I noticed her right away, as I always do now: 9 or 10 at first glance, with the thin, prepubescent body of a girl who hasn't begun puberty yet. On second glance I could see she was older--something about the curve of her shoulder, the way she carried her purse, the look on her face, more knowing than a 9-year-old, and more weary, too. I could see the shape of her arm bones under the skin, the sharp edge of her collarbone.
She was shopping with her mother; I was shopping with my 12-year-old. They were discussing a dress, the very dress, it happened, that my daughter had her eye on. The mother hung it back on the rack and my daughter picked it up. "Look, Mom, I love this!" she said. Then she looked at the size--size 7--and regretfully put it back.
I asked the other mother, "How old is your daughter?"
The mom smiled and shook her head. "She's 12, but she thinks she can wear a size 7. She swears it fits and I told her I'm not buying it."
I looked at the girl, her strained smile, her impossibly thin waist. I looked at the mother. I made a decision.
"Could I have a word?" I asked.
I told her my daughter had had anorexia, that I saw some of the same signs in her daughter I'd seen in mine. I told her that her daughter looked worryingly thin, that wanting to wear a size 7 when you're 12 could very well reflect the distorted thinking of an eating disorder. I told her I hoped her daughter wasn't sick but that if I were her, I would take her to the doctor right away.
By the time I was done talking the mother was backing up. "OK, thanks," she said, edging away from me, and they were gone.
I can't get the girl at the mall out of my mind. I wonder what her mother will do. I wonder if I did the right thing to speak to her.
What would you have done?