Recently a five-year-old dropped an F-bomb on me.
We were hanging out while her mom was running errands. She curled up on my lap, drawing on a notepad and telling me she liked my manicure. She showed me a game she liked to play on her iPod. She asked me if I was flexible, or if I could do a headstand. I was wearing a skirt but kicked myself up into a headstand in the middle of the floor anyway, my skirt shifting to reveal my black Spanx shorts underneath. She giggled at the sight of them for a moment, at my skirt floating over my head, before she dropped the F-word on me, exploding like an actual bomb right in front of me.
“You have very fat legs.”
No judgment, no malice, just matter of fact. “Your legs are fat,” she repeated, like I could have somehow missed it the first time around. I explained that it wasn’t a very nice thing for her to say, but she simply said it one more time, for good measure. “But you DO have very fat legs.”
I lowered myself out of the headstand, my face beet red from more than just being upside down. She looked at me, wide-eyed, waiting for what I would say next. I was speechless. So she moved on, unaware of the effect her words had on me, and went skipping away from me to practice her splits and backbends. I turned my head and blinked back tears.
For the rest of the day, her words haunted me, fueling my inner dialogue with myself. I heard those words repeating, over and over, in her high-pitched voice.
You shouldn’t wear that skirt again. You have very fat legs. Don’t eat that piece of chocolate. You have very fat legs. You need to wear the long yoga pants, not the short ones. You have very fat legs. Why are you even taking yoga? You should be on a treadmill. You have very fat legs.
How could I hear anything else over that refrain?
What happens when a five-year-old sees exactly what you fear everyone sees, what you, in fact, see yourself? What happens when a five-year-old becomes your personal dressing room mirror, with its bad fluorescent lighting and unflattering angles, reflecting back the image you dread?
It knocks you down from your headstand, panting and out of breath, and rattles you to the core. It makes you want to hide somewhere no one can see this flaw, until it maybe somehow magically disappears.
I looked for the teaching moment with my little friend and came up empty. How could I make sense of this moment and come away with anything other than hurt?
I couldn’t. It sunk its teeth into me like a dog does with its chew toy, gripping even harder the more you try to shake it off.
It took a week, and a trip 8,000 miles away for me to take anything good away from this experience. The voice followed me, strong as ever as I boarded the plane to take me far, far away. Somewhere over the Pacific, it dulled to a soft whisper. But somehow, between Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City, it started to lift, and that voice finally, finally, quieted.
Knee-deep in my own exhaustion, outside a closed airport in Vietnam at 2 a.m., I realized I couldn’t hear it anymore. It was gone, and I now understood that the teaching moment here wasn’t for my five-year-old buddy. It was for me. I was the one who needed to learn the lesson.
It doesn’t matter.
That’s right, it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter if a five-year-old thinks you have very fat legs. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t perfect. It doesn’t matter if you’re too old, too young, too fat, too skinny, too short, too tall, too anything.
What matters is that you live your life.
You don’t hide. You don’t keep plotting what will happen when you are thinner. You don’t avoid the things you love because you’re worried you don’t look good enough. You don’t save all of your best moments for some imagined time in the future when you’re sure you’ll be more perfect.
And you certainly don’t waste your thoughts on some silly thing a five-year-old said about your very normal-sized legs. Of this I am sure.
I’m not going to say that it doesn’t suck when anyone, even a five-year-old, in her infinite five-year-old wisdom, calls you fat. It does suck, even with all of your reasoning and rationalizing of it. And sometimes you forget that it really doesn’t matter. But then, you convince yourself to remember. You remind yourself about this life lesson.
Because life is not about fat legs, or skinny legs, or being perfect. Life is simply meant to be lived.