To the Stranger in the Seat Next to Me

Stranger Next to Me (1)

Do you remember that day? We were two people among thousands at a crowded basketball game. My husband and I were dressed in the team’s colors and the baby in my arms wore headphones bigger than his head and tiny basketball shoes. You could tell we were super fans, considering this was only the pre-season. You could tell we were happy, given the smiles we couldn’t erase. And you could tell we were new parents on account of how fragile we deemed our baby to be.

“How old is he?” you asked halfway through the game.

I replied, proudly. “Four months.”

You smiled and nodded your head, as if you approved. Then you turned to the man next to you and repeated the conversation.

“He’s four months old,” you informed him.

“Really? He’s too small to be four months old,” the man replied.

I cringed as yet another stranger assessed the size of my baby and gave his uneducated opinion, but I’d heard this line a thousand times. I waited for you to assure him that babies come in all sizes. I waited for you to simply shrug and return to the game. But, you didn’t. Instead you lowered your voice to a whisper and said something I assume you didn’t want me to hear.

“I know… There must be something wrong with him.”

Below me, the basketball game continued. The ball bounced between players, shoes squeaked on the court, and the scoreboard changed.

But inside of me, everything stopped.

See, I’ve heard it all before. Every single time I took my baby out in public, I was told by countless strangers that he was tiny, that they were shocked at his age, that there was just no way he was that old. And every single time, it hurt. But this time, at the basketball game, it killed me. I was so disappointed in you.

When strangers make comments, I usually don’t know their history. I can remind myself that they may not have kids. They may not spend much time around babies. But with you, I knew better.

You are also a mom. Your daughter was one seat down from you, listening carefully to every word you said. She was learning from your actions, calculating your word choices, and memorizing your demeanor. She didn’t get to hear you support another mom by saying, “Everyone is built differently, and babies are no different.“ She didn’t get to experience you build up another woman’s self-esteem by saying, “Sure he’s tiny, but look how happy he is!”

No. She heard you say there was something wrong with him.

Those seven words did a lot of damage. New moms often have a deep wound in the form of insecurity, and you ripped mine wide open. You projected judgment on my four-month-old baby. And you instilled – whether you meant to or not – a very negative sense of self-worth on your daughter. She’s fragile, you know. I bet she hears a lot about body image at school, with her friends, and in the media.

You had the chance to put body shaming to rest. You had the chance to say that what we look like doesn’t matter. But, you didn’t. And I’m betting your daughter heard the same thing I did – that if you don’t look like everyone else, there is something wrong with you.

What you, and the dozens of others who have made similar comments to me, don’t know is that my baby has trouble keeping food down. For the longest time, he had severe acid reflux and spit up the majority of his bottles. But even without that setback, he was destined to be small. His father and his uncle are both lean men, and that body type carries over to my son. He is super long, but very thin. He’s not the chubby picturesque baby we’ve grown to expect.

He’s different. But, he’s perfect.

Just like your daughter. Just like me. Just like everyone who struggles with body image.

I used to get so anxious when I had to take my son out in public. I knew I was going to hear comments like yours, I knew I was going to be judged, and I knew it was going to hurt.

Now, I don’t let it bother me. I refuse to let society project what it believes is the perfect body on a helpless baby. It is sad, it is disgusting, and it stops here.

I thank you for helping me learn this lesson. Because of you, I am more secure with my motherhood and I will always ensure my son knows that his weight doesn’t define him.

If you’d gotten to know him, you’d see there’s nothing wrong with him. Thank you for reminding me of that.

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3 Responses to To the Stranger in the Seat Next to Me

  1. Tracy
    Tracy January 13, 2016 at 10:02 am #

    I am so glad you wrote this, Heather, and I’m so glad I read it! You see, I’m one of those people who comment all the time about little bitty babies/toddlers, though certainly not with the same judgment as the people you described here. My daughter was 9lbs 3oz when she was born and has always been in the 95th+ percentile in size. For me, when I see an average-size or small baby, I just love how they look like an actual baby instead of coming out looking like a toddler! 🙂 No matter my reasons though, it never occurred to me that my observations might be felt as a negative judgment or a reminder of a scary health issue they’ve had to deal with. This was a great reminder that, even if we aren’t saying or doing things with ill intentions, sometimes our actions can have unintended effects.

    • Heather Koontz
      Heather Koontz January 13, 2016 at 12:03 pm #

      Hey Tracy! I struggled with writing this because I didn’t want to seem like I was lacking sensitivity to the fact that people make comments that are, for the most part, innocent. I used to be one of the people who commented on the size of a pregnant woman’s belly before I become pregnant and disliked being told I was too big or too small. So, I totally get it. At the same time, I felt like it was worth writing in case it shed some light on how important the words we choose to say really are. Glad you liked it!

  2. Amie
    Amie January 13, 2017 at 3:24 pm #

    Oh Mama. This speaks my heart. I have a 4 month-old who was 6 weeks premature and had a feeding problem and didn’t gain more than a few ounces in an 8-week span. So he is small. I often feel tinges of offense when people comment on his size, and my husband says I am overreacting.I just want to yell, “He’s NOT small. He’s so big because he’s FINALLY gaining weight and at a rapid clip!” Thank you for validating my heart.

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