We were driving to see a movie when I asked Norah why she’d been calling herself fat recently. We were on a daddy-daughter date. I assumed body image would come up eventually, but I didn’t expect it at age nine.
It was Mel who told me about it. She worked at our daughter’s school. One day during recess, she overheard Norah, along with her two friends, talking about how they were fat and needed to lose weight. Not that the shape of my daughter defined her, but if you were to actually look for her, she would have easily been missed. She was the shortest in her third-grade class, her arms and legs like skinny ropes. Were she to try and lose weight, I wasn’t sure where it would’ve come from.
That was the really dangerous part. Her view of herself was clearly skewed to make this small adorable girl think that she was fat, and I worried that it was going to also impact her overall health and development if she did try to lose weight. And yet, here we were, my daughter discussing her weight as if it were a concern, when what I wanted her to be doing was playing hide-and-seek, or tag, or discussing how all the boys in her class were gross. You know, regular 9-year-old stuff. But instead she was discussing something new and scary that neither Mel nor I felt prepared for.
Mel broached the subject with Norah and didn’t get anywhere. For the most part Norah just shut down, so Mel asked me to give it a shot during our daddy-daughter date.
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It was evening, and we were on a dark, winding, wooded road between our small Oregon town and another, just the two of us in the van. I waited for her to respond to my question, and when she didn’t after a long stretch of silence, I just started talking.
Is “talking” the right word?
Perhaps I should say I word vomited.
I went on for some time.
I used “beautiful” and “pretty” and “charming” and “intelligent” and “funny” to describe her. I said how far she was from being fat. I told her that the shape of her body didn’t define her, or anyone for that matter.
I tried so hard to describe her from my perspective, as someone who had held her at birth, and watched her walk and talk and learn. I wanted her to see how much I’ve learned about real love and understanding from raising her and how I knew, without a doubt, that she was truly something special in the world.
I talked for a while.
The funny thing is, I had this all planned out in my head before we got in the van. It was a script, really. In my mind, it all went so smoothly. I was going to tell her how I saw her, and I just knew she’d nod along, totally understanding what I was saying, and never again see herself as fat, or unattractive, or anything other than the charming, wonderful daughter I see every single day.
But in the moment, it just came out as a stammering, steaming pile of short half-sentences, me not sure what to say but just letting it out, the whole time feeling this pit in my stomach and knowing that I wanted to get this right—but it didn’t feel right, not even a little right. Ultimately, I didn’t know exactly what right looked like, so I just kept talking.
I was midsentence when Norah screamed into the passenger window, “I don’t want to talk about it!”
It got quiet except for the sounds of the road.
And I felt it in my hands and toes.
I felt it in my heart.
I felt it in every part of me.
I’d blown it, and I worried that I’d just made things worse.
Up until that moment, I felt confident that if I told her how I really felt about her, I could change the way she saw herself.
But it didn’t work.
This may have been the most overwhelming moment of my fatherhood, and I’ll tell you why. It is so heartbreaking to look at someone who you find to be absolutely wonderful, in all aspects of everything, and have them feel like they’re not. It’s a dark feeling, a helpless feeling, one that I didn’t know existed until that moment in the van.
I didn’t know what else to say.
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Norah was obviously done talking, so I dropped it, and we drove to the theater in this swampy, uncomfortable silence, her looking out the window and me looking at the road.
By the time we made it to the theater we were back to normal, talking like the conversation never happened. That made me even more nervous, because it made me feel like she’d already learned how to bury those feelings about herself deep inside—and I had no idea how to change that.
I came home, and Mel asked how it went, so I told her. Then I ended with, “So . . . not well.” We talked about our pasts and any issues we’d had with body image in an attempt to figure out if the way we overcame a similar challenge could work for our daughter. Mel told me that she didn’t have body issues until after children: “I feel like I’m in competition with my younger self. I just can’t get back there.” We ordered some books online that we thought might help. Then Mel said something profound.
“You compliment me every day, and it helps. I fight with you about it, but it helps.”
She went on to say that whatever was happening outside of our house that was making our daughter feel this way about herself was, for the most part, out of our control. “But what we can do right now is try to build her up while she’s here.”
So we made a pact to compliment Norah each day on who she was, who she was becoming, and how much value she brought to our house and us.
“What bothers me the most,” I said, “is that I know she’s truly something special. I think she’s so adorable and smart and everything I could ask for in a daughter. I just can’t stand her not seeing herself that way.” I went on for a moment more, talking about how much I admire Norah. I said all the things I wanted to say in the van, only this time it came out the way I wanted it to.
“I feel the same,” Mel said.
We were quiet for a moment, and it felt like someone was watching us. It was after 9:00 p.m. and all the kids were in bed, but when I turned around, Norah was standing in the hallway wearing green and yellow flower print pajamas.
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Mel and I looked at each other, and then we looked at our daughter. Her eyes were a little misty, and I wasn’t sure what to make of that. I worried she was going to come at us with anger because she felt we were talking behind her back.
She ran into the room and hugged me around the waist. It was one of those deep hugs, the tight ones that parents don’t get nearly enough of. The ones that say, “I need you.”
Mel swooped in from the side, and all three of us just hugged one another. It was one of those moments I didn’t expect but was grateful for. I knew this didn’t completely change the way Norah saw herself. I knew that she’d probably still struggle with body image for years to come because that is the sad reality of right here and right now. But I also felt confident that at the very least, she understood that she had two parents who really loved her and saw her value.
We stopped hugging.
I leaned down and kissed the top of Norah’s head. Then I picked her up and carried her back to bed, her arms around my neck, squeezing me tightly.
Reprinted with permission from Father-ish by Clint Edwards, Page Street Publishing Co. 2020.
You can read more from Clint in his book, Father-ish. This recommendation is an affiliate link, so we may earn a small commission should you decide to purchase it. If we’re sharing it, it’s because we think it’s great!