I am reposting this piece today because I have seen here and there renewed efforts to focus on children’s weight and controlling it. I think often about Sleeping Beauty’s mother. Most of us are like Sleeping Beauty’s mother, eager to do whatever we can to spare our children difficulties.
You see that beautiful little girl in that photo? She was 5 years old there. I was delighted beyond measure when she was born. I always wanted a daughter, in part I’m sure to redeem my experience with my mother. To me she was and is the most wonderful daughter ever — smart, funny, and beautiful — everything I could hope for.
But like Sleeping Beauty’s mother, we always fail in one way or another. Remember how it happened that the curse came to be in that fairy tale family? When the long desired child, a daughter, was born to the king and queen, they planned a great celebration. According to which version you read, they invited 7 or 12 fairies to the great feast. And whichever version, that is where the problem begins because one fairy is left out and she appears just as each fairy offers her gift to the child. She is angry at being neglected and acts out her anger by giving a curse, namely that on her 16th birthday, the girl would prick her finger on a spindle and die. The last fairy cannot undo the curse but she can mitigate it so that instead of dying, she and all the kingdom would fall into deep sleep for 100 years until a prince would come and kiss her awake.
All The Spindles
Remember all the efforts Sleeping Beauty’s parents made to keep her from the curse placed on her at birth, that she would prick her finger on a spindle?They searched high and low determined to find and eliminate all the spindles and thus stave off the curse.
Well, knowing my body and how like the Fuller women I am, I was afraid that my daughter faced the curse of having to battle her weight all of her life. And I was determined to do anything and everything I could to protect her from it.
Our concern here is not with interpreting the fairy tale; that has been done by many. Our concern is with the mother and all the efforts she made to keep her daughter from ever encountering a spindle and thus staving off the curse. Such a frantic wish to protect her child.
But the Moirae* could not be escaped no matter how vigilant she was or how hard she tried. When she was 16, the princess happened upon a woman who was spinning and asked what she was doing. She asked for the spindle and as soon as she took it into her hand, she pricked her finger — and well, you know the rest.
The mother failed in her effort. And even more, the curse happened at least in part because of the lack of a place setting for the dinner or enough goody bags, depending on the version. A careless error of omission that opened the way for this curse to come to pass.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately. How often we fail to be able to protect our children from whatever curse it is we fear. No matter how hard we try, there will always be one spindle. And perhaps the seeds of the whole problem lie in our frantic desire to keep our children from pain such that in the process, we fail to teach them things they really need to know. I was as much enthrall to the desirability of slenderness as anyone and so in a way my efforts led to exactly what I least desired.
I read and I talked with everyone I could think of who might be able to help me. I breastfed her for all of her first year, because it seemed breastfed babies were less likely to become fat. I held off introducing solids until she was almost 7 months old, because it was thought that early introduction of cereal predisposed to obesity. I made all of her baby food so that I knew there was no hidden sugar or modified starch. I was vigilant about what I and my husband ate, so that we were modeling healthy eating. I struggled to overcome my shame about my body so that I wouldn’t communicate that to her — I worked my ass off to get comfortable talking about my body, answering questions about it, getting comfortable in my skin.
And it seemed to work. Until she was around 11 she was slender and I thought maybe we had escaped the curse. No matter how vigilant I was or how hard I tried, I hadn’t reckoned with genetics and puberty. She began to gain weight. She started menstruating when she was not quite 12 and it seems that it signaled the pricking of her finger on that spindle I had tried so desperately to get rid of. She became plump, with the same rounded body I have. Initially I was in despair because I had done absolutely everything right, everything that was supposed to stave off the curse. We didn’t overeat, eat junk food or any of the other “bad” things. We walked and did things together. She walked to school every day and played field hockey. None of it kept her slender.
My heart broke for her as she struggled with it all. We talked about bodies, about doing everything possible to be healthy, that people come in all sizes. Her doctor and I determined that it was important for her to focus on being active and healthy, not dieting because she was at risk of developing an eating disorder, like several other girls in her class had.
It was like walking through a field of land mines every day. I wanted someone, anyone to wave a wand and let her have the body she wanted. I felt guilty, that somehow I was responsible for her weight, for having passed along this terribly difficult problem to her. I worked with renewed vigor on my own body issues. But none of it could change things. And I had to forgive her for not having escaped and myself for not having been able to save her.
She is 43 now. She is not thin, but she has settled into an adult weight less than mine. She is active and healthy. She has been able to keep her weight fairly stable by concentrating on being healthy. She is largely free of the self-loathing I was still struggling with when I was her age.
I read here and there and everywhere that if we get children to eat healthily, avoid junk food, and exercise, we can prevent obesity, and I think of my beautiful daughter. If they only knew how hard it is to eliminate all the spindles in the kingdom.
* In Greek mythology, the Moirai are the Fates