I stand in the dressing room, turning to the side, running my hand over the bulge of my tummy, dipping it in over the line caused by my underwear. I notice the way the dress clings just a little too much over my hips. At 45, there is no denying that I have my mom’s body, but on this particular day it is OK. Over the last few months, I have finally realized just how lucky I am to have her body ― a body that matches my gender identity ― because over the last year, my daughter Ava has revealed to me that she knows she was born in the wrong one.
I remember, years ago, watching my mother in similar dressing rooms as she tried on skirt after skirt in search of one cut in a way to flatter her body rather than draw attention to her “problem” areas. I won’t let myself gain that extra 20 pounds, I thought back then. I’ll keep my weight in check so the pear shape I inherited from her won’t be accentuated, I promised myself. I spent a good 30 years trying to keep my genetic predisposition under control, starting at the age of 12. It was three full decades of criticizing my reflection in every mirror and store window I passed and waging a war with everything I ate, or even thought about eating, before I eventually embraced an exercise routine. And though I’ve been able to successfully fight off that extra 20 pounds, there has been no denying the changes my body has undergone in the last five years since turning 40.
On this particular day, as I study ― rather than scrutinize ― my body in the dressing room mirror, I wonder what my daughter has thought as she’s watched me get dressed. I picture my teenage self observing my mom moisturize her entire body after her shower, her hands moving up her leg to her thighs and over her hips, and I think about how many times my kids have walked into my bathroom while I am doing the same thing. I wonder about the differences between how I would see my mom versus how my daughter sees me. I would look at my mother’s body and think of all things that were “wrong” with it, while my daughter looks at my body and sees the body we define as female ― a body she wants for herself.
I wonder if she asks herself, Will I ever get to have my mother’s body? I don’t know, but Ava has been asking me a lot of other questions lately. Her questions are each a literal inquiry about some aspect of her developing womanhood, but beneath each question’s surface, there is also much unsaid about the unique journey she is on and everything that has and will come with it.
I would look at my mother’s body and think of all things that were 'wrong' with it, while my daughter looks at my body and sees the body we define as female ― a body she wants for herself.
“How long do you think I’d have to be taking estrogen before I start developing some breast tissue?” she’s asked me. I’ve spent years making jokes about how awful my sagging breasts look ― breasts that sag because they’ve had the privilege of nursing three kids. I’ve complained about all of the times they have been squished into mammograms and eventually MRI’d to keep close watch on some suspicious areas. I’ve lamented all of the clothes I can’t wear because I always have to wear a bra, while she awaits the development of her breasts as some kind of proof or validation of the woman she is.
“You know how most girls have thighs that are wider and curve at the top? Is there any exercise that can help mine become like that?” she’s asked. I explained to her that I think exercise will build up her muscles, but she should do whatever exercise she wants if she enjoys it and not worry about that. I think about all the times I’ve noticed my thighs splay out when I sit on a couch, or the times I’ve cropped them out of a photo. While I’ve always hated my wide “child-bearing” hips ― the same ones that my mom and all five of her sisters have ― she is eager for hormones to redistribute some fat to the same area of her body. Why have I always thought that my thighs and hips betray me ― even though they are, in fact, exactly as they should be ― when my daughter’s entire body betrays her?
“Your skin is so soft, Mom. Will the estrogen make mine softer?” she’s wondered aloud. Why have I wasted so many years fighting being soft, when I too remember snuggling against my mom and thinking that she feels better than any pillow in the world.
With each new question my daughter has for me, and really, for the world around her, I realize I’m not sure I have any answers to give her in return ― at least not any good ones. And every question brings me back to the same old ones: How do I convey to Ava just how beautiful and perfect her body is and will be, even if it never looks exactly like the ones the media and our society tell her a woman should have? She could choose to not take hormones and never consider surgery, and it would not make her any less of a woman. How do I make her believe that her worth as a woman is not directly tied to her body if I’ve spent the last 30 years acting like mine is?
How do I make my daughter believe that her worth as a woman is not directly tied to her body if I’ve spent the last 30 years acting like mine is?
And then, just when I’ve convinced myself that all of these questions may very well mean she will never accept herself for the woman that she is, about six months ago, Ava said something that made me realize that she understands it all much better than I do.
We were in a waiting room, taking steps to try to preserve her chance for future biological children by investigating freezing her sperm before she began hormone therapy. I had just finished telling her that I needed her to know that, although she was undergoing this process, there was no guarantee about the viability of her sperm 20 years from now. Hearing this, she turned to me and said, “Mom, don’t worry. I know that. But I also know that I am going to be a mom one day. Whether it’s this way or another, I will be a mom.” She used the word “mom” ― not “parent” ― but mom.
I took a second to take in what she had just told me and the quiet wisdom embedded in her words. Despite all of the questions and despite all of the worrying and despite all of the uncertainty that Ava is facing, she still has faith in herself, in me and in the world around her. Of course, she has challenges ahead of her ― arguably more challenges than other young women her age ― but in that moment, her confident and courageous perspective felt like a gift, and with that gift, I felt like I also received a certain kind of peace I hadn’t known up until that moment.
I used to talk to my mom about how I couldn’t wait to be a mother one day. And though I’m not in any rush to be a grandmother, I look forward to seeing my daughter be an amazing mom. I know that whether or not she has my “mom body,” she will be a much more incredible mother and role model than I can ever dream of being. If as a teenager she understands that the validity and strength of one’s mothering has nothing to do with having biological children or not, then deep down she knows that being a woman and its definition is in your mind and not defined by your body. If she is more sure of who she is at 14 than I have been of who I am my entire life, then I really have nothing to worry about.
I start to realize that Ava and the future generation of determined courageous young women will redefine everything we know about gender norms and gender roles and women’s bodies and the expectations people have of them. I replace worry with gratitude for having a child that is teaching me more than I can ever teach her. And because of all that, I now know that, at 45, I am finally done fighting my mom’s body ― and my own ― and I’m ready to embrace myself exactly as the woman I am.