl—my grandmother had a sharp tongue and a biting wit. And I loved her for both.
But on this day, the very day I went to say goodbye for what turned out to be the last time, I sat down next to where she lay on the couch. With her long, skinny frame and short salt-and-pepper hair, she looked a lot—and I feel badly saying this, I really do—like a cigarette.
As I lowered myself on the cushion near her head, my fragile little grandma—weighing, I don’t know, maybe 80 pounds at this point—rolled towards me, almost sliding right off onto the floor.
And then she said, “You’ll always be a big girl, Carrie.”
I’m not sure how much I’ve told you about Rose, but she’s just about the most specialist person in my world. She loves to bake with me, to measure and pour and mix. Her favorite recipe is chocolate chip biscotti and her favorite meal is steak.
She has the most adorable little bob haircut, and at night after her shower, her damp hair curls up around her smooth, soft cheek. She is at once serious and funny, gentle and strong.
Fat? How can we be having the fat conversation already?
A girl who, every day after school last year, waited until her big brother Jack got on the bus and then walked over to his paraprofessional to ask, “Did he have a good day today? Was he happy? If he gets upset, you can come and get me. I know how to help him.”
“Because,” she’d say. “I understand his autism.”
And I know this boy from the bus. He is a funny, sweet, goofy little boy. I know his parents. They are lovely and friendly and kind.
In fact, I was nervous about sharing this post because I didn’t want anyone leaving negative comments about how unkind kids can be; this isn’t about bullies or mean girls or the downside of riding the bus. It’s about changing the conversation.
I want to change the conversation.
Over the weekend Joe and I saw Fleetwood Mac perform. And in the middle of the show, Stevie Nicks told a story about living in San Francisco when she was in her twenties—playing in a small band and opening for big names like Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix—and one day she walked into an expensive store called the Velvet Underground, where all the rock-n-roll stars bought their clothes.
She described how, standing on the beautiful hardwood floor, she had a premonition; an inner voice who told her that something big and exciting was going to happen to change her life. And she was going to be able to afford to buy everything in the Velvet Underground if she wanted.
Her story eventually inspired Fleetwood Mac’s chart-topping song Gypsy.
Sitting in the darkened arena, I thought again about inner voices, and how they can control us and berate us and hold us back, or they can inspire us and propel us forward.
I mean, Stevie Nicks did not walk into the Velvet Underground and think to herself, I won’t be able to fit into any of these clothes I am so fat Janis Joplin is thinner than me I never should have had a muffin for breakfast muffins aren’t Paleo.
No, she thought I don’t know how or where, but I am going to be something one day.
Here’s the thing; I can’t promise that one day Rose won’t gain weight. Maybe she’ll break up with her first love in college and console herself with Ben & Jerry’s for a while. Or maybe she’ll have a baby and have trouble taking those last few pounds off.
And I can’t promise someone won’t say something unkind to her. People are mean and girls are mean and Facebook is mean and sometimes, the world is mean.
As much as I would love to, I cannot wrap this precious child of mine in protective bubble wrap or drive her to school every day. I cannot accompany her on the playground or to middle school dances or her dorm room in college any more than I can cover the issues of Cosmo or Shape or People Magazine while we stand in the check-out line at Target.
I can only change the conversation in her mind, the voices that chant you are not thin enough you shouldn’t eat that don’t wear that why do you look like that. I can only change the music in her ears to quiet the buzzing white noise so she may inspire and be inspired.
I haven’t figured out how to do that just yet, but I do know one thing: I’m not going to tell her she’s skinny or reassure her she’s not fat. In fact, I’m going to take it out of the conversation altogether, because it just doesn’t matter.
In the meantime, I’ll just keep doing what we did last Thursday afternoon. I will bake a big batch of chocolate chip biscotti and let her measure out the sugar and crack the eggs, and when they’re in the oven we’ll take turns licking the beater.
I will tell her that her new winter coat brings out the bluest of her eyes.
For dinner, I will make her favorite steak with broccoli and rice. I will make Jack’s favorite crescent rolls and let them each take a turn rolling out the soft, white dough.
And then, I will sit back and watch her four brothers unintentionally work their magic. I will watch as they remind Rose she is a sister among brothers; a flower surrounded by tall, strong trees.
“But. How. Can you be fat?” 10-year old Jack asked quizzically. “The bones. In your legs. They show.”
“Rose,” 11-year old Joey promised. “We will take care of this.”
“Listen,” 8-year old Charlie reassured her around a mouthful of food. “It doesn’t matter what people say. Just don’t listen.”
“Ro-ro,” 5-year old Henry shouted across the table to his sister with his special nickname. “If it happens again, I walk straight to Mistah Munsey’s office and tell him. Because Mistah Munsey? He say he will talk with you family if you rude.”
Just like that, they changed the conversation.