At dinner a few weeks ago my 3-year-old daughter Penrose was ignoring her food, preferring to ask a million questions about the episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation“ we were watching.
“What is that Klingon doing? Why is he so angry? What is the blue doctor doing? Is she helping that alien feel better?”
“Eat your dinner,” I reminded her.
“I can’t,” she said. “I’ll get chunky.”
Her words settled like lead in my gut. I make a point to never talk about body size and shape other than having strong muscles. I exercise, and Pen’s even accompanied me to circuit training class, but I never talk about losing weight. We love looking at her roly-poly baby pictures together, but are careful to not use any size-based adjectives to describe her now. Where was this coming from?
It was coming from the dog.
Claude, our 9-year-old dachshund, is a notorious food thief. We’ve had to stop bringing him to cookouts thanks to the time he ate an entire salmon before it could make it to the grill. He’s leapt through the air to snatch watermelon from a guest’s hand. And since he’s a dachshund, it’s pretty important that he stay slim to avoid straining his back. Penrose has befriended him by sneaking him table scraps—but we try to curtail it by telling her not to feed him too much because he’ll get chunky.
Oh. After her comment, I hastily tried to explain the fairly subtle differences between toddler and dachshund weight management. I explained about the need to keep Claude fit, and connected it to the daily walks we take him on. I explained to Penrose that she was growing, and needed food for energy and strong muscles. She ate, and hasn’t mentioned getting chunky since.
But this was a loud and clear wake up call for me, though. As careful as I’d been not to talk about human body shapes, even talking about the dog’s weight led Penrose to feel insecure about her size. I’ll admit to some nervousness about her next pediatrician’s visit, too–she’s short and muscular, and the doctor has made comments about her BMI in the past. Now she’s old enough to possibly understand.
I can’t censor any talk about the weight and mass of any object for the rest of Pen’s formative years, or protect her from cruel classmates like Jordana Horn’s daughter has encountered, so I hope I can empower Penrose to distinguish between fitness and skinniness, and understanding that health comes in many shapes and sizes.
If she’s inherited my phenotype, which so far she has, she’ll probably never be healthy and skinny at the same time. But she’ll be sturdy and strong and fit. She can already walk with Claude and me for miles, scale the sides of her tall bed, carry the cat, and dance energetically. She sleeps well and eats a variety of foods. When I try to sneak in a workout on the living room floor, more often than not she joins me for her version of pushups and jumping jacks.
Penrose’s comment about her weight reminded me that Sondheim was right when he had the Witch sing, in “Into the Woods,” “Careful the things you say…children will listen.” I’ll keep our conversations body positive and focused on exercising for health and strength—for us, and even for the dog.