To my one-year-old daughter: Thoughts on Body Image and Beauty

11960092_4308339073677_2314436844244038233_nMy daughter, you are no longer a baby. This is impossible to me. You are more than a year old right now and I marvel at how big you’re getting. You were trying to stand in an ice cream bucket the other day—giggling as it fell over again and again—an ice cream bucket that we could bathe you in when you were just born. Your growing feet and toes are the foundation for the past miracles of standing and your first, tottering steps—and now for running, jumping, climbing the stairs at the playground outside, and the endless enjoyment as we play “this little piggy” while you sit (and sit, and sit, and waaait) on the potty. Your increased size is paralleled by increased ability and comprehension. Dad and I are amazed every time you show some new understanding: a new sign, a new animal sound, a new mimicry. The other day I told you in pre-dinner end-of-day frustration, “I’m tired, too, but soon Daddy will be home and then we can bug HIM.” You looked at me seriously… and then signed “bug” (as in insect).

I’ve experienced the double blessing of watching myself grow next to you. People joke, “She’s getting so big! And so is Alsina!” Oh ha ha. I’m eight months plus two weeks pregnant, and things have definitely changed dramatically. Moving my bulk around is a huge commitment, and sometimes I wake up at two am half off the bed—having, apparently, decided halfway that it wasn’t worth the effort of getting all the way up to go to the bathroom. It’s not just a big belly added on to the front of my normal frame, either: I can’t even get pre-pregnancy pants up around my ankles, much less my now-herculean thighs, and pre-pregnancy blouses have the same issue around burgeoning… other places.

Why does “getting big” suddenly become a curse as we grow older? Like you, my increased size has come with increased capabilities. Well, I can’t really sprint or cartwheel anymore, true, but when you weigh those abilities with that of “growing a human,” they pale significantly. My bigness comes with increased sympathy (I feel my heartstrings pull with pity any time I see someone drop something—until I remember that it’s easy for “normal” people to bend over) and increased awareness (you notice more of what’s around you when it takes you longer to get somewhere—the locations of all the bathrooms en route, for example). The purple, scarrish stretch marks tattooing my stomach and legs commemorate the amazing abilities of my skin and organs, which have shifted and spread to make room for your little sister. The pounds I’ve gained prepare my body to feed the coming baby, literally from my own flesh and blood. My feet have spread to ground the whole endeavour, my hips have opened and widened to create a passage for life. Everything that should be taut, firm and flat for swimsuit season has become soft and forgiving and round for nurturing and nourishing a newborn.

And I’m not sorry. There’s an animal instinct that knows: this is right. From inseminated egg to fetus to birth and puberty and on, my body has been preparing itself (or rather, herself) for this experience, and she knows what to do. Visiting a recovery hospital for a grandmother a few days ago (we took you in your Halloween costume, you were adorable), I realized that on the outside I may look much like these people—barely able to get out of a chair, needing leverage to lug myself out of bed, huffing along at the slightest exertion—but my body is not sick or broken. She is at her prime, the pinnacle of her life. There is a strange calm about my body, if I allow it, even at this moment of greatest dissonance between my mirror’d self and the magazine covers. Comparison and measuring and disgust over lumps and lines and cellulite seem to melt away in my body’s animal self-assurance.

Centuries ago, our parents-parents-parents (etc.) knew this. Daughters saw mothers and grandmothers in their body’s natural roles—as mother, as labourer, as nurturer—and used their own bodies to weave, to thresh, to dance, to create beauty and to sustain life. A woman’s value was largely in proportion to her ability to fill these roles. I’m not saying we should go back to the days when Rachel and Leah were vying for the next progeny-prize, or a woman’s worth was largely tied to her son-count, but I do think in “freeing” the woman from her body, we have imprisoned her in a false and shifting world of impossible and empty beauty ideals. We have beaten back and caged the self-assurance of a body that works, lifts, bears, carries, delivers; we have cut out the fullness of a body that can and we are left with an empty shell of a body that merely is. All we have left is the insatiable lust to feel thin and sexy and beautiful. But beautiful… for what end?

Your body is perfect. I realized that when you came out, and your head had been squeezed and molded into an absolute cone. Doesn’t every starry-eyed parent come away with that understanding? “Born — lbs and — oz at –:– am, and she’s perfect.” Not one of them writes “a little scrawny,” or “passable,” or even “average.” We are awed, even frightened and reverential, at the miracle of the formation of a human body and (already!) a human mind from—what??—from seemingly nothing. Chemicals and proteins, months of morning sickness and then back pain, hours (or days) of labor do not begin to add up to this: this blinking, mewling, miniature self still wet from the inside of your body, grasping with impossibly tiny fingers and stretching tiny limbs in the new light of an old world.

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