September 30, 2016
By Ekta R. Garg
On Monday Eight had a cold, so I took Ten to her music lessons. We don’t often get the chance to be alone in the car, her and I, so I look forward to times like this. When she’s with her little sister, she’s a little more chatty, a little more outgoing. Sometimes younger. If she and I get the chance to be alone together, she lets the chipper big sister fade away to be more of herself. A little quieter. More introspective. Older.
Now that she’s growing up, sometimes she has questions that she would prefer to ask when we have some privacy. And sometimes conversations come up that I would prefer to handle when it’s just the two of us. You know, the kind of conversations that have bigger implications.
As we drove home from music lessons on Monday, Ten said, “Veronica is really smart.”
I had an idea of what she was talking about—I’m getting better at figuring out these topics that the girls start in the middle—but I waited for her to elaborate.
“You know Veronica from Archie?”
“She was really smart.”
“Oh, really? Why?”
“Because she wanted to eat a banana split, so she worked really hard and lost five pounds, and then she ate the banana split and only gained five pounds.”
Oh, boy. If this wasn’t a prime opportunity to discuss body issues/healthy eating/weight loss/body image/self esteem/self confidence/realistic expectations…I didn’t know what was.
“Well,” I said, fighting to keep my voice neutral, “that may not be the best way to handle things.”
“Because she lost weight just to eat the banana split.”
“Yeah, but she did it by exercising and stuff.”
“Still,” I said, “even if she exercised really hard, there’s no guarantee she would have lost the same amount of weight as what she would have gained from eating the banana split.”
“I think it was a smart thing,” she said, defensiveness creeping into her voice.
Sure, smart as in Veronica didn’t want to gain weight, but not smart because she was focused on that number on the scale. But how do I explain to a ten-year-old that a number on a scale is more than just a number? That attached to it is a whole image?
She’s still at the age where many issues come sketched in black and white lines. A few of those lines have begun to get smudged, but we haven’t lost the clarity—or the simplicity—of childhood completely yet.
“Well, it takes a lot of hard work to lose weight,” I said. “And what if what she ate was more than five pounds’ worth? What if, say, she gained seven pounds?”
“How long does it take to lose five pounds?”
No, that’s not a loaded question at all.
“Depends,” I said. “It could take about a week or so.”
“A week?” she exclaimed. “Well, how much weight would you lose in an hour?”
“If you’re doing a really good cardio workout, maybe a few ounces.”
“A few ounces? That’s it?”
Okay, I know, I have no scientific proof on that one. I was just hoping this ultra-smart child wouldn’t call me out. Fortunately she didn’t. Black and white edges, remember?
“Yeah, well, it’s not just about exercise, right? It’s about eating right too.”
Because their father is a physician, Ten and Eight have grown up in the midst of conversations about eating right. This was nothing new to her, and I saw in the rear view mirror that she settled back into her seat to absorb the new information. Eating right was a given, she knew. But this whole exercise thing threw a whole new wrench into the machinery.
“You know, N. and I were talking at school about the things we’d like to change about ourselves.”
Another parachute drop into a topic. As a mother I’ve learned that I need to keep the safety on until the very end of the conversation. I may not see where the topics connect, but the girls see those connections in their own minds so I usually just go with them.
“Oh, really?” I said, again projecting that nonchalance. “What did you say?”
“I wish my hair could be longer. I wish I hadn’t cut it.”
I chuckled. “Hair is something that’s easy to play around with because it’ll always grow back, right?”
“Right. I also wish I was thicker.”
“What do you mean?” Please let me sound nonchalant, please let me sound nonchalant.
“My wrists are so skinny,” she said. “The kids in my old school used to make fun of me.”
Okay, the time for nonchalance was gone. No one—and I mean, no one—was going to make fun of my child.
“Listen to me,” I said, feeling the fervor of a protester holding a sign, “you’re beautiful exactly the way you are, you got it?”
“Oh, so you think it’s normal that I can close my thumb and my finger around my wrist and there’s still room there?”
Right then I heard a hint of a tween’s sassiness, but I didn’t want to split hairs on how she said it.
“Yes. You’re beautiful, and you shouldn’t worry about what other people say about you. Look at how tall you’ve gotten!”
“I’m not that tall.”
“You’re almost as tall as me!” I said, changing the inflection in my voice to make it sound like I was complaining.
She smiled; it’s a running joke between us on how much height she’s gained and how I mourn the day when she’ll be able to look at me straight in the eye.
“What did N. say about herself?” I asked, using the good old-fashioned re-direct to get her mind off herself.
“She said she was fine with herself and her body, but she wished her hair was longer too.”
And just like that the conversation was over. I got to deploy my reserve and land safely to fly another day. I just hope I can continue to reinforce for my child how to make the right choices for herself. That eating and weight loss—or gain—isn’t a short-term goal. And that she truly has some beautiful features, that somewhere in this world (or maybe even in town) there’s another little girl who would want the same features she has.
I hope I can teach Ten how to use her own wings.