We’re at open gym for the first time, and we just finished the obligatory guided stretching. “Mama, I want to play!” you declared after several minutes of following the stretches. Five minutes must feel like forever to a not-quite-three-year-old. You scamper around like a little pixie, taking in the red and blue mats, the trampolines and slides. I follow you, smiling, until I catch a glimpse of myself in the wall of mirrors that surrounds the gym.
Immediately, I feel as if I’ve received a parcel of bad news. I feel it in my chest a moment before the words pull through my head. Is that what my body looks like?
The reaction is decades old, piled among hundreds of other such moments. The decades of dieting, compartmentalizing my body parts, yanking thick sweaters over my hips to try and camouflage my body. I turn slightly, eyeing the mirror on another wall. The rest of my body disappears as my eyes focus on my hips, which, if I can believe the mirror, bulge out from atop my legs. For a moment, I forget about you.
I turn around, spotting you quickly. You look back to make sure I’m behind you as you heads towards a trampoline, your dark blonde hair bobbing as you run. I smile and catch up. Your face is excited and open. When we get to the trampoline, you pause.
“Do you want to go on?” I ask. A dark-haired toddler in a leotard runs onto the trampoline before you can answer. You shake your head.
“You want to sit and watch for a minute?” I ask you.
“Yeah,” you say, sitting down on a blue mat. After a few minutes, the dark-haired girl moves on and you step onto the trampoline. “Mommy, I want you to come on here too!” you squeal.
“I can’t, sweetie. It’s only made for one person at a time.” You begin to bounce, and I watch the hesitation in your eyes. You are tentative at first, your feet sealed to the yielding surface. But soon you give in to small hops, your smile curling up, your blue eyes throwing off light. I watch your body, trying to envision you as you will change, as the soft, straight lines of your body curve and arc, bones and muscles stretching, hormones sparking. It seems impossible, thrilling, and terrifying. For the thirtieth or so time today, I think about how beautiful you are.
I try and shake off the feeling I had in front of the mirror. It’s such an old, useless feeling, born from fashion magazines, generations of family members who battled their bodies, and careless words from a young babysitter.
“I can’t do it!” you whine, frustrated.
“You can, Sweetie,” I say. “You can do it.”
“I can’t! I want you to get me down,” you plead. I pause for a moment before I wrap my arms around your hips and swoop you back to solid ground.
How hard it is to parent without projection. To not imagine the rope course in elementary school gym class, the thick yellow braids that seemed to hang down from the sky, causing my heart to race. The humiliation of barely allowing my feet to leave the ground before I turned around, my hands stinging from the rope, admitting defeat. Or how I never learned to do a cartwheel, because I just couldn’t trust my own body.
I want you to know how strong you are, how capable, how exquisite.
I want you to not come apart like I did. For your world to stay big and sparkling, instead of shrinking to the tiny terrain of counting calories, hiding food and willing yourself to be different. And if you do, I hope it doesn’t take you so very long to put yourself back together. It took so much work for me, so many years of therapy and yoga, and the hard, sacred work of growing you and your brother, of feeding you from my body. Of yearning to stop the cycle of body hate that rained down from the generations, a dark and twisted strand of DNA.
For the rest of the hour, I follow you around the gym, trying to shake off the old, sticky feelings of not-good-enough.
I watch you climb up yellow slides instead of ladders. You do it your own way, and that makes me smile, makes me proud.
I want to save you from self-doubt and self-loathing. From moments like the one I just had, stung by the mirror, by the past, by my mind.
And I know I can’t.
I can love you. I can tell you the truth: that you can climb up that ladder as soon as you decide you are ready. That you are made of love and cells, of stars and warm milk. That you have more light in you than anyone I’ve ever met. That you are right and whole, a constellation of parts that together, make you.