Permission to Play

My daughter, Madelyn, waltzes into the bathroom and puts her hand on her hip. She is every bit a confident three -year-old. “How do I look?” she asks, striking a pose.

It’s a rhetorical question. She knows what I’m going to say.

“You look beautiful!” I exclaim, scooping her up so we can look at our reflection together. I look at her brown eyes, crinkling from her smile. My daughter is my little mini-me – in every way my twin, but with a healthier self-esteem.

I put her down and glance in the mirror. I am surprised for a moment by my reflection, and frown in frustration. My shirt is snugger than it used to be, my stomach spills over the top of my jeans, and my hips have a little bit of extra padding. I don’t look in the mirror too often anymore and for a moment I’m glad that I don’t.

I struggle to be kind to that girl looking back at me with tired eyes.

The truth is, I am ashamed of my reflection. My body has never (ever) looked the way I want it to and as I look in the mirror I feel guilty. You have no one to blame but yourself, a snide voice whispers. If only you drank less wine, ate less chocolate cake, and loved working out, then yourbody would finally be beautiful.

“We’re both beautiful,” Madelyn adds, interrupting my train of thought as she wraps her tiny arms around my legs. Her enthusiasm is contagious.

“Yes, we are,” I say. “Ready to go to the park?”

At the playground, I trail behind her with my hands shoved deep in my jacket pockets. Madelyn, impervious to the cold wind, rushes eagerly around the playground, as though she has to touch each slide, each ladder, each swing to make sure they don’t go anywhere.

The internal shaming begins again as I watch her climb and slide, walk with one foot in front of the other on the cement curb. She seems to move nonstop.

Maybe if you moved more – like Madelyn – you’d actually fit your clothes, the voice begins. I sigh and let it yammer on for a bit as I help Madelyn clamor up a rock wall. I’ve named this negative voice in my head Nancy. In a way it’s an old friend of mine, albeit one I’m not too fond of.

As Madelyn settles into climbing up the slide (and slipping down) over and over again, I find myself by the fireman’s pole, watching her and feeling defensive toward Nancy. I actually do fit in my clothes, I respond. They’re just a bit more snug than they used to be. I idly grab the pole and let my weight hang against it. I’m unexpectedly delighted by the feeling of resting against nothing, the way my body is suspended against air, held up only by my arm. I feel a sudden urge to swing.

I look around feeling awkward. There is no one else around, but I still don’t want to be that strange grown-up on the playground. I dismiss the urge and straighten up.

Nancy is immediately critical. Perhaps, this is why you aren’t thin, she hisses, because you don’t move. You stand here, and you don’t move.

Maybe, I respond, clutching the pole again. Or, maybe, I’m so busy feeling bad about my body that I miss the chance to move. I pause. No, not move, I correct myself, play.

Madelyn crows as she slips down the slide, then runs past me on her way to the swings. I don’t view the playground or the mirror or any number of things like my daughter does. But I wish I did. I wish I saw myself the way she sees me, with love instead of criticism, with joy instead of disappointment. I wish I saw moving my body the way she does, as a chance to play instead of a means to an end.

The surest way to make sure nothing changes is to keep doing everything the same, and it is this thought that pushes me over the edge. I decide to swing on the fireman pole, not because of Nancy, not because moving might help me lose weight, but because it just might be fun.

I swing my weight giddily on the pole, smiling at the feeling of my body falling free, the slight swooping sensation in my stomach. I swing again. And again. I do it exactly as many times as I want to and not a single swing more.

Madelyn tires of the slide and is now walking on the curb like it’s a tightrope. I join her and we walk on the curb together, giggling when we fall off, exaggerating our flapping arm movements in an attempt to stay on the curb. As I watch her, I realize I know her secret. I’ve known it all along: she is too busy living in her body to spend any time at all thinking about what it looks like. She has legs for chasing and arms for hugging, a smile that lights up the room. And me? I have all those things too.


Words by Ashly Hilst.