Mother, Daughter, Female, Body
When I go home for my sister’s baby shower, I see the picture from high school, twig thin arms hanging carelessly by my sides. My weight is around 96 pounds in the snapshot depending on what time of the day I checked the scale. Staying south of the 100 pound mark until the end of college was something I took an absurd and dangerous pride in, though most of the reason it was accomplishable was my body type. The rest was courtesy of anxiety and for a couple of years a half-hearted attempt at an eating disorder. Whatever the reason for my size, I endured being called stick figure girl, never pretty.
Recovered, at least physically, I now saunter into my late twenties as a woman who has crossed over to my weight range, my body suddenly within the lines deemed acceptable for my height. More importantly, I live anonymously in a big city where no one finds themselves forced to shield me from their shock when they discover I now have hips and a waistline not fit for a Barbie doll. My hometown is my biggest nemesis in those early days. As much as everyone supposedly worried about my low weight, they aren’t prepared for me to actually gain any.
But I arrive and we throw my sister’s baby shower, her belly round and buoyant, all our childhood fears of being fat put aside as we happily watch the number on her scale steadily rise, proof of a growing child.
When a friend of my mother’s comes in the door bearing a gift for a girl wrapped in pink, I expect her to hug me, ask about my life. Instead, she holds me at arms’ length and searches my body up and down, her eyebrows furrowed. After her careful inspection, she smiles at me.
“Well, you did it.”
I stare at her, confused.
“You managed to stay thin. You’re still a thin girl.” She nods approvingly, pats my head like I am a dog and finds a seat.
For months I’ve heard about how it was obvious I was “healthier” now, a Southern way of saying chunky. However, wearing the right skirt and flowing top, I’ve just been branded thin again, christened good enough and expected to be proud. I look at my sister’s stomach and remember my previous feeling, that we are women, not girls, and our bodies get to do other things now besides be admired and ridiculed.
I stand in the middle of the room, shocked and hurt. And angry. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten over the anger.
It’s my turn to be pregnant, and I don’t weigh myself every day or watch every bite that goes into my mouth. I definitely don’t purge.
When I return to my teaching job in August, my pregnancy is obvious, and I wear it well. A student approaches me one day before class, points at my stomach and says, “After open house last night, my mom said you looked huge. Like, way further along than six months.”
I smile wondering if I should tell this girl her mother never meant for those words to be repeated, that my doctor says I need to gain more weight and that I’m still measuring small, three weeks behind to be exact.
What does it say about me, I wonder, that during a time when my primary concern is my child and her wellbeing that I still feel the urge to defend my size, to prove I’m small enough to be worthy?
In this moment, I am the bigger person in every way, so I tell the girl, “I’m growing pretty fast!” and release her back to her seat in the first row where she will comment on my stomach every day for the rest of my pregnancy.
“You look good for having a baby!” they say ecstatically, one brave enough to ask if I’ve lost all the pregnancy weight yet.
“All but maybe five pounds,” I reply, smiling at my friends but confused at their words. As my breasts weep milk into my padded nursing bra, I reflect on the fact that this is the first time we’ve all seen each other since a life emerged from my body eight weeks ago. And now I’ve become someone who looks good for being a mom and is praised for my ability to remove evidence of my mother status as quickly as possible.
The other questions come, about if Wren is sleeping well (no), eating well (all the time), all of the typical banter. But first and foremost is the discussion of appearance, my body reduced to measurements, numbers to determine my worth. It isn’t viewed as a vessel, a machine worthy of praise for what it has been through.
My C-section incision site is still numb, the twinkling feeling of nothing dancing across the scar at unexpected times. The bleeding stopped a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve yet to feel like my body is mine after all it’s been through. That doesn’t bother me. It is this, the examination, the smiles on faces because I’ve achieved the goal of sliding out of the maternity pants and into my pre-pregnancy ones that makes me squeamish, makes me see my skin and flesh and bone as foreign, disconnected from all I am underneath.
After all this time, I wonder, is this still all there is?
Sam comes along two years later and the pregnancy weight holds on a bit longer. He almost dies, and I return home with him securely wrapped in the Moby and eat lady fingers straight out of the package while I try not to remember the cannula and the sounds of the machines alerting me to his blood ox levels falling to alarming lows. I wear my maternity pants for three months and try not to cry from sleep deprivation since it is obvious I will never sleep again because Sam will surely die if I do.
Then two-year-old Wren is diagnosed with Celiac disease, a disease that has to do with food, God help me. I’m just now fully accepting that my relationship with food is a bit off, toxic perhaps, and now we’re emptying our house of 95% of our sustenance without any idea of what will replace it. Twenty pounds fall off me in about a month. Our diet is strict in the beginning due to Wren’s 26 food allergies, and I never stop being hungry. My high school weight finds me again, though it is truly an accident, not a disorder. As usual, my weight is on the table for discussion by anyone in my life who has eyes and a mouth.
Doctors say I am fine, maybe a bit stressed but perfectly healthy. I pass this message along to enquiring minds only to be disbelieved.
I appreciate the concern. I loathe the concern.
“You don’t look like you’ve had four kids. How are you so thin?”
My smile is flat and I wonder if I’m being made fun of or if this is somehow considered kind. I do, in fact, look like I’ve had four kids. The pregnancy with the twins relocated my hips somewhere east and west of the rest of my body. I am a pear that has been dropped and pressed on from the top until all the extra muscle, fat, and skin ran south and pooled three fourths of the way to the bottom.
“Smoke and mirrors,” I say, my usual answer. It sounds modest, but it’s all I can offer to hide the annoyance I feel at having carried four children safely into life again reduced to waist measurements.
Part of me wants a knowing woman to grab the extra flesh that hangs from my thighs and say, “Hell yes. This is what we go through, and we are warriors because of it.” Women are not prone to do this, and kind men are understandably too petrified to try.
We are smart, educated women, my friends and I, but we talk about our bodies a lot. Sometimes our voices carry the laissez faire attitude of people who talk because they aren’t affected. “I’m so past all that now. Health is my focus.” Other times the barely veiled panic rises to the surface. “I think my ass may always look this way now, no matter what I do.”
And sometimes the origins of our stories, the words that wove their way into our brains, emerge in halted sentences that illicit nods of sympathy and tears of recognition.
“It was in elementary school, I think I was seven, the first time I was told I was fat,” my friend says as our children climb trees in the backyard.
I give her a look because I understand and don’t want to.
“It was a game. A kid on the playground said if you ran your hand down your stomach and you had to move it out,” she demonstrates drawing a round curve where her abdomen is, “then you were fat. Only those whose stomachs were washboard flat were thin.”
“But you were kids. Baby fat. And most people don’t have flat stomachs, ever.”
She shrugs. “I failed the test. I think I’ve been on a diet every day of my life since then.”
When I see her from the corner of my eye, the first thing I notice isn’t her thin figure, her muscles straining against her flesh with no fat to pad them. No, first I see her eyes, the hollowness that comes from exhaustion, from wanting a break. Her infant son sits on his blanket while her other child plays in the splash pad, and I remember that phase of life. That was the adjustment from one to two children where every piece of my being was torn to shreds trying to offer fairness to both children, never accomplishing it.
My guess is her small frame is courtesy of stress and sleep deprivation, breastfeeding non-stop and eating while standing in the kitchen in between feeding everyone else. She may take pride in the fact that she’s slim after having kids. More than likely she’s too busy taking flack for it. If you don’t lose the weight, you hear about it. If you do lose the weight, you hear about it.
I smile when she catches me staring, nod in solidarity. I look down at my stomach that now pools slightly over the top of my jeans and realize there is no true way to get this right.
My kids are undeniably beautiful, the kind of beautiful that stops strangers in their paths, draws them back to us like fish on a line so they can exclaim over their eyes or hair, their tall, thin frames. No one ever says they look like me, and they don’t. Their beauty is ethereal, obvious to all, not something to grow accustomed to, not only available for those who appreciate quirky or slightly off center features.
A friend of the family hones in on Wren’s beauty, going on and on about her looks. Wren’s seven-year-old eyes light up and my insides yell, “Tell her she’s amazing for doing 4th grade math at the age of 7, that she has the curiosity of a scientist when she studies bugs with her magnifying glass. Tell her she’s authentic and loving, kind and wise. Please, please, stop focusing on the one thing she can’t control, the descriptor that can easily be taken away, the one thing that wasn’t earned, that’s only a gift offered to a few chosen ones. Don’t encourage her to wrap her identity up in this.” But I don’t. I don’t yell. I smile and nod and spend the next week pouring the kind of praise I want her to hear into her ears and cringing every time she stops outside the bathroom to check her figure in the mirror.
Kristy Ramirez is a writer whose work has appeared in many online publications, including Literary Mama, Parent.Co, and SheLoves Magazine, among others. She lives in Texas with her husband where she balances words with raising four children.