Tag Archives: family

Mothers and Daughters: Legacy of Body Image

I love xoJane and the thought-provoking articles that its writers tend to put out into the world. This post was inspired by a comment I wrote on this article. The comments are a trove of first-hand testimonials from other people on the same subject.

When I was a preschooler, the story goes, my mom told me I could only have one cookie because I was putting on weight. I was so sad that my slightly older brother took an extra cookie to give to me in secret. We weren’t that subtle, so of course my mom knew about it and cherished the memory as one of sweetness between siblings.

As I got older, my mom never said anything to me about my weight. I was a chubby kid, presenting as a purple-and-silver-sequined cylinder in my ballet recital pictures, and an overweight teenager, hiding my body as best as I could with oversized shirts and weird fashion. She said she loved me no matter what and never criticized my body, supporting me in my academics, my art, and my writing. But she talked negatively about her own body all the time and still does today.

I know that like a lot of privileged first world women, I have spent a lot of my adulthood thinking about my weight. These days, I look back on the experience of growing up and living my adult life overweight and mourn all the time and mental energy spent by people like us fretting about our weight. Do I wish I had lost weight sooner so I could get on with my life? Perhaps, but I know that I wouldn’t appreciate my body as much if I didn’t feel pride in losing body fat, improving my health by stopping snoring almost completely and taking weight off injured/stressed muscles and joints, and increased self-esteem by conforming more to social norms. But what if I had been able to focus my gifts on something other than myself and self-improvement over the last 10 years? Would I have done something more “meaningful” with my life?

I realize this perspective and this question are both from a place of privilege – I largely feel like my struggle with being overweight is over, and I’m on autopilot as far as my food intake goes. I can afford to buy nutritious food, and I’m getting into running (despite approaching the nitty gritty of winter and me with no indoor gym access). Other people are less able-bodied, less able to access the kinds of food I can buy and dietary information my doctor gave me, still working on themselves, not in the same mental frame of mind, and have legitimate concerns and health problems that I have no right to dismiss and do not presume to.

I mourn my own potential – what things could I be writing about instead of concentrating on gaining 7 pounds in a month? – and the potential that my mother had and still has. When I was in high school, she was pursuing her masters in education with a focus on special needs education while working delivering pizza and raising 3 kids. She also wrote works of fiction on lined notebook paper she kept in binders under her bed, with several unpublished drafts of novels to her credit. And she, like all of us, was constantly bogged down by the everyday worries of life, including her body. I constantly heard her saying how upset she was that she could no longer fit into the clothes she wore when she was younger; she is short and used to be quite thin during high school. She dropped the “fat” word to describe herself on an at-least weekly basis. “If only I wasn’t so fat.”

Being thinner is a privilege in this society, and she may have been more kindly treated by the world at large. But I wonder how fully her gifts might have come out if her self-esteem hadn’t been hampered by her self-criticism, which always seemed so unforgiving.

My having the same body type that she did probably had some influence on how I viewed myself. It was a while before I came to a truce with myself over my looks, worrying about everything from my acne-prone skin to my large nose to my weight. I was ashamed of my body after the start of puberty, uncomfortable with male attention that I received in 7th grade, and down on myself for my many failed attempts at losing weight, even as an adult. I dieted for months, then fell off the wagon. I exercised hard for several months, then took half a year off. I came to be more accepting of what I looked like, but my health began to suffer as I aged. I was smart; why wasn’t I smart enough to figure out how to change my body and stick to a weight loss plan?

Losing weight was not the answer to all my problems. I’m still thinking about my body – still moderating a self-improvement community, still occasionally blogging about my pursuit of fitness, food, and health – but the rest of my life’s problems persist. It’s easy for us to fixate on having a great body and see it as the answer. “If only I wasn’t so fat.” If I wasn’t so fat, then what? I would get everything I wanted out of life automatically? I wouldn’t have to pay my car insurance? I would finish cleaning out the shed? It never stops unless we reframe the way we think about what’s important, whether losing weight or shaping our body into a more pleasing shape is a self-serving, endless goal, or if it’s a stepping stone to happiness, a facet of our existence.

Sometimes, chasing the ideal body or an improved version of ourselves seems so futile in the long term. I think back on my amazing, beautiful, business-smart, no-nonsense, hilarious stepmom; she was in my life from preschool until last year, and when I was younger, I remember that she was always trying low fat diets, Weight Watchers, the grapefruit diet… right up until her diagnosis of colon cancer, a disease she fought for 9 years.

I helped sort out her enormous closet of clothing after she passed away; she had clothes (some with tags still on them) in US size ranges 6-18 from where her body size fluctuated so much during years of chemo, surgery, remission, and relapse. There’s a despair in that part of the legacy of mainstream, straight, adult ciswomanhood in the U.S. What good does it do to fret so much over what size we wear and how many carbs we eat and whether our butt looks arbitrarily too big and that we can’t fit into that exact pair of pants anymore?

It’s easy to get lost in the moment and the present-day, easy to obsess over weight or unflattering photos, but now and then, life smacks you in the face again with the fact that it’s precious and short; your health, your ability to function as an independent person, and the degree to which you are able-bodied are things you can take for granted. The gift of perspective is precious, if hard to take. My stepmom spent most of her last decade working at the business she and my dad built together, baking cookies and sweets with her grandchildren, going on vacations with my dad, and enjoying herself as much as her health would allow her to do.

Sometimes when I’m out running, out in the middle of the country where nobody can see me, I imagine I’m passing my stepmom on the sidelines of a cancer charity race or some other event, and I give the air a high-five. I’d like to think she’d be proud of me for taking up a new sport. I hope she’d say she’s never seen me so happy in my own skin

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