Through my laptop speakers, classical music preludes the series of instructions that follow: ‘Arms up, toes out, and plie!’ directs the instructor. On the screen, I watch her leotard-clad body intently. As she moves, I follow, mirroring her balletic gestures. Her hair is pulled back neatly and her slim arms gracefully direct her small charges – a posse of pink-tutued kindergarteners encircling her.
It’s Monday, the day that Alice is usually dropped off outside the local dance studio for an hour of ballet and tap dance instruction. However, true to the ongoing COVID experience, here I am, keenly learning the choreography of my six year-old’s year-end dance recital piece over Zoom with a snotty-nosed Alice beside me.
From the corner of my eye, as Ms. Jacqui demands more plies, I see that Alice’s motions are certainly not even in the realm of ballet. I stop and turn to Alice quizzically. ‘Alice, you need to be following…’ I trail off as I realize what is happening. In her full ballet attire, tights, tutu and all, Alice has (of course) removed the requisite bun from her hair and is jumping wildly across the mat. With her flaming locks askew, she kicks and karate chops the air with exuberant ‘Hi-Yah!’s. Without a care in the world, she rehearses her self-taught ‘ninja moves’, seemingly unperturbed by the ballet class that she is to be following.
I want to scold her, to tell her to stop her nonconformity and pay attention. I don’t want her to be called out by her instructor for not listening and worse, I don’t want to be labelled as the mom who can’t control her quirky ninja child.
The classical piano notes continue to flow gently through the room, juxtaposed against Alice’s brusque, high-energy movements. I hold my tongue and watch with awe. I want to freeze this moment into my brain, protect it and hold it in the safe of my mind. This child, just as she truly and fully is.
Alice celebrated her 6th birthday last month amidst a flurry of streamers, cupcake-fuelled skiing and t-bar laps at our local hill. It has been a challenging year for Alice, full of transitions, ups and downs. Her fiery temper raging at home oscillating with her extreme shyness and near muteness at school. Her saint of a Kindergarten teacher, coaxing her gently to break out of her shell with her peers, encouraging and supporting her day after day in the laborious process. Then, the outpouring of emotion at home, her frustrations, fears, anger and hurt bursting forth after being held, wound tightly within her throughout the day.
Through all of this, however, her charismatic, spunky self has continued to expand and unfold before us.
Despite my suggestions of the classic, singable Disney ballads, she routinely favours the grunge-rock theme song from the Japanimation show, Bakugon for the car commute to the pool. For library day, she independently selects titles from her favourite Zombie graphic novel series. LEGO is her preferred toy, but please, not the girl-branded ‘Friends’ LEGO, ‘because it’s not the REAL LEGO!’
With Henry, she loves him desperately, but will wrestle him to submission with brute force and without a hint of remorse whenever a parental eye is turned. To school, she will pair a Ninjago t-shirt with rainbow and heart-spotted sweat pants. After dinner, she habitually strips down to her underwear and flies full-tilt across the kitchen and living room repeatedly for her nightly ‘ninja training’, exercises that must be executed to fulfill her wish of becoming a ninja-librarian someday.
My Alice – full of seesawing emotion, ideas, stories, kindness and love.
I watch her with wonder because I know at one point, I was just like her. Unfiltered, unaware, oblivious and unconcerned.
When does it happen? The shift from the free to the caged? As a parent, will I see the sequence unfold in front of me? At what point do we come so acutely aware of societal, cultural and familial expectations, conditioning us into submission?
When I was about eight years old, I have grey and cobwebbed memory of pulling out my Mom’s old typewriter from the storage room. Alone, sitting among boxes of halloween costumes and photo albums, I sat down, keystrokes clacking discernibly, typing up a ‘pact’ with myself, promising I would do 25 sit-ups each day for the rest of my life. A certificate I then signed in my grade 3 cursive, just to make it appear more official.
This was also around the time I began wearing a t-shirt over my bathing suit to cover my perfectly rotund abdomen whenever anyone other than my family was at the beach. At skating competitions, before taking to the ice, my arms instinctively were used to shield my body, so nakedly exposed in my spandex. I despised testing days, where we were required to step solo onto the expanse of the ice surface in our competition dresses. No sweaters to hide the soft bulges at my sides, pinched and spilling over the unforgiving, wide elastic band of my tights.
Not long after, on my walk from school to the rink one afternoon, I recall stopping at a magazine store. While paying for my selections, the middle-aged clerk had paused, holding up the covers of various weight loss magazines. ‘I hope these aren’t for you, young lady,’ she had said. ‘You certainly don’t need to be reading this nonsense!’ My middle-school self begged to differ but had offered a mumbled excuse instead.
Looking back, at these disconcerting memories, I was only a few years older than Alice is now. A child. Where in the hell had I already gotten the message, so loud and clear, that I wasn’t perfect just the way I was? Before I had even reached double digits, how had I known so undoubtedly that, as a girl, I had to make every effort to be smaller, thinner, prettier in order to be in the world?
Uncomfortably, my school-aged memories are peppered with recollections of heartbreaking feelings of shame for how my body appeared and worse, the knowing that somehow I was increasingly failing against what I felt deeply was the ideal image of a young woman’s body. The incongruousness of meticulous calorie tallies in my childish pink diary, so carefully hidden away with its flimsy lock and key.
By high school, I had wholeheartedly internalized an inner fire to perfect whatever came my way. Somewhere along the line, I had learnt that in order to be worthy of acceptance and love, I knew I had to hustle. And hustle, I did.
At my high school graduation, with numerous academic accolades, the ‘Best All-round Female’ award and pre-med acceptance to all of the Canadian Ivy League universities, I had gotten the routine down pat. Perfect, perform, please. But who exactly was I pleasing?
At Queen’s, my torturous self-expectations sky-rocketed and along with it, more distorted ideas of self-image and eating behaviours. Twenty years later, I still can’t bring myself to explicitly write the depth of the despair precariously set so heavily on that young woman’s shoulders. She was so deeply hurting and despite all of her so-called achievements, she was so incredibly alone.
Powering through a rigorous pre-medical degree, volunteering on various committees, holding down a job at night to fund a spot on the local competitive skating team; on paper, I was doing it all. Yet whenever my parents called, I did all I could to keep the conversation brief lest the tears would reveal the reality of my suffering. I couldn’t bear to let them truly see through the facade. I wanted so desperately to be perfect, to make them proud.
Strings of gold, her tangled locks cling to her flushed cheeks and fan around her face like a haphazard crown. Her slumbering profile is illuminated by the neon pink hues of her nearby night light. Her breath is soft. An army of stuffies, combined with stacks of picture books border her slackened body. She sucks her fingers, a remnant behaviour from infancy. I can’t help it, but she’s irresistible. I tuck in beside her, my head resting on a hot pink plush unicorn with bulging, hard plastic rainbow eyes. Gently rubbing her back, I whisper my fears through the darkness. ‘It’s only a matter of time,’ I worry anxiously into the night.
Only a matter of time until my daughter is awakened to the distorted beauty ideals of our culture and made known to the fact that seemingly, a woman’s face is only acceptable if primed with makeup, injected with fillers and grossly falsified by filters on social media feeds. Only a matter of time until she is taught what it means to be a ‘good girl’ in our world; quiet, unquestioning, selfless, and what burdens she will carry as a woman in our society. Only a matter of time until she is conditioned fully, schooled in the weight of gendered expectations. All of the ‘shoulds’ suffocating her life’s dreams. ‘My daughter, if only I could hold you here, just as you fully are for eternity,’ I whisper.
How might our lives look different if we all existed as our six year-old selves? Bold, unwavering in our self-appreciation, unquestioning of our talents, beauty, and strength. Self-confidence abound. Unfiltered in our convictions. Centred, settled and absolute in the obvious love that surrounds us. True to our fully, uncaged, non-contorted selves.
I wonder too how my life might have been different.
So, to my daughter on your 6th turn around the sun, I must confess – I simply have no idea what I am doing as your mother and I must apologize in advance for all of the future therapy that I likely will bestow upon you. I don’t have all of the answers nor the parental manual on how to raise the girl and woman I know you will be, but damn it if I won’t die trying to encircle you in unconditional love. Damn it if I don’t do everything in my power to keep it all at bay for as long as possible. Damn it if I go to every length in armouring you in the knowing that you are whole, perfect and fully loved just as you are, tutu-wearing ninja moves and all. And damn it if you won’t see me trying, session by session working away at my own demons, breaking down the walls of uncomfortable memories, chasms of hurt and shame brick by brick.
‘Yes, it’s only a matter of time’, I whisper. ‘But damn it, my girl, if you won’t be ready for the inevitable battle.’