She was always too soft, my mother. Her hands were swollen and wrinkled as she traced lines over my thumb while holding my hand in church. I didn’t like it.
She would put on her Sunday best, a rotating collection of crushed velvet shift dresses that did nothing but drape over her wide hips. Her perfume was choking and too strong and would linger on my clothes for days but it made her happy. My dad thought she was sexy and she pretended like that was all that mattered.
But I saw that it was a lie, in the frequency she bought the weight loss supplements and the shakes and powders, all promising something she wasn’t meant to have genetically. Her mom, my beautiful four-foot-nine bipolar grandmother was round and soft, too. Nothing like my paternal grandmother who was tall, slender and in proportion, appropriate in all situations and dreadfully free of passion.
No, the women in my maternal line, we drank deeply of passion, meeting on Sunday mornings at the crack of dawn to garage sale shop. Grandma would chain smoke with the window rolled down and my mom would play the dull conservative Christian radio station and I would daydream in the backseat. We’d stop for sticky-sweet apple fritters at some point and it would feel like family, like ritual, like love, something that my Italian husband’s family recognizes over a shared bowl of pasta or deep dish of polenta. For us it was much cheaper, a commercially available treat as we sorted through other people’s refuse.
The Flavors of the 90s
Some of the best memories of my childhood revolve around quick meals. Friday nights meant TGIF and fast food - burgers and salty french fries or pizza, then Saturday morning cartoons and leftovers with a side of Diet Coke. The flavors of the 90s.
My mother never did lose much weight, fluctuating only slightly all throughout my childhood. Doctors would put her on weightloss meds but nothing changed. She gave up the church aerobics class when I was injured in the small nursery downstairs, only a few months old and vulnerable.
Later she would find water aerobics and stores like Pretty & Plump that churned out more of the same 90s boxy styles in larger sizes. I knew she didn’t feel pretty but we didn’t talk about those things.
Once, on a whim, I asked her how she had been so skinny in her teens, the photos tucked in cracked albums hidden under her bed where there were spiders and my dad’s old guitars. “I did a lot of speed,” she told me, and I figured that option was out for me.
I Wanted Hard Angles
I was overweight from about third grade on, but it didn’t really hit until middle school when kids were unkind. I was lonely and bookish and just wanted to fit in. I fell into religion, the promise of a reward for suffering very attractive. It kept me involved in choirs and prayer meetings and otherwise occupied but it didn’t touch the core of me.
I rebelled against the softness of my mother. I wanted hard angles, sharp lines that would define my strength and determination. Hip bones and collarbones and skinny wrists.
I begged my father to buy me some ridiculous exercise equipment from an infomercial. He had spent thousands on martial arts classes and weight benches for my brother, so he gave in. On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, I came home to find it set up in my bedroom and I worked our for three hours.
It had a calorie burning feature and I soon realized that if I could just consume less and burn more, the weight would fall off. I started tracking my calories, then cut them in half. Sometimes I would eat no more than a half an orange a day and work out for hours. Lying on my floor, lightheaded and gasping for breath, I felt beautiful for the first time in my life.
Attention came from boys on MySpace I had never known in person. They flirted endlessly and sent obscene videos and messages. It felt good to finally be wanted. One such guy was a few years older than I was and had recently graduated high school. He came over one rainy afternoon and I gave him all of my firsts.
My Dance with Anorexia Shifted
New relationships and popular weight management programs helped me keep up a healthy facade. I met my husband and my body seemed to change with the seasons. We fell into a paleo diet and my dance with anorexia shifted to orthorexia, suddenly my eating habits were admirable, something to imitate.
When I got pregnant, everything changed. My weight dropped, nothing would stay down. I tried it all. Every recommended food, prenatal vitamins, my “healthy” foods were making me sick. I ended up drinking Ensure for months, hoping that my baby would absorb enough nutrients from my own body to survive, I’m grateful that he did.
I Have Become the Softness I Once So Hated in My Mother
And now I have become the softness I once so hated in my mother. I cry at Kleenex commercials and rub my thumb against my son’s soft hands. My waistline has gotten larger and softer, too.
When my son was born, depression hit hard and antidepressants helped for a time, but the weight kept piling on. We lost our apartment, moved halfway across the country, and then came right back as my relationship with my parents hit a breaking point. My body absorbed the stress in the form of pounds.
I’ve tried a return to paleo, keto, intuitive eating, calorie tracking, WW, Noom…my body feels horrible and I begin obsessing over the numbers, knowing it would be so easy if I could cut my calories in half and just move more, wasting away like I did in my teens.
It’s socially acceptable to celebrate the losses. 10, 20 pounds down and all around me are willing to acknowledge and finally see me, express their concern, “Well, yeah, we knew you were struggling with something but hoped you’d come around…”
I look at the websites of dietitians and nutritional counselors and therapists and wonder how to budget $300, $600, $1000/month for this problem that most think would just go away if I could only eat less and move more.
The Fear of Being a Bad Example
Preparing recipes for my family, I hope my son will like them, he’s a picky eater just like I was and it scares me. Because there’s a good chance he has inherited this horrible softness from me. What a thing to inflict on my tender, sweet son who worries that he is not as cute as he used to be, who stares at himself in the mirror sometimes and says he’s not sure if he likes what he sees.
I know this is my doing, that the example I set every single day will have a lasting impact on his life.
I want to be better for him. I want to embrace where I am and this weight that society is quick to remind me will be the death of me. I want to reply, to assure everyone that I am trying, that we generally eat healthy, that if I really REALLY tried hard enough I could get back to a size 6 but it would cost me my health, this health they claim I don’t have this side of 200.
Sometimes it’s the pointed comments, like the lactation consultant who looked at my starving child who would be hospitalized just a day later and said, “I think your whole family could stand to lose a little weight,”.
Or the memories of the praise and attention I got when I lost the weight the first time and finally felt loved.
Maybe I Was Never Beautiful, But When I Was Thin…
Maybe I was never beautiful but when I was thin and felt my bones press against the bathtub there was a sense of accomplishment, like I could finally fool everyone. It’s something I have lost, with these new curves and extra padding. And it’s something I wish I didn’t have to live without.
I don’t want my son to grow up with this same self-hatred. But body positivity, it feels like it’s an excellent idea — for everyone else. Other people are beautiful at any weight, but I can’t fathom myself in a place where seeing a picture of myself won’t lead to a week of deprivation and depression.
Some meals help lead me back, like homemade chicken soup. I try to prioritize these foods in our home. I try to fall in love with yoga and the way my body feels after a workout. I work on staying present while eating and stocking my kitchen and pantry properly. I do all of the things we are told to do but sometimes it’s almost bedtime and I walk by my bedroom mirror and catch a glimpse of my reflection and I see the outline of my mother and it’s just too much to add on at the end of the day.
It’s In This That I Find Solace
The Glamour magazine addiction at 13 probably didn’t help, nor the shady ProAna forums I frequented in the early days of the internet. To this day, there’s this steady stream of misinformation and lack of empathy that the online world has fostered in all of us, myself included.
I think about my childhood and the softness my mother gave me in those early years before the drinking started and I lost her forever.
And it’s in this that I find solace, as my son crawls into bed beside me at night. He doesn’t ask for the angles, but my softness that wraps around him and helps him fall asleep.
Maybe being a good parent isn’t having all of this figured out for him, but just allowing it — and myself — to be here. Some days this means smiling at my reflection when I know he’s watching me, even if I hate what I see.
This is a pattern I don’t want to repeat, so it’s my job to break it.
Somewhere inside of me, I believe we are not meant to beat our bodies into submission, but to love them however they present.