Bra shopping with your 9-year-old isn't supposed to end this way

Sep 15, 2016 at 5:44 p.m. ET
Image: Jane Airey/Getty Images

It was supposed to be an awkward but exciting outing: the day I took my daughter to buy her first bra. I fully expected the "Mooooommm" s to flow like a mortified river and eye rolls aplenty. But I figured that after our puberty-themed shopping trip, we could swing by an ice cream shop or something and talk about her journey into womanhood or talk about anything she wanted to or not talk at all and avoid eye contact while we ate delicious dairy treats. I figured it could be up to her. I would just be thrilled to grab a chill moment with her, something that's a bit of a rarity nowadays as she flexes her wings a little. Also, chocolate chip cookie dough.

We grabbed a few of the bras on offer and headed toward the changing rooms. I asked if she wanted me to come in with her, fully expecting an emphatic "no." Instead, she shyly asked if I would mind helping her with the bra and made me promise not to look. I promised, and then did the best bra fitting I could manage with both of my eyes closed in a changing room roughly the size of Harry Potter's pathetic broom-closet bedroom. I don't want to brag, but let's just say that if you ever need help with your bra in a pitch-dark room, I'm kind of an expert at it.

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"Looks great, Kiddo," I chirped, trying so hard not to make this a thing, pretending we were trying on shoes or picking out a dress instead of her first bra ever — where did my baby go? "How does it feel?"

She didn't answer at first, and when I looked at her, it was clear that she was about to cry. She wouldn't look in the mirror and opted to stare at her feet instead. Then it happened: Her shoulders started to shake, and that was that. Nothing to see here, folks: just a mother and daughter in a locker-sized changing room with a pile of tiny bras, sobbing.

I asked her to tell me what was wrong, and I expected the answer to be what it's been more and more lately: "I don't know, I just feel like crying." I'm pretty sure the finer points of navigating puberty left me in tears when I was around her age (9), so for the most part, I just keep a supply of hugs and tissue on offer and wait for the storm to pass. But this time, she said something that left me really, truly speechless.

"Mom?" Her voice drops to a whisper. "Do you think I'm, you know? F-A-T?"

Even now, when I'm sitting here typing this, I'm not sure what to say. Do I think my daughter is fat? No. She's still a child, round in some places, knobbed in others, all angles and bones here, starting to curve there.

Sometimes that's what we kneejerk with. "Am I fat?" "God, no!" as though we've been asked, "Do you want to watch Gigli tonight?" As though nothing could be more reprehensible than fatness, and therefore these questions must be met with soothing denial. Or sometimes we say, "No, of course not, you're beautiful!" As if fatness and beauty are mutually exclusive things. But these are not the things I was thinking about when my kid asked me if I thought she was, you know... F-A-T.

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Mostly, my heart just twisted for her because she was so afraid of being fat that she couldn't even say the word out loud. Like Voldemort. The sight of her body was making her cry, and that pain is so familiar to me and to lots of women. I just sort of sat there thinking that I wanted to tell her that I was sorry. I was sorry that it was starting for her already. That maybe it already had and I just didn't notice. I was sorry for what was to come. I was sorry for not protecting her from it better. Because I really have tried.

I don't always feel comfortable in my body, as I imagine most women don't, since we're basically trained to start criticizing ourselves from, well, age 9, I guess. If you're really lucky and can hold off that long.

And you can't win when you do that because you'll always be too fat or too thin or with bad breasts or a terrible butt or weird knees and wrong everythings. So I try to focus on what I love. I consider myself pretty body-positive. Big bodies, little bodies, brown bodies, white bodies, bodies with varying abilities — bodies are great. Without them we'd just be a sentient organ soup, so isn't it nice that we get these fantastic structures that let us do all kinds of crap?

I've tried to instill that in my kid, who up until this point was that magical sort of unself-conscious that only kids can be, tromping around with milk mustaches and mussed braids and skinned knees and no yardstick yet to measure and then beat themselves with. I've been telling her for as long as I can remember that there's no wrong way to have a body. There is not a correct body and then a series of factory-reject ones. You can't exist wrong. And yes, I tell her that she's beautiful. Objectively, I think that's true. Subjectively too. I'm her mother, after all.

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But somewhere along the line, more voices were added, and some of them must have been louder than mine because "There's no wrong way to have a body," got a big F-A-T "unless..." tacked onto the end of it. Is it other kids? Is it media? We don't have cable, but maybe it's all of those comics she reads with brave heroines who have fictional waists and tits that are the kind of perky that only exists in zero gravity. Movies? Ads? Are the different — and also not wrong — bodies that she sees making her think hers is unacceptable? Is it all of the above? None of it?

I could find out. I could root it out and squash it and get mad and try to punish the person or thing responsible for making my daughter cry because that's what I always want to do when my daughter cries. Trust me when I say that long after they're tiny, that at least remains. But of course, you can't, and it's futile anyway: Your kid can't exist in a vacuum. They will grow up with a million voices vying for influence no matter what you do. For girls, that often brings a self-criticism that sticks to you like tree sap forever until the day you're picking out the perfect girdle to go under your funeral dress when you shed this mortal coil or whatever.

So I can't. I can't protect her. But damn it, I can yell. Louder and louder, I'll yell that there's no wrong way to have a body. That hers is powerful and useful and capable and beautiful at this size and every other.

If that can't be the only message she hears, I can at least make sure it's the loudest.