“That’s what Dad said,” she told me, and I was hurt because I’d felt so proud, felt so special for thinking he hadn’t asked. She lay on the sofa for the rest of the weekend, watching Glee reruns, and I kept bringing her pudding cups, and on Sunday night when I dropped her off at her dad’s house, she hugged me in the car but didn’t say anything, and I sat there for a long time after she went in.
When I got home that night, Anna was recording the first video. Her phone was balanced on the coffee table, recording her in a yellow-lit corner of the living room while she talked to someone imagined about which stretches they were going to do next. Her father would have charged in and asked what she was doing, but I went to the kitchen and cooked some spaghetti and was quiet until she came in, flushed and smiling, and showed me what she had made: a thirteen-minute video of herself that she wanted to post to YouTube. She said that her cheer friends had said that she would be good at making workout videos like that. She was fourteen, and I looked at her, how small she was, flat-chested and eager, and she explained to me the excerpt she was going to make for TikTok, and she didn’t ask for permission at all, seemed to think everyone would be on board. I loved how she didn’t think. I didn’t think either. It had been what her dad told me all the time, what he had loved first, what he had hated later. That time I brought home the kitten from the gutter, let our daughter play with it, fleas and runny eyes and three days to live and all, he’d said, “You don’t think. You’re going to break her heart.”
Her father asked later if I was out of my mind letting her post that video. “She has school to focus on,” he said, and he shook his phone in my face, showing me the video of her legs, her shirt tight to her little waist, and he said, “She’s going to end up on websites.”
I didn’t want to believe him because I hate admitting when he’s right. I told Anna that having an internet presence meant a loss of control, and she said, flipping her hair and her pleated cheer skirt, “You sound like Dad.”
She was so small, standing there, her honey hair falling down her back. We were in my room.
“I don’t know,” I said, and she said, “It would make it easier to show people what I’m doing. You know?” And she twisted herself backward, her arms reaching the floor, her back a narrow arch—she said, upside-down like that, tensing and untensing so I saw muscles moving under her skin, “You see. You can see what I’m doing, right?”
Her father called later, after she posted the video, and said, “It’s our job to protect her. We know better, or we’re supposed to.” But I loved how oblivious she seemed, like it didn’t cross her mind that people on the internet would want to see her without a shirt—I wanted that oblivion to last.
But later, I skimmed through the comments, girls commenting
I told Anna to block her, but I searched TikTok that night and found the girls first—the former gymnasts, pointing at stills, saying, “Look, her feet come up right here. This is bad form.” Then the boys, the spam accounts all full of numbers, pausing her videos when she squatted, grabbing their crotches when she arched forward, pretending to vomit when she twisted her head back toward her own spine and her little ribs stuck forward, fine bones protruding through her skin.
I wasn’t the secretary, but I took notes anyway. I snapped a pencil tip watching him introduced as the student liaison, this student government shit who acted like he was so cool. His mother offered me an extra pen from her bag. I spent all of the meeting with my phone on my lap, skimming through the saved TikTok accounts, the spam usernames full of numbers, checking faces for his. I had seen him. I knew I had. I had seen that cocky grin superimposed over my daughter, I had, I had--
I was going to show this other mother the videos, even if I hadn’t found her son’s yet, to make her understand what I meant, but at the end of the meeting, the cheer coach came running in and asked me to come with her, and panic rose in me, all my nightmares colliding: someone offered her a puppy and she was gone in a van; she started walking to a friend’s car and vanished in the dark. In the gym, Anna sat crumpled on the mat, one hand to her knee, crying. There were girls hovering around her, patting her shoulders, gestures that would have been appropriate to a different demonstration of pain, one not so red-faced genuine.
The doctor said it was a bad sprain, but she cried like something was broken. It was over a month before she could do full practices again, and she posted a video on TikTok that she didn’t tell me about, near tears, saying she was going to post old clips for a while. When she was cleared for full activity, I heard the thump and cry of protest from her room as she examined how much flexibility she’d lost, how uneven it was now—one leg, one side, better than the other. I took her to weekend meets where she’d been replaced at the top of the pyramid while she was out. At home, she pulled out her fall clothes from last year and came to me in the kitchen, asking how tall the doctor thought she was going to be, asking how she could still be growing. In December, the video she posted showing backbend exercises got more views than others usually did—it was the men on the internet who pointed out to me how her sports bra no longer sat flat to her chest.
“Talk to her,” said her father.
“She didn’t do anything wrong,” I said.
“I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t care how things should be. I care about how things are.”
She didn’t look at me when I went to talk to her. I tried to say something, but she said, in the moment that passed, “Dad and Jen said I can’t quit cheer until the end of the year because it’s a team thing, so I don’t get why Dad wants me to quit making videos. ‘I didn’t raise a quitter.’” A low, dumb imitation of her father’s voice.
“I think he wants you to wear a shirt,” I said, and she looked down at herself and said, “They’ll still be there.” The next workout outfit she wore was hot pink and sparkly, showed that thin section of her middle. She looked confident on video, but I heard her, later, pitching clothes from her closet into a heap, shouting, “Why doesn’t anything ever fit me?” She slipped one night recording a handstand and cried inconsolably as the doctor said she’d re-sprained it, that she shouldn’t have pushed it so hard.
“You have to think about the future,” the doctor said, and my daughter, so small in that chair, said, “But I have to be awake every day now.”
“What?” I said, and her smiling dimmed. “No.” I would find the videos, and then I would show her. Give me a couple hours, I would say, and I would find it this time. She was looking at me. I said, “What does he want with you?”
She wasn’t smiling anymore and was out of the room before I could finish.
At PTA, his mother caught my eye before the meeting and smiled, said, “The prom thing is fun. Your daughter’s a sweetheart.” I spent the entire week searching for him on TikTok, a blur of faces. I found his main account, posting jokes and bits, but nothing of the spam account with my daughter. If I could just remember those numbers at the end of the username. But there were always so many.
“How does it fit?” I said.
“I don’t—” My daughter was still rustling. “I don’t get it.”
“You grew,” I said. The other mother was taking a picture of her daughter, who was posing by the mirrors.
“The length is fine,” she said. “You can just say what you mean. You can say I got fat.”
“That’s not what I mean,” I said, and she yanked the door open to show me the dress, which wouldn’t zip and hung open to her waist, wouldn’t close over her rib cage. I always felt useless in fitting rooms, hovering outside the open door.
“It’s like,” she said, through tears, and I said, “Like your body is betraying you?” at the same time she said, “Like you aren’t even trying to say something to help.”
“I’ve been busy,” she said, smiling, “I have other stuff to do.”
“I know, I know, your videos,” he said, and he moved like he would grab her and dip her toward the ground, and she bent backward obediently, yielding, giggling—I could see that grainy superimposed face gagging.
“Get off of her,” I said, and when no one listened to me, I said, “Get off!” I didn’t think. I was at the patio rail, his jacket in one hand.
“I know what you post,” I said, and Conner sort of laughed, sort of thought I was funny, and looked so blank.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” said the mom, and that was the same time the rest of the car pool pulled up, girls in their thousand-dollar dresses, one in a dress markedly more like my daughter’s, and the boys, suited, who all looked so much alike, who looked so much like the boy at this house—their shaggy hair in shades of blond, their faces with the same patches of acne, the assorted smirks. I felt then like I’d seen them all on TikTok. They all looked more or less like the superimposed faces that gaped at my daughter.
“I—” I said, and I wanted to keep saying it, but I couldn’t make the words come. “I, I thought…”
His jacket was no longer in my hand. They were all swarming, posing for pictures. My red-faced daughter went past me in silence.
There was one I watched a dozen times in a row, of her bedtime flexibility routine. She had wanted to film it on her bed. I hadn’t liked the idea, but she’d begged, and there she was, her knee in the compression sleeve, showing the thousands of girls who followed her how to straddle stretch, bend over one leg, then the other, then to the center. I watched her like she wasn’t my daughter, like she was a girl I was only seeing for the first time, and she looked so tiny, bent forward over herself, so very small on screen.