As the sun broke through the clouds, I flipped onto my stomach, adjusted my bikini bottoms, and grabbed the book I’d been devouring all morning.
This was our last hurrah before school started. Flipping the page, I lowered my sunglasses, and watched as my eight-year-old hopped out of the pool, grabbed her towel, and walked toward me with a look of defeat. Head down, she uttered the words I feared most:
“Mommy, my tummy is chubby.”
My heart and stomach met as my pulse quickened. I watched with an unfocused gaze as the precious baby I harboured safely for nine months broke eye contact with me and stared down at her body with disgust and confusion. Shame pulsed through my veins and stopped in my throat.
Her words echoed the deeply-rooted misgivings our society places on women’s bodies. She was not only a product of an over-sexualized culture that praises beauty and thinness above all else, but the offspring of a mother who held two stints in rehab for an eating disorder under her belt. I had failed her.
She was eight.
The same age I was when I began noticing I was built a certain way—a way I didn’t want to be built. I was not tall or thin like the other ballerinas. My legs were short and my bun was frizzy. The same age I began compartmentalizing my body into parts and pieces, never the whole. And the same age the ceiling-high mirrors reflected back to me the harsh and misguided truth: I took up more space than I wanted to.
I was eight.
I momentarily froze, knowing the next few minutes held the potential to shift or shatter the perception of bodies, culture, identity, and insecurity within the heart of an already tender little girl. The only word I could process in my head was, “F*ck.”
Up to this point I had done everything in my power to ensure my daughters would not follow in my shadow. I had willingly and consistently faced my demons around food and weight. We were an active family. We baked and cooked together—everything from broccoli to brownies. We didn’t own a scale. We read books about strong, empowered women. We did arts and crafts with the goal of making sure their creativity was never dormant. I emphasized health and strength over anything else. I never talked negatively about my own body. For the love of God, I had a picture hanging in my house that said, “Strong Women—May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.” I had done everything to vaccinate my children against this very moment. How could this be happening?
The next few minutes were a mindful blur. I grabbed her hand and we jumped into one of the hot springs at the resort we were staying at. Wisdom beyond my perceived capabilities fell from my mouth. I was being guided. We talked about Photoshop, air-brushing, and the unrealistic standards women are held to. We talked about how growing bodies are constantly changing and they are never wrong. I told her about other cultures where age and imperfections are celebrated. I showed her the stretch marks scattered across my belly and the once firm skin that had stretched to its limits in order to keep her body safe inside mine. I gave her the age-appropriate cliff notes on my own struggles. I told her about the boy in eighth grade who told me I needed to lose weight. And most importantly, I explained why I didn’t want that path for her.
We observed women of all ages and shapes and sizes enjoying the day in their swimsuits. We shared righteous anger towards the culture we lived in. We giggled, we cried, and we hugged as I told her I wanted her to trust her own body as much as she trusted me in this moment.
There was a sacred peace surrounding us as my final words transitioned us out of the moment.
“You aren’t here to do something with your body. You’re here to do something with your soul, my sweet girl.”
My own shame lifted as I watched her jump back in the pool with her sister. I had not failed her. If anything, my decade-long eating disorder was my saving grace. Because I know. I know what to say about the thing that almost killed me. I lived it. And I can offer truth about redemption and imperfections in a way society cannot. My eating disorder did not happen to me, it happened for me. My journey from self-hate and disconnection to self-love and embodiment was one I walked for all women—especially my daughters.
What keeps me going is knowing there is an unwritten law in the Universe. It will manifest differently and hold different lessons for everyone, but it’s as real as it gets. It goes something like this:
What we do not heal in ourselves, our children will have to heal in themselves. The little ones we were chosen to guide can find wholeness in our once fragmented pieces, if we choose to acknowledge and consciously conquer them. And what seems like a failure to us is nowhere near. These self-owned shortcomings are potent teachers capable of filtering unfathomable gifts into the next generation. We must show up for our children, speaking the truth about what hurts—even if our voice shakes. Our shortcomings are our superpowers.
Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.
Author: Rachel Dehler
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Jen Schwartz
Copy Editor: Callie Rushton