The other night, I was sitting with my 4-year-old daughter on my lap, reading her a bedtime story (Dora and unicorns, I believe). Suddenly, my daughter reached over, poked a finger into each of my armpits, and exclaimed, "Mommy, what are these? They're beautiful, and they smell delicious!"
Resisting the very mature urge to squeal "Ew!" and push her away, I took a deep breath and explained that they were called armpits, and that every person had them. Satisfied, she pulled down the front of my pajama camisole and moved on to asking about what was underneath my breasts. (Um, I don't know...the pasta dinner I just ate? My ribcage? Depends on the angle!)
Questions like this are one of the many hair-raising aspects of having kids -- daughters specifically. When my daughter wants to know what those white lines on my skin are, or whether there's another baby in my not-perfectly-flat tummy, or even why I wear makeup, I find myself bending like a limbo champ to get my answer right. Whatever I do, I know that I don't want to reveal the baggage that's really weighing on me. I don't want her to know that stretch marks make women ashamed to show their bellies and thighs, or that we go to great lengths (and engage in many forms of Lycra) to hide the bowl-shaped torsos that remain after our babies have vacated the premises. And I definitely don't want her to know that, without my safe layer of makeup, I feel like a dark-circled banshee just released from the mental institution.
Even though my own mother is a very beautiful woman, she was never taught to believe that about herself and, to this day, she cannot take a compliment. Fortunately, she raised me to have a much healthier ego. But I distinctly remember watching my mother scowl at her reflection in the bathroom mirror as she applied and revised her makeup. I know by heart the way she wrinkles her nose as she fixes her bangs whenever she catches sight of them in any reflective surface. And I remember so clearly from my childhood watching her dissatisfied reaction in the dressing room mirror to the way her curves looked in her clothes, and without them.
Most of all, I remember what it was like to look in the mirror at myself as I grew up -- and to start recognizing her reflection staring back at me. I'd truly like to believe that, when the day comes that my daughters look in the mirror and recognize their mother staring back at them, they will not remember me scowling or criticizing at the body and face that they see. They will instead hear my voice saying lightly, "These white lines? They're rubber band marks! They let my skin bounce and stretch!"
"My belly is staying round in case I change my mind and have another baby! It's just showing off that I could do that again if I wanted to."
"This stuff? This is just face paint. Everybody likes to paint sometimes -- it's fun!"
Most of all, I try to lead by example, being kind to this body that my girls are watching age every day. Because one day they'll be wearing it -- and I want them to like how they feel about their reflection.