When your six year old thinks she’s fat

My daughter turned six yesterday, in a long-legged, gap-toothed flurry of excitement. Suddenly, almost all of the baby is gone; she reads and writes and talks and thinks like a real little girl, and it’s usually only when she sleeps, curled like a shrimp, eyes buttoned tight, thumb near (though no longer in) her mouth, that I can see flickers of the newborn she once was.

Then, this morning, snuggled on my knee, all bony knees and sharp elbows, this funny, scatty, infuriating, mercurial little scrap of woman-child looked down and said: “Look, I’ve still got chubby hands” and I was lost for words. Chubby hands? She then went on to pinch the flesh on her forearms. Also chubby, apparently.

Trying to sound nonchalant, I asked her why she thought her arms and hands were chubby (and pointed out that the bits between the bone and the skin are actually what make our bodies work). It turns out that a group of her friends at school compare and contrast their bodies at playtime, and rank each other according to “chubbiness”.

It has been strange to see the influence from school, friends, TV and books start to shape my older two’s ideas of what is “right”. This morning, though, it’s struck me that the darker sides of it all will be unavoidable – and will become an issue much earlier than I might have expected.

Body image was not my strong point growing up. I read of waifish soulful heroines, and grieved when I realised that as a brawny, hefty redhead with bones like ham hocks, I could never use my appearance as a metaphor for my inner life. The idea that I was “fat” (I never was) took longer to root, but once it did I spent the best part of a decade scrutinising what I ate, rarely eating in public, yet never noticeably declining in sturdiness.

Since having children, it suddenly seems to matter so much less. My shape has changed; most annoyingly I still have more of a bump than I did five months into my first pregnancy, but – objectively – my weight is fine. Evenings slumped on a sofa with wine and Twitter as a shorthand for relaxation pose much much of a health risk than my fat or calorie intake. I don’t diet, and I’ve always tried to be scrupulously careful not to talk about weight or whether I look fat in any particular item of clothes in front of any of the children. To little avail, it seems.

I have no doubt that little girls have always talked about their appearance; ranked each other according to relative prettiness of hair and eye colour and so on. The idea of five year olds pausing in their heart-in-mouth-provoking assays at gymnastics and squabbles over who gets to be the mummy to identity and despise body “fat” where there is in fact only healthy, necessary flesh, though? That feels like something newer and more insidious. Perhaps it isn’t, but to this particular mother it seems so.

Some posts write themselves easily into a neat little moralising conclusion, but not this one. Just a resolution to keep plugging away at implanting the idea that bodies are fundamentally things to live in, to keep healthy, to enjoy; not an endless source of worry and insecurity. To keep at bay for as long as possible the dark truth that for so many adults they’re actually more a source of misery, and just hope against hope that I can help stop them ever fully realising that truth for themselves.

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