It was my freshman year of high school. I had just arrived home from an outdoor festival with my friends. My mom and grandma were waiting in the living room, and told me they wanted to talk.
It sounded serious. I was confused.
They told me that while I was out, they had decided to clear the kitchen of snacks, treats, and junk food and were hoping that I would replace two meals a day with the weight loss shakes that were now lining the bottom shelf of the fridge.
Because they were super generous and empathetic, they got me chocolate, strawberry and vanilla flavors, so I could see which ones I enjoyed the most. Also, I was still welcome to join my family for dinnertime. No shake.
“You see how your belly hangs over your pants a little? You don’t want to look like that when you grow up. It’s better to get ahold of yourself now, Sam.”
I literally felt like I had been punched in the chest. (To be honest, that same feeling resurfaces whenever I recall this event.) I couldn’t breathe or even properly articulate a sentence. I just looked down at my “big belly” they had just referred to and I cried.
It’s been 20 years, and I still remember every detail of that conversation. My mom and grandma sitting in high back chairs, me on the loveseat hugging a fringed throw pillow. I was wearing a black tank top, and my favorite American Eagle flare jeans. I was 5’7’ and wearing a size 4.
I had never felt uncomfortable in my own skin, had never questioned my self-worth, had never stood in the mirror and pinched my extra skin so hard that I left fingertip bruises, had never known gnawing hunger pains that left me weak, until that day.
That was the day that started it all.
I’ve spent every day since then fighting, struggling, and hoping to maintain a healthy level of self-love.
I starved myself in college. It was especially bad in times of stress, or right before I went home for a visit. I worked a full-time, physical job; I took 16-18 credits per term; and I worked out every single day.
I limited my daily intake to things like vegetable soup or an energy bar. I would pick at my food and spread it around my plate when I joined friends for lunch.
Sometimes, in class, I would get lightheaded and woozy as I stared at the powerpoints. Other times, at work, I would be forced to eat something, so that I didn’t feel like I was going to double over from hunger pains.
And, then I would go home and they would say, “You’re so skinny!” and “You look great!” and (of course) “Don’t get too skinny now! Make sure you eat.” Today, the irony of those statements fills me with absolute rage.
Back then, they just affirmed my choices and made me feel good. I would admire my very visible collar bones in the mirror. I felt attractive, powerful and deserving of love and kindness in my thin, over-tanned, hungry body.
Today, I literally cry when I think of this time in my life. I have some good memories with some amazing friends, but I also have so much hurt, pain, and anger. I was not well, but nobody noticed. In fact, the opposite was true. The people I loved most seemed to be very happy with me.
I’m in my 30s now. I battle chronic, sometimes debilitating, anxiety and I have a severe case of body dysmorphia.
I loved being pregnant, but I couldn’t stand looking at pictures of myself postpartum. Especially after I had three pregnancies in five years. I bought the baggiest clothes I could find, and I avoided cameras and the swimming pool. I wouldn’t wear shorts or tank tops. I dreaded my family visiting me because I could feel them sizing me up and down.
Even with therapy and professional support, I can’t completely escape these demons. The seed was planted that day, when I was a carefree, confident, happy teenager who was told she was “getting too fat” and needed to stop nourishing her body in favor of canned, chalky drinks marketed for losing weight fast.
This is how you fuck up your kids, folks.
I mean, sure, there are other ways that we can emotionally damage our children. And, no matter what, there will be times even the best parents fall short and mess up. I’m guilty of this myself. Some days, I lose my shit.
But, these conversations? These conversations where we make critical judgments about our kid’s size and shape? These conversations where we associate the word “fat” with something gross, with shame and fear? These conversations where we project our own issues about body size and nutrition onto our kids? When we talk down about ourselves and our bodies in front of them?
They don’t just temporarily stick in the craw, folks. These words have the power to change our psyche. To damage our long-term mental, emotional, and physical health. To alter the way we see the world, and the way we allow the world to see us.
And that is a damn shame.
I didn’t know enough to be angry as a heartbroken teenager, but now I’m furious. I’m furious as a mother because I would never, in a million years, approach my children in this way. I’m furious that I’ve lost so much of my life to these pervasive thoughts and neurotic tendencies. I’m furious that even though I know better now, I still have to battle these demons daily.
So, don’t be like this. Please. Don’t allow your child to feel like they are less — less deserving, less loveable, less attractive — because their body doesn’t meet your standards. Don’t approach discussions about health, wellness, and nutrition from a “do this now, so you can lose weight” angle. Trust me.
I’m not the only one with a story like this. There are so many of us. If we know, better, we do better, right? Let’s do that.