The first time I met my daughter K's birth mother, she laughed about how different we look. There is no doubt that K was created outside of my gene pool. K's birth family has a genetic tendency to be large -- her birth mother is a head taller than me -- whereas my husband and I come from families that produce very small people.
With that in mind, I realized that it would be critical to my daughter's future development to create a household where the idea that people come in all sizes is the norm.
Like most women in our society, I am sensitive to body weight issues. But after we adopted K, I vowed never to make a disparaging comment about my weight in front of her. No casual questions of "does this make me look fat?" and no comments such as "that food is so fattening," would fall on her impressionable young ears.
It would be a massive habit to break after a lifetime spent judging myself based on what the media portrays as the ideal. Although my non-pregnant, non-postpartum weight has always fallen into the healthy range, I honestly still feel pressure to be thinner when I look at a fashion magazine.
The months after my first pregnancy -- almost ten years ago! -- marked the first time that I found myself above the healthy range for my height, and I joined Weight Watchers to help me lose the weight. It was a positive experience, and I rejoined Weight Watchers after my subsequent pregnancies with my two younger daughters.
Although I did return to the healthy range of weight for my height, I have never returned to the very low end of the range where I previously dwelled. I look back at pictures of myself from the days when I was out-and-out skinny and I marvel that I actually used to think I was fat then.
After K was born, I worked to change my views of myself. I knew that if K grew up hearing her relatively petite mother make self-loathing fat remarks, she would be at high risk for having body dysmorphia. Five years from now, when K towers over me and probably weighs more than I do, I don't want her to say to herself, "If mom thinks she is fat, what does that make me?"
Do I still have my own weight fears? Truthfully, yes. But much less so than I did ten years ago. And if I need to talk about it, I make sure not to do it in front of my three ever-present girls.
And so, from the start, my husband and I have promoted the idea to our girls that it is healthy and necessary for children to grow and gain weight. We cheer and clap for our girls when they step on the bathroom scale, praising them for "growing so healthy."
When I was pregnant with each of the younger girls, I would step on the scale, and even if I wanted to grimace, I would tell K (and myself), "Mommy is growing so healthy!"
At this point in their lives, our girls view stepping on the scale as a chance to see how much they have grown, not as a grim moment of judgment about their self-worth. But I wonder: For how many more years will the girls believe that the scale reflects a number and not a determination of their value? My hope is that my guidance will make a big impact, and as they enter the tween and teen years, I will continue to encourage them to shun the media's definition of thin.
I still smile to myself when I recall a Saturday morning this spring when everyone was crammed into our bathroom while Andrew and I were trying to get dressed. 5-yr-old A decided to step on the scale, and she and 9-yr-old K peered at the number. A read the number aloud and did a victory dance at how she had grown.
"My turn!" K insisted, and then she proudly reported her number.
"Not fair, she weighs more!" A protested. We pointed out that K is taller and nearly four years older.
"Now you," A ordered me.
She and K leaned down and inspected the number, which was bigger than either of theirs.
"Oh my God, Mommy! You weigh a lot!" K exclaimed in admiration.
"Um, yeah!" I responded, laughing.
Andrew caught my eye and smiled reassuringly. He said, "Yay, Mommy! You are so healthy!" Baby C heard "Yay, Mommy" and began clapping for me as she perched on the floor and unwound a roll of toilet paper.
It dawned on me that we have successfully taught the girls that it is good to grow and gain weight. But, ever-cognizant of the health problems associated with obesity, I figured it was also time to talk about how exponential weight gain isn't the goal either.
It was a natural next step to have the discussion about how there is a range of healthy weights, and it is best if you can try to stay in the range -- not too small and not too big. I didn't want the girls to mistakenly believe that the healthiest outcome is to gain weight in perpetuity.
"Every person has a healthy range. But if you find yourself outside that range," I explained to the girls, "or if you see someone who is outside that range, that is okay. Size does not tell us anything about the person other than he or she is outside the range."
Size does not tell us anything about the person. I really hope my girls internalize this idea, before society confuses them with stereotypes about character traits associated with being underweight or overweight.
People come in extra small, small, medium, large and extra large. This is a fact. Let's not muddy it with opinions. Just accept it and get to know the soul living inside the body.
As part of our attempt to create healthy associations with food, Andrew and I try to talk about food in terms of energy instead of calories. If the girls want to eat huge bowls of ice cream, I ask them, "Do you need all that energy?" Sometimes, the answer is yes, like on the days that we do family bike rides followed by soccer games or swimming.
And sometimes, the answer is no, so Andrew and I suggest an apple or some carrot sticks, which have "just the right amount of energy for you today." Nine times out of ten, we get pushback, because the truth is, most people prefer chocolate to carrot sticks. I know I do. When it happens, there is no need to make negative comments.
Eating rich foods is fun and it feels good (well, not so good after Thanksgiving). A woman should not have to say, "I was bad today. I ate French fries and chocolate." A person is not good or bad because of how he or she eats. Our food choices do not reflect our value.
This thinking is behind all the extreme diets and unhealthy fads that try to sell thinness and contribute to eating disorders. Contrary to what the latest gimmick says, it is possible for a person who is above her healthy range to lose weight without it being a quick-fix, perfection-seeking, black-or-white process. It is possible to participate in a weight loss plan that allows for some French fries and chocolate.
When we speak with the girls, there are no "diet foods" or "fattening foods." There are "super nutritious foods" and "less healthy foods." I try to remove words with loaded meanings from our eating vocabulary.
During my pregnancies, I explained to K: "Mommy needs a lot of extra energy to grow a healthy baby. And sometimes, after having babies, a woman's body may never be exactly the same as it used to be, because having a baby and growing older changes the way a body works."
Bodies change. It is proof of life, of flux, of the waxing and waning of our cells. It is okay for the body to soften, for the skin to slacken. It is the beauty in us that allows us to change.
I used to think that there was one perfect body size where I should stay. But the years and the pregnancies and the losses and the adoption of my lovely oldest daughter have all combined to teach me the value of the healthy range. The value of flexibility. Of learning to feel comfortable in my own skin as it tightens and loosens, a winding, endless path to self-acceptance.
When I have moments of doubt, I remember the three little faces turned toward me as if I am their sun and I ask myself, "How will my words and my facial expressions affect them?"
And I find that I reflect their light and their joy in the full range of possibilities, and that there is more than one OK number on the scale.
This post was originally published on Carrie's blog, Portrait of an Adoption, on May 1, 2012.
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