My mother is incisively bright, supportive, loyal, deeply loving, and steadfast to a fault. She’s also profoundly fattist.
Let me paint a scene from my childhood, when I was roughly 10. I was on my way to tennis camp, another attempt by my mom to get her bookworm daughter (then obsessed with the entire Agatha Christie oeuvre) to morph into the "right" kind of athlete (one in tennis whites at our fancy local club). I wore a little pleated skirt and sneakers and grabbed a banana on my way out because, well, I was hungry. As my mom sat talking to a friend in our kitchen, she glanced back at me, wincing. “Do you need to eat that whole thing?” she asked. “Why don’t you just eat half?”
Fat-shaming is rampant on social media, but to me, it happened within the four walls of my family home. And it infected my entire upbringing. My mother compulsively counted her calories. Bread was taboo. Pasta, absolutely verboten. An eclair? Sure, if you nibbled a tiny bite or two, at most. I had no such self-control, nor did I crave it. I didn't worry about my weight the way she obviously did. I just had a round butt and big boobs and a belly that popped out no matter how many crunches I forced myself to do. “You have your grandmother’s body,” my mother once sadly intoned — to her, a dismal pronouncement.
So she took it upon herself to, in her own words, “help me.” That meant vigilantly monitoring every morsel that I consumed. My brother was a picky eater, but I had no such affliction, so she’d load up our kitchen with cookies and chips (for him) and fruit (for me). Imagine being surrounded by every alluring delicacy — and being told to eat grapes. I would wait for her to go to bed at night, listening for the click of the closed door, and then tiptoe into our kitchen, inching open the fridge to grab a slice of ham or, if I got really lucky, maybe a roll to go with the meat. “What are you doing in there?” she’d yell as I slunk out.
Another time, we were having a mother-daughter outing at a café. There it was right in front of us, a glass display filled with culinary anathema: tarts and muffins and cookies and macaroons. I was allowed to order a Diet Coke. During dinners out, the bread basket — packed to the rim with buttery pretzels and buns — was always out of my reach.
To appease my mother, I began eating chicken and salad in miniature at home. But I’d sneak out after school to skulk over to our local deli and load up on M&Ms, Rolos, and shortbread, and gorge myself until I felt ill. I never felt sated.
Hearing your parent, the person tasked with building you up to know and appreciate your best and truest self, bash your appearance is one repeated kick in the gut. It’s destructive and forever twists what you see in the mirror. And, it doesn’t work. For me, it turned eating into combat sport.
My freshman year of college, set loose with no supervision, I ate enough Taco Bell to feed the state of Maryland. And I came home for summer break able only to fit into my sweatpants, with an elastic band stretched to capacity. “I didn’t even recognize you,” my mom dolefully told me when I walked off the plane. I spent the summer eating legumes around her, and double-decker turkey clubs on my own.
When I looked at myself, I was grossed out. I became fixated on my perceived flaws, as if I had body dysmorphic disorder (which afflicts 1.7% to 2.4% of the general population and can cause anxiety and depression). Though I was never diagnosed as such, I certainly felt the weight of my physicality as an obstacle to my happiness.
It wasn't until I met my husband that I realized I had value, in the physical sense. That I wasn’t a grotesque mass who'd have to whittle myself out of existence before I could be considered attractive. He told me he worshipped my D-sized breasts. That my legs, always muscular after years of running, were works of art. That I should wear tight and short clothes to showcase what I had, instead of hiding under layers of sweats and tunics. If my mom blurted anything remotely critical to me during our weekly calls, Justin would intervene. “Why do you put up with it? Just hang up and stop engaging. It’s a wrap,” he’d say. So, I did.
In the years since, I have talked to my mom about why she did what she did, and she sees nothing wrong with it. “I was just trying to help you,” she'll say. No matter how far we've come in terms of body-acceptance and representation, to my mom, fat is still a horror show. And my weight, still, is what it is — we just stopped talking about it.
The effects of my dietary Stockholm syndrome outlasted our conversations about it, though. For years I followed a self-created diet that can only be described as utterly delusional and very expensive. I allowed myself to eat chicken breasts, salad, raspberries (so I wouldn’t get scurvy, I rationalized) and sushi. At work, lunch consisted of a green salad with grilled chicken, carrots, and chickpeas. And I never, ever deviated from it. Once I opened that door of deprivation, I worried I’d never slam it shut.
And then, I got pregnant. When my son was growing in my heretofore hated convex belly, and it was big for an "acceptable" reason, suddenly, I felt like a proper, glorious, beautiful woman, whose curves were there for a greater good. And I could eat whatever I wanted, because the kid needed nutrients, not neuroses delivered via osmosis in utero (surely that's a thing). I’ll never erase the total visceral giddiness of consuming an entire vat of homemade scalloped potatoes, roasted in butter and cream, impeccably crispy on top.
We went on vacation with my folks when I was about six months pregnant and for once, sitting around a dining table across from my mom, I could stuff my face and not give a damn.
Now, my son is 6. And dear god, is he cute. Floppy dirty blonde hair. A perky nose. The kind of lanky, slim shape my mother wanted so badly for me. His confidence is effortless and natural. People stop me to comment on his appearance, and it’s fine, I get it. But I never say a word to him about it. “You’re so smart,” I tell him. Or, “You just read that entire book to me — that took so much work, and you did it.” We discuss food only in the context of taste (he has to try something once before he can reject it) and health (if he wants to continue excelling at soccer, he needs to eat protein and vegetables for energy and strength).
I try to model positive eating, but I can’t lie — it’s a battle to this day. I still make self-deprecating comments about my looks, or compare myself to other women I see around NYC, which are both hard habits to break. I’ve let go of the simmering anger, though.
Truly, the statute of limitations for blaming my self-esteem issues on my mom has passed. Now "helping" me is my own job, and the fact that I'm working on it, so far, still hasn't made it easy to be comfortable in my own skin. Usually, the less I show, the more at ease I feel. Last summer, I wore so many layers to the beach that someone asked me if I was covering up “for religious reasons.” No, just because I think I’m ugly, but thanks for asking.
There comes a time when you have to own who you are. For me, that means accepting that unless I’m willing to live a life that I can't imagine (one without croissants, i.e.), I’ll never be a sample size. So this summer, I’m taking a different approach. My best friend and I booked a vacation at a swanky resort; the kind where beautiful people wear very tiny bathings suits and have the time of their lives. And I’m going to join them. Instead of my usual — board shorts, a tankini, topped with a rash guard — I’m buying a bikini. And then, it’s go time. Muffin top? Hell, I’ll be bringing out the full bakery. And it’ll be delicious.