“Mama, that one’s pretty!”
I frown at my reflection in the unforgiving dressing room mirror. The lights are too bright. Beneath the glare, I see a too-fat woman with too-full hips and a too-round belly shoved into not-enough Lycra. There’s fat where muscle once was, cellulite hiding definition lost long before I got pregnant almost five years ago. I see my mother’s words.
She sees her mama in a pretty blue bathing suit.
“I don’t like the way this one fits,” I say, evasively. “Let’s try that black one on and see how it looks.”
Innocent eyes blink up at me.
We are at Target because of a last minute birthday party invitation. It’s a pool party and it’s tomorrow. The black suit is…disappointing. Or rather, the body within it isn’t living up to the standards of beauty set so deep within. It could work, except it’s a bit too tight on the stomach and my boobs are spilling out of the top. I see lumps and bumps and cellulite. I see a label. I hear my mother’s voice. And I see my daughter’s eyes.
I keep my eyes neutral and smile at Buttercup’s reflection.
“Let’s keep looking.”
Trust blinks back at me.
She’s smiling. Jumping. Giggling. My toes dangle in the water. I’m sitting on the edge of the pool in a T-shirt and a pair of denim capris.
I am surrounded by laughter and sunshine and my own judgement. That one’s got twins and in a bikini. Lucky, isn’t she? And that one, over there…the hips are softer than they once probably were but I’d kill for their bodies; to look like them.
“Remember? The chunky one? That’s who I’m talking about.”
I don’t remember the day. I don’t even remember the circumstance. Only a few months have passed since my mother uttered these words in front of Buttercup and me. We may have been eating dinner out. Or maybe we were walking through the mall while window shopping. I saw people. She saw labels.
Thin. Tall. Fat. Short.
My mother is five feet tall and, after birthing five children, is a petite, body-conscious woman who never knew to censor her thoughts in front of her impressionistic daughters. Conversations about others always led off, and still do, with physical descriptors of those being discussed. Blonde. Skinny. Ugly. Pretty. Black. Puerto Rican. The one with the mustache that put on a few pounds? I grew up viewing the world through the same eyes. I see the person second.
“I weighed 80 pounds when I got pregnant with you,” bleeds into echos of “These size 6′s are getting loose on me” and “I need to lose five more pounds.”
She can eat what she wants, never exercises, and is confused for my older sister more often than I care to admit. Obviously, her half of the gene-pool was not passed down to her first born, save for the kinky hair that makes strangers argue with me about my own ethnicity. At 5’6”, I tower over my pixie of a mother and remember sharing clothes with her when I was eight. Today, I probably outweigh her by a good 60 pounds, and even if I woke up at my goal weight tomorrow, she’d still be a few weight classes below me in a boxing ring.
“People never believed you belonged to me,” she likes to remind me, smiling as she sees me for the baby she once balanced on her hip. “They always told me you were to big to be mine. I should know, I’d tell them. I pushed you out, right?”
I was three feet shorter than her on the day I was born. I was probably born with a complex. The Latino tendency to use “Gorda” and its diminutive as terms of affection may also have played a part in my off-kilter thinking, or maybe it was the constant thigh pinching and tongue-clucking that always went hand in hand with offers for more of the fat-laden, sugar-filled treats of my childhood.
“Aye, m’ijita. You need to loose some weight.” Pinch Pinch. “Who wants another bowl of ice cream?”
Ask anyone in my family and they will most likely tell you they didn’t mean anything by it. No one set out to make us feel less than ourselves or thought that today’s words might have an effect on tomorrow’s mindset. But it was internalized, nonetheless. Out of the five of us, one is within the medically acceptable range for her weight and has to put very little effort into dropping a few pounds when she feels the need. She’s built just like our mother because the best was saved for last.
Of the rest of us, two have known thyroid issues, one I assume will regain her pre-baby body quickly enough if she is able to find the time to devote to herself after having four children with little age separation, and one likes to refer to herself as “fluffy and not fat.” We’ve talked and Fluffy nods her head in agreement when we get to the part about the mangled “starving kids in China” and “You need to start watching what you are eating” messages we had thrown at us when we had nothing but trust in our own eyes.
My hips betrayed me when I was twelve. At least they had the decency to not double-team me with my boobs when I woke up to a fully sprouted pair the year I was eight. My mother marched me right over to my father, who had been trying to fix the broken screen door.
“Look Rene,” she said, turning me sideways so he could examine my profile, the red, white, and blue glittery arrow on my pink This End Up T-shirt only serving to emphasize my mother’s point. “Don’t you think she needs a bra?”
I don’t remember what he said. I do remember my mother on the phone telling her friends how training bras were not even going to work so could they please bring over their old bras so she could see what would fit me? It was a B-cup, I think. It’s also the year I got a head start on developing an S-curve in my back from always trying to hide myself and my untrained chi-chis from the world.
My husband takes his cues from me when it comes to Buttercup and food. We don’t make her eat if she isn’t hungry, we offer a variety of healthy snack options when she is, and when strangers point out how big she is for her age, he says nothing when I gently correct them with a “yes, she’s very tall, isn’t she?” I exercise to be healthy and strong, I eat to give my body good energy, and I refrain from body-judgement of myself and others whenever she is within hearing distance. I might be dead-set on losing 15 more pounds before I’ll happily shop for a bathing suit again, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to spoil her joy of pushing her little belly-panza out and rubbing it like a little Buddha when she is “full of good food” and other happy thoughts.
There’s a woman in the pool; the mother of a preschooler and a nine-month old. Of all those swimming before me, I wish to be her. Not because of her body. She’s overweight. Boxier than I am with no defined waist. She laughs as Buttercup jumps into the pool into her soft, outstretched arms, and then reaches out again to catch her own daughter. Cute sunglasses, a smart little hair-do, and the lipstick to stubborn to be washed away highlight her pretty face. I glance at the rest of the bodies in the pool area and then back at the woman playing in the pool with my daughter. I see more labels when I hear my mother’s voice. I see confidence when I listen to my own.
“Did you have a good time getting your feet wet today, Mama?” Buttercup asks me as we drive home from the party.
I smile into the rear view mirror. “I sure did, baby.”
We fall into silence as we drive home, listening to her radio station, and singing along when we both know the words.
I wrote this in August of 2011 and for one reason or another have kept putting off publishing. Today, I’m sharing another piece of the puzzle that grew up into the woman who continues to fight with the reflection she sees in the mirror.