“Did Amelia get a new babysitter?” my next door neighbor asked me a few days ago when we bumped into each other walking our dogs.
Confused, I shook my head no.
“Oh, I thought I saw her with someone yesterday.”
It took me until later to figure out what she was talking about. My eight-year-old daughter had been playing in the yard with her friend, a girl in her grade who is less than five months older but is a full head and a half taller than Amelia.
This other kid is tall, for sure, but Amelia is on the other end of the spectrum. She’s not on the growth charts for height, and just barely on there for weight. People assume she and her five-year-old brother are twins.
Last year, when I called my doctor’s office to confirm the correct dosage for her antibiotic, the doctor on call refused to give me the information after I gave him Amelia’s measurements, because he insisted there was no way a child her age weighed that little.
When Amelia was a baby, her small size was frightening. She had severe reflux and multiple food allergies. She was throwing up all the time, covered in rashes, and refused to nurse or eat because she associated those actions with pain. Growth slowed, and then went backward.
Every time a well-meaning person at the park would say, “Oh, she’s such a little peanut!” as I pushed her on the swings, I’d cringe, hearing it as confirmation that something was wrong with her -- and with me, for not figuring out how to help her.
But even after we figured out her allergies and she slowly outgrew her reflux—and her fear of new foods—she didn’t suddenly leap up in clothing size. She just settled in to what her doctors call “her curve.” Healthy, thankfully. Just small. Like her great-grandmother, who at a whopping 4’11” bragged that she towered over the other women in her family.
Strangers often feel free to weigh in on my kid’s appearance, often directly to her:
You’re so cute!
I thought you were younger.
Wow, that’s a small one.
Boys love tiny girls!
Maybe you’ll be a jockey someday.
These remarks are intended to be friendly and kind, not malicious, but still, it’s her body and no kid needs—nor wants—a running play-by-play on how they look. Amelia, like any other child, knows damn well what her body is capable of. Right now it’s cartwheels, bossing around her younger brother, and jumping off the diving board at the town pool. (Somehow her body is not currently capable of making a bed without crying, but here’s hoping that changes.)
For a while, these comments bummed Amelia out. I definitely didn’t help because instead of shutting people down or changing the subject, I’d leap in to reply, “Oh, yes, she’s dainty,” to anyone who mentioned her size. Amelia was probably rolling her eyes, thinking, “Really? No kidding, Mom," every time. But I was still kind of a wreck from her early years so the whole subject was hella fraught. Also I’m an idiot.
Amelia said being smaller than her peers bothered her, mostly because whenever they played house at school, she always had to be the baby. And because she’d never be good at basketball. Finally, I got it that I’d be doing her a favor if I shut up about her appearance even though I was giving her what I thought were compliments. You know what’s not a compliment to my kid? Calling her “cute.”
And though it is embarrassing as hell to admit, I was bringing my own baggage to the table, which was that there is something “good” about being small or cute or whatever it is if you’re a girl. Ugh. It is absolutely not my job to saddle her with those ridiculous cultural norms or act out my own childhood fantasies that if I were super petite the boys I had crushes on would give me piggyback rides 24/7. (Are piggyback rides even all that awesome?)
On the contrary. I shouldn’t be making comments about anyone’s physical appearance, whether that be about my own body, my children’s, or anyone else’s. Which is one thing to say, but in a culture focused on unrealistic, idealized ideas of how people should look, it’s easy to slip up. (Speaking of, check out these awesome-sounding "no body talk" summer camps). I have too many friends whose body images are still skewed from listening to their mothers talk about dieting or having their fathers comment about how they looked.
Instead, it’s up to Amelia to decide how she feels about herself without my labels. And ultimately, my job as her mom is to take the focus off how she looks and put it back where it belongs, on who she is as a person. It’s also my job is to bolster her coping skills. To acknowledge that, yeah, she is small and to let her know that she's never going to play for the WNBA and yes, people are going to make comments about her size, so let's plan for how to respond.
I’d love to say that my learning to downplay discussions about physical appearance is why Amelia no longer cares as much about being the smallest kid in her class, but she probably realized it’s not that big a deal on her own. Does it still bother her? I asked, when I told her I was working on this article.
“Maybe once in a while,” she said, “but not too much. It happens a lot that people think I’m in kindergarten, but I’m REALLY tall for a kindergartener,” she added, happily.