Measurements

January 05,2012
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I've shifted the time I swim laps at the pool from lunchtime (around noon) to 8:00 am. While others might shudder at the thought of jumping into a lukewarm pool at 7:45 or 8:00 on these wintry dark mornings, I like it. I hate feeling groggy, and a brisk swim workout first thing certainly gets my blood flowing. When I used to swim at noon, I found myself the youngest at the pool, surrounded in the locker room by elderly, white-haired ladies, all congregating there for a water aerobics class. Now that I go in the mornings, I find myself the oldest woman in the locker room, surrounded by girls from the local high school swim team.  The locker room always smells like Suave shampoo and hairspray. They must get to the pool by 7:00, because they leave shortly after 7:30 to make it into school by 8:00. They are wide awake and chatty, and they stand in front of the big mirrors blow drying their hair, applying makeup, discussing skin problems and hair lengths, and talking about their parents.

"My dad said my jeans were too tight," one girl said to her friend yesterday morning. "He said they were either too tight, or I'd gained weight."

I snuck a look out of the corner of my eyes while pulling my towel and swim goggles from my bag. The girl was pretty and dark-haired, with curvy hips that she was still growing into. 

"Do you think my jeans are make-you-fat tight, or looking-good tight?" the girl asked hesitantly and her friend set down her round brush and swiveled around to take a look, sizing her up.

"They are definitely looking-good tight," she said. 

That's what probably worried her dad, I thought. Those looking-good jeans might have looked too good for his taste.

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I have always been very careful not to talk about body image in front of T. I bite my tongue before criticizing myself about bad hair days, I try not to talk about weight lost or weight gained, and I try to always encourage T. to accept and love herself wholly. It's not hard to love yourself when you're five, or six, or seven, or even ten, probably. But I know that for girls in particular, loving your physical self becomes riddled with difficulty the older you get. 

We're reading one of my favorite books together--The Secret Garden. I can hardly wait for after bathtime each night, so we can snuggle together and read another couple of chapters before it's time for lights out. If you read the book, and remember it, you'll remember that Mary Lennox was described as an ugly, sullen child in the beginning of the book, before she blossoms under the effects of the brisk Yorkshire air, and her friendship with Dickon and, later, Colin. The book is beautifully illustrated, and T. has been spending lots of time studying the pictures of Mary Lennox.

She's bothered by this whole "ugly" business.

"She's not ugly!" she said to me, when we had first come across that description of Mary. I explained to T. that the ugliness just reflected her inner state--that she was a lonely, spoiled, and forgotten child, who was used to people waiting on her, and this had made her seem ugly on the outside.

"She's not ugly," T. insisted. "I don't understand."

I realized then that this was T.'s first encounter with the concept of "ugliness" as it might apply to the physical attributes of a child her age. Certainly, no child probably ever would describe another child as ugly--without having the idea planted in her head by others, that is. Maybe they might describe another child as mean, perhaps, or funny, or bullying, but not ugly. T. didn't see ugliness in Mary Lennox, and ugliness is very difficult to describe. In order to define it, we rely on the way others define beauty. We are a world that places too much power on physical beauty, and that worships certain body types. Somehow in the process of growing up, our girls succumb to other people's definitions of being beautiful. 

I tried again--I really wanted T. to understand. "People have to be beautful inside," I told T. "Because that's where it counts. Some people are ugly on the inside, for many reasons, and this makes them seem ugly on the outside. Mary Lennox was unhappy, and unloved, and this made her seem ugly to others."

T. nodded, and then nudged me to get back to reading. But I could tell she was thinking about what I said, and she studied the next few pictures of Mary Lennox very carefully, scrutinizing the drawings for some sign of this inner ugliness--this unhappiness that so changed how people saw her.

Later the next day, I walked past the bathroom to put some towels away and caught sight of T. on tiptoes in front of the bathroom mirror. She was making faces into the mirror--first grimaces and frowns, then beaming, silly smiles; then grimaces and frowns, then smiles. Finally she settled on a self-conscious passive expression, and studied her face seriously, head cocked on one side. I wondered what she saw, and what she was measuring in her mind. 

My beautiful girl, inside and out.