I went on my first diet at seven years old. I wasn’t overweight in the least; I was healthy and active, with the sun-kissed skin and scraped knees to prove it. But I was excited about the diet, because my mom and I were doing it together. Like the exercise videos that she’d pop into the VCR every day, or the yoga poses we did every morning, or the aerobics classes I accompanied her to at the gym (complete with leotards and leg warmers). I idolized my mom, and I wanted to be just like her, so I jumped on any chance I got to do the things she did.
She never outright told me it was shameful to be fat, but I got the message loud and clear. She stopped wearing shorts sometime in her mid-thirties because she said her legs were “too heavy,” even though she probably didn’t weigh more than 110 pounds at the time, and “too veiny” because pregnancy had caused a couple of small spider veins. But she took pride in the fact that she’d weighed less than a hundred pounds when she and my dad got married – and that, she’d add every time, was after having two kids. I’m sure that any pounds she’d gained since then weighed heavier on her self-esteem than on her actual body, because to anyone looking at her, she was the epitome of ’80s body goals: slim and supple.
Her mother, my grandma, was fat – and it was actually one of the things I loved best about her, Grandma’s comfy, squishy body, her soft arms and cozy lap always open. But the narrative I got, from Mom and Grandma both, was only how beautiful Grandma used to be. “She wasn’t always fat,” my mom would say, as though that were a redeeming quality. There was a picture of her hanging on the wall in her home, of younger days when she was built more like my mother, wearing a 1940s wave in her hair and vibrant lipstick. Staring bright-eyed out of the photo like someone who used to exist, but doesn’t anymore. Nobody said out loud that she was prettier then. They didn’t need to, because I understood.
When I was in eighth grade, my mother sought out a counselor for me because she was worried I was eating too much. I had probably gained a couple of pounds, as adolescent girls tend to do, and she was determined to fix me. I don’t know if she ever considered that I might ravenously attack the food we got because we were poor and I was hungry. When my father left us high and dry, we subsisted on food stamps and boxes of canned food marked “Rural Crisis Center.” When there was food in the house, I knew that all too soon it would be gone, so yes, maybe I did eat it a little too voraciously – if just in preparation for the time when our cupboards would be bare again. I wonder if she took into account the social agony of the time my friend’s parents told her she could no longer spend the night at our house because we “didn’t have any food.”
When there was food, things were good. When there wasn’t, things were bad. But eating it would make me fat, which was also bad.
I never had a chance at a healthy relationship with food, or with my body. Not one single chance.
My mother acknowledges that it’s a generational curse. “I used to be terrified of gaining weight,” she tells me now that she’s older and more at peace with — or at least resigned to – her body shape. “I remember Mom crying as she tried on bathing suits. Mom and Grandma used to say, ‘It sneaks up on you!’ like it was some kind of threat.”
They would tell her this as a warning, her own mother and grandmother, both of them round and matronly, as they’d commiserate about it over tea or while snapping green beans in the backyard. My mom was a skinny child, to the point of being embarrassed about her jutting collarbones. She was built differently. And the people who loved her worked hard to make sure she didn’t meet their same fate, the one that led them to issue warnings and sigh about how they wish it were different.
She spent decades trying her hardest to escape the looming spectre of weight gain. And in the process, she doomed me to do the same thing.
I can’t tell you the last time I was satisfied with my body; maybe never, not even back when my body looked like I wish it would look now. My weight is a yo-yo, my eating habits a pendulum which swings from “fuck-it mode,” when I eat everything in sight, back to the panicked “oh my god what have I done” obsession over every calorie and carb. It doesn’t matter that my heart and muscles are strong and my health is good, or that this body has birthed and nourished children and it deserves a damn break. Like my mother, I refuse to wear shorts. When I look in the mirror, my eyes gravitate toward the saggy parts, the cottage cheese thighs, the same broken capillaries my mom used to bemoan.
I search for my worth in the mirror. And it’s no wonder that I can’t find it there, but I don’t know how to look anywhere else.
My mom thought she was doing me a favor by instilling these habits in me. Just like her mother, and her mother’s mother. She didn’t do any of this to be cruel. She thought that by setting me up for a lifetime of “healthy” eating and exercise, I’d never have to worry about my weight “creeping up” on me.
But all it taught me was how to ensure I’d never be able to love myself.