Our Soft Stomach, Our Broad Back; Notes to My Mother

Summer is in full swing! While it’s the season for fun in the sun, summer can also present body image challenges.  Katie Davis, a GLI supporter and former intern, reflects on the way a mother can influence her daughter’s body image, and why it’s important to remember the amazing things your body can do, and not just what it looks like.

I remember the way your face looked the day I sat at the kitchen table, little legs dangling above the cream carpet, and asked if I could go to Weight Watchers with you. I was nine and all cowlicks and soccer bruises, and that was the first summer I noticed how my stomach curved convexly in my tie-dye one-piece. I didn’t know what exactly Weight Watchers was, but I knew it had to do with food, and fractions, and that the way you spoke about it made it sometimes sound like summer camp, and sometimes like a trip to the principal’s office. But mostly it seemed like magic, all of the measuring cups and point charts and little books filled with scribbles casting a spell on you well past when the dishes were done.

I remember the way things changed after that day. Instead of visits to Weight Watchers, we talked about health, and energy, and how my broad back meant I came from “strong Irish stock.” I remember that your measuring cups stopped popping up so frequently in the middle of meals, and that, by the start of the next summer, I felt a bit better about my bathing suit shape. But your eyes never quite lost the look of surprise and fear of that first day, and from that point on I sometimes felt them darting up from your diet journal — you, watching me watch you.

What I don’t remember: your shirt size. Your pant size. Your dress size. Your weight. I would be your worst personal shopper. Your bedroom closet was a hide-and-go-seek favorite for years, but I only saw the fabrics and the colors, not the printed block numbers on itchy beige tags.

I noticed things during those summers, but not what you suspected. I never thought twice about your soft stomach or short waist or any of the other grievances I sometimes caught you muttering about in front of the mirror or with friends. I noticed the way your strong, freckled arms flexed when you weeded the front lawn, and the way your shapely legs sliced through the water when you started taking swimming lessons in the shallow end of the town pool.

I still notice what your body does more than how it looks, the way you shake when you laugh at dad’s jokes and sway when you dance at family weddings. I notice the way you arch and rise when you need to tell me something important, and the way you melt your arms around me when I need to be held.

At 23-years-old, I notice most how incredibly, unquestionably yours my body is. Your freckled arms are my freckled arms, your shapely legs are my own. I’m not a mother, and I can’t speak from experience, but I imagine that this is the challenge that never ends: to see the future in yourself, to put aside the point charts and portions and celebrate the body that you will one day share.

And when I watch my reflection this summer, staring at our soft stomach and our broad back, I think that that is my challenge too –– to train my eyes to be kind, to see the past and the future in my figure. Because I will have a broad-backed daughter some day, and she will watch me watching myself, and she will learn.

  1. Bree

    I have never read something more true and touching regarding mother/daughter relationships. I cried through the whole essay.

  2. Betsy

    “to train my eyes to be kind, to see the past and the future in my figure.”

    Perfect. My new mantra. Thank you.

  3. Rebecca Kuder

    This song you wrote, this poem, is healing. Thank you. This balm you made for our hearts is beautiful.

  4. Jamie

    Thank you.

  5. Anonymous

    OMG, this is one of the most sensitive daughterly perspectives on body image that I have ever read. My eyes are filled with tears.

    Yesterday my 8 year old daughter whispered to me that she wishes she were skinnier. I showed her how rock solid her stomach and legs are, and pointed out that the little bit of padding is what humans need to stay alive. I also told her that anyone who could climb the big slippery rock in the middle of the Tuolumne River is a strong, powerful person. She smiled.

    Yet I can also recount all the flaws my mother saw in herself when she looked in the mirror, every imperfection she focused on and railed against, to such an extent that I think she was well into her 40’s before she realized that the world saw her as beautiful. I try SO hard not to mirror that self-criticism to my daughter. And yet, the mean voice is already there inside her head.

    Thank you for this beautiful essay.

  6. Sami Carroll

    Thank you, Katie. What an wonderful piece, what a great reminder and what a beautiful story. You have such wisdom, as our daughters often have, and we, as mothers, forget to have ourselves. Thank you.


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