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Melissa Harris-Perry: My Daughter, Myself

MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry once battled an eating disorder. Now she worried she was passing on that body angst to her child.

I knew everything about my daughter’s body when she was a baby—from the wrinkles on her wrists to the soles of her sweet baby feet. I knew every follicle of her hair. But watching her body rapidly shift from little girl to developing tween has evoked surprising emotions, from dread to delight.

It feels as if I just taught her to ride a bike, and now I’ve had to teach my 11-year-old how to fasten a bra. I wasn’t ready for how quickly her body would go from being one I knew intimately to one that is wholly hers—which she protects by closing the door on me when she dresses. On me!

In adolescence I regarded my body as public enemy number one. I loved being a cheerleader at my high school in Virginia, but hated how the uniforms put my thighs, which I thought were too big, on display. I spent my college years alternately stuffing and starving myself, trying to control a body that always felt unruly and awkward. Even now I regard food as a potential enemy and compare myself with other television anchors who, like my cheer-leading squad, seem to have their bodies more firmly under control.

When Parker’s body began to change I got nervous—terrified that I had passed on the body angst. I’ve tried to teach Parker that being smart, funny and kind is more important than being thin and beautiful. But I worried that I hadn’t reinforced her sense of being lovely as she is. So I sat Parker down for one of our frankest conversations. I started by asking her what she saw as the biggest change in her body.

Parker: That’s easy. I have breasts now. It’s kind of weird to have these things stuck to the front of me. But I am also much more independent. Like, I used to be scared to sleep over at a friend’s house. But now I have a good time.

M.H.P.: Your breasts make you braver?

Parker: Ha, ha, ha! Yeah, they are like body armor.

Parker is braver and more independent, but I had no idea she perceived her breasts as partly responsible. As a tween I’d never thought much about mine. In fact, it was Parker who first gave me an appreciation for them. When I held her infant self to my chest and fed her, I felt like the most powerful person in the world. My breasts felt pretty magical then. I’ve also been concerned about Parker, who just finished the fifth grade, encountering a “mean girl” culture. So I asked if she ever saw girls being teased for being too skinny or too fat. Parker: Mostly nobody cares how fat or skinny you are; they just care if you are mean. Then people will say mean things about you. But it just means you should be honest and nice if you don’t want to get talked about.

I damn near turned a cartwheel. Hey, I can live with my kid feeling pressure to be honest and nice. I also asked Parker what she liked about herself.

Parker: I love my face. And, oh, yeah, I love my hair. I love that I can wear it natural or in extensions or pressed. I have really great hair. But I don’t like the hair on my body. That is kind of gross.

M.H.P.: It’s great to know you love your own looks. Who else do you think is beautiful?

Parker: That’s easy. My mom, my grandma, Beyoncé, Kerry Washington and Michelle Obama. Oh, yeah and Auntie Ro and my cousin Elise.

No one else in the world could have come up with that list: the women she loves the most, a few celebrities and the First Lady—all worthy of being called beautiful. Take a deep breath, I told myself. I think we are going to be okay.