Eight looks down at his legs, made pale and shimmery by the bath water. He frowns. “See my legs, here?” he asks. And he points to his thighs, squeezes a bit of flesh. “I do see them,” I say.
“They are fat,” he pronounces, certain as a policeman who stands, arms crossed, at your car door and waits while you rummage through your things for your license.
I protest. “They are not. At the doctor’s you’re always in the fiftieth percentile for weight — just where you should be.”
Eight looks up at me. Wet, he seems far younger than eight years old. I see traces of a boy in a bath seat, a boy chortling as he swipes at the bubbles in the water. But when I flash to his eyes, I see a sorrow all grown up. He doesn’t believe me.
Now he’s patting his stomach. “What’s a six-pack, exactly?” he demands. “And how can I get one?”
I was eight, too, when I first started worrying about my thighs. I was spending a couple of weeks with my father and his wife. It was summer, shorts weather. One day my father chuckled a little, and remarked, apropos of nothing, “Wherever did you get those thighs, Sarah Bear? They certainly didn’t come from your mother.”
Ouch. For the rest of the summer I studied my thighs whenever I was sitting. My father, I decided, had been correct. My thighs were like tree trunks, thick and solid, and completely out of proportion to my stick-like lower legs.
Back at home I told my mother that my thighs were too big. She scoffed, told me that they were perfect, that I was perfect. But I looked at her rail-thin legs, and I wondered. Her words fell flat against the evidence before me.
When I bore first one boy child, and then another, I mourned the girl child I would never have. But I was comforted by the fact that there were certain parenting challenges I’d never have to face — among them girl-on-girl cattiness and body image issues.
The last few months have given the lie to my beliefs about gendered behavior in childhood.
And now I mourn anew to find that all children lose faith, somewhere along the line and through some provocation or other, in the beauty of the human form. These legs of ours, they take us places, show us the world. They enable us, and ask so little in return. They are an incredible gift.
When I looked down at Eight’s legs in the bath, I saw him running, biking, playing soccer. I saw grace and wonder there.
Why couldn’t he?
written in 2010