This morning my four-year-old walked in on me in the bathroom and caught me mid-diet, eyes downcast with a frown on my face. She followed my gaze and immediately took in the silver scales I was standing on in the middle of the floor, out from their usual hiding place in the cupboard.
"Mum, are you measuring yourself?"
"Yes darling, I am." My cheeks reddened. Here was something she'd never seen me do before yet she had somehow plucked an appropriate verb for it from her burgeoning vocabulary.
"Can I measure myself too?"
"Sure", I replied reluctantly, slipping off the scales, resetting them and letting her take my place.
She climbed on and watched the digital display flicker for a moment before accusingly flashing a number at her. She sighed as if disappointed. It's a sigh I myself have breathed perhaps a thousand times before. It's a language I've never taught her but she already speaks it fluently.
"That's a lot of size, Mum!" My daughter can't read double figures yet. She has no concept of pounds or kilograms. But somehow, despite all of my efforts to ensure that she never saw me weigh myself, she had learnt that this battery-powered device was something that could dictate whether you were 'a lot' of size or too little. I felt the edge of the precipice crumble under my toes and hers, threatening to pitch us both forward into the same yawning chasm that I've had to pull myself out of time and time again. Thankfully, distracted by her sister in the living room, she climbed off and wandered out of the room.
A lot of size? She's four years old, for goodness sake. She's perfect in every possible, beautiful way. Where had she swallowed this poison? Where had be she been brainwashed into believing that her dewy perfection, her startling blue eyes and sinewy strength, her fierce intellect and natural comic timing were suddenly irrelevant and imperfect? Where had she first felt the zap and sting of a number on a screen short-circuiting her self esteem?
Despite my best efforts to weigh myself in private, she probably learnt it from me. From the self-deprecating comments I make. From my yo-yo dieting. From the venomous and unveiled self-loathing I spit out when standing in front of the open wardrobe trying to find something to wear.
How could she not be infected? I exhale the spores of this disease with every sigh of self-contempt. Looking back, the milestones in my life to this point are not so much the dates or places or even the faces of the people journeying with me so much as what I weighed at particular points in time.
It's the numbers flashing on the screen.
When did I first notice the numbers? Probably sixty-five kilos ago when the elderly moustached 'gent' who lived opposite my primary school lured me his house with a handful of stale liquorice bullets and the promise of a homemade kite. He lifted up my dress and put his hand down my pants. For a tortuous fortnight, the wallpaper, dowel and paste monstrosity he shoved into my shaking hands as he pushed me out the front door mocked me from where it hung on my closet door. I told no-one. Mum took me to the park to fly the kite and I nearly wept with relief when it was torn from the sky and fittingly crucified on a branch of a giant Cyprus tree. That episode taught me things a seven year old should never have to learn. From then on, even on the most scorching of summer days, I took the long way home and wore my school bag fastened in place across my groin by my zipped-up parka. As I outgrew the parka, I learnt that as my weight crept up, it too blurred me around the edges like a cloak of invisibility, helping to mask my swelling breasts and keeping me out of harm's way as I hit puberty.
Thirty-four kilos ago I would go to bed as hungry as I could possibly stand. I would exercise until I felt faint and shaky, cycling for two hours each way just to visit my then-boyfriend who told me I was fat and that I kissed 'like a goldfish'. I would give anything to be that 'fat' now. I would give anything to go back in time to tell him that I was strong and fit and beautiful. That I would look forward to kissing a partner who didn't taste as bitter as his personality. That whilst I could grow stronger, be happier and find my soul mate, his being a tosser was an incurable disease. However, it's hard to stand up for yourself when you're bent over a toilet bowl with your fingers jammed down your throat to the knuckles trying to make yourself sick in order to make someone else happy. In order to make the numbers go down.
Twenty-eight kilos ago I had an accident whilst out running at night to lose weight again. Three weeks later, hollow-eyed and muscles wasted, I was discharged from hospital in a wheelchair with a pinned and plated, stapled and scarred leg that would never bend again. It had been that long since I felt my rib cage whilst dressing that for a second I thought I must have a tumour. That moment of fear was quickly replaced by my first smile in weeks when I managed to get onto the scales to see the numbers go down to reflect the seven or eight kilos I had lost.
That's me. Always looking down and watching the numbers. Always missing the dramatic, desolate or beautiful scenery flashing past.
I must stop this rot, this cancer, before it spreads to my beautiful girls. I will tell them that their happiness doesn't depend on a number on a screen. I will implore them to wonder at the strength and resilience and grace of their bodies. The ease with which they can move and run and dance. I want them to live their lives without being shackled to the scales or a slave to counting kilojoules or calories, portions or points.
Look up, I will tell them. Ignore the numbers. Look up and gaze in wonder at yourself and your surroundings. Stand tall and greet life with your chin held high. Your perfect bare toes deserve to be footloose on a dance floor, plunged into an ocean or wiggled on some warm sandy beach somewhere. Not stationary on a cold slab of metal. You deserve to be on an equal footing with everyone else, free and unfettered instead of contained to, limited by and perched on a tombstone-shaped pedestal with some meaningless numbers flashing across its screen.
I will tell my darling girls climb off and look up! Go live your lives with gusto!