Four days of gray skies leave me hungry for the light. I make my way into our backyard when the sun finally appears, where my four kids are digging in dirt, climbing trees, or just absorbing the warmth the way I hope to. Reclining on the grass, I pull up my shirt and expose my pale, post-pregnancy stomach, enjoying the surprising warmth on a February day.
My oldest daughter, now a tween who is becoming less little girl and more stuck-in-the-middle with each new day, comes over and lies down beside me. At first glance she’s simply mimicking my pose, but I know there’s something else behind it, a particular magnet that’s drawn her near.
Even with her lack of exposure to advertisements and super models, an intentional decision on my and my husband’s part, the idea that there is a perfect body is creeping into her thoughts. A conversation from the week prior alerted me to this fact.
“Could my body do what it does, like back walkovers and cartwheels, if it were bigger?” an inquiry undoubtedly spurred by her participation in gymnastics. She now spends an hour a week with girls clad in leotards bending their bodies, flipping in defiance of gravity.
“Of course. I know people who are much larger than I am who can do yoga moves I’d never even attempt. Not all the girls in your gymnastics class look the same. All bodies can do things.”
She nodded her head but looked unconvinced.
“What made you wonder about that?”
“Nothing. Just asking.”
That was a lie I feared touching, but here in the yard, I can’t escape. My sunglasses obscure her view of my eyes, so I can watch her without her knowledge. Her head is turning to look my way, hesitantly at first, and then she is up on one elbow peering closer.
I’m not revealing my stomach to the sun because of adoration for my form, the stretch marks woven into my flesh like they’ve always been there. It doesn’t bother me to have my midsection on display in my backyard, where the only people who see it are the ones who helped create its current state, but I’m not truly loving the skin I’m in. I just want to feel warm and practice revealing parts of myself, even in tiny ways, that I’ve worked so hard to hide.
“Is this because of us? Because you carried four kids?” she asks, her hand tentatively reaching out to feel the ripples breaking the smooth portion of my stomach.
“Yes. It was really the pregnancy with the twins that changed my stomach for good. Growing people will do that.”
The shadow that crosses her face, a grimace at something unsightly, breaks my heart, and not for the reason I expected. The fact that my stomach is unappealing to her doesn’t hurt my feelings or even give me pause. I don’t feel defensive or protective of my non-existence abs.
I’m sad because of what that look means: she’s come to believe there is one way to look, and that a person not achieving that is upsetting. If she can apply those standards to me, the mom she loves and whose feelings she worries about, then I know we’ve arrived at the days when she will do the same to herself.
This is the jump-off point to tearing apart her body, comparing and contrasting, always coming up short. My daughter, the one I’ve tried not to shower with compliments about her appearance, instead offering her accolades for her hard work, her kind heart, and her passion for life, is struggling with the idea that beauty means the most, and that there are narrow parameters for what is considered beautiful. For this, I mourn.
She continues to examine my stomach, moving her fingers across it as if she’s trying to read braille, make sense of the mess. After several moments of this, I say, “My body stretched and made room for people, and it deserves some sun. I have a great stomach.”
“That’s a good way to look at it, I guess” she concedes before reclining again to enjoy the early signs that a new season is on its way.
I stay on the ground, my exposed flesh a form of rebellion, the only fight I have to offer on a random Monday. When my daughter leans over minutes later to kiss my stomach, I try not to flinch.