My mother was a dieter, predisposed to being large-breasted and having a larger bottom to balance. In a firm, toned woman this is pleasingly referred to as ‘hourglass’ and calls to mind Christina Hendricks in Mad Men, with curves so precise even a Lamborghini couldn’t navigate them. In my mother and I, though, the shape wore more like a narrow waist beset on all sides by soft flesh that railed against confinement. There are a number of affectionate euphemisms for our shape: zaftig, curvy, Rubenesque, full-figured, BBW, voluptuous.
I hate them all.
They send me into fits of tiny rage at my own body, at the people who dare to comment on it, and at the willpower (or lack thereof) that has left me adrift in this sea of full-figured confusion. This isn’t new; it’s something I’ve been dealing with my entire life with varying success, another way in which I’m just like my mother.
Before the heyday of the internet, smart phones, and apps like MyFitnessPal, she kept a pocket-sized notebook, meticulously tracking quantities of food and their associated calories. She endured diet plans, did 80s aerobic videos, took me hiking and swimming, and weighed herself with religious regularity. It became evident that I was blessed/cursed with her figure (only taller, thanks dad), and by 12 I joined the cult of scale worship. Being a teenager a little too large for the juniors department, I was the dorky, clumsy, chubby girl garbed in matronly fashions from Dress Barn, and my shame was unending. I jiggled when I ran, leading to mockery in gym class, and made for a larger target in dodgeball. In spite of this I wasn’t an obese-child-cliche, stuffing myself with candy watching television; I rode horses, hiked, swam, loved vegetables. By seventeen I was 5’10”, 185 pounds, size 14/16.
College was a scale-free hedonistic nightmare for me, body-wise. The all-you-can-eat greasy pleasure of the dining hall, 100-proof plastic bottle vodka and powdered grape drink mix (why water it down?), syrupy lattes by the liter. I ignored 18 years of nurturing.
I learned that healthsome food was expensive, and that if you put hot sauce on frozen chicken patties and double-deckered that shit with some cheese it was better than Wendy’s.
Then I saw pictures from my sister’s wedding a year following graduation. I’d ballooned to 263 pounds, seemingly overnight. I had to face the ugly fact that 5 years of sedentary life and disgusting eating couldn’t continue. My breakfast of a Dunkin Donuts latte and sandwich: 1,000 calories. The day continued in that fashion, and when I counted it all out I was mortified; of course I gained 80 pounds; I’d been eating about 3,500 calories a day and just not paying attention.
At 22, I became my mother. I tracked calories obsessively with the help of the internet. I took up Middle Eastern dance. I stopped drinking soda, and switched to coffee with no sugar. I got a gym membership. The weight came off in fits and starts; I backslid at 25 when my mom died, but took my weight back in hand as a control play to ‘deal’ with my grief. I ran and ran and ran, until I was too weary to feel feelings. I counted calories, punished myself for each cookie or pizza or beer. It’s likely I was unbearable to be around.
By my 28th birthday I was 190 again, undeniably in the best shape of my life. Under persistent pockets of soft flesh I was a creature of muscle. I was in love with myself, and fueled by results I only worked harder. I enjoyed going to the gym, doing yoga, eating salads and bare chicken, reveled in the perverse game of ‘how close can I get to minimum caloric intake without MyFitnessPal reprimanding me?’ How many of those calories could I cardio away?
I am a creature of extremes and obsessions, inertia and habit. There’s very little middle ground; I’m doing something, or I’m not. My results managed to drag my BFF Cameron into this obsession with me.
I had someone to sympathize, to help ‘fat-shame’ me along the path to continued success, someone to fad-diet with like a tiny, slightly less extreme version of pro-ANA sites. After all we’re still eating food, just healthy food, and obsessing about exercise. That’s not so bad, right? We just want to be pretty. Healthy living is a thin veneer over our image obsessions, a happy side-effect of our slimmer, fitter (and vainer) selves. We drink a lot of coffee, tell ourselves we’re challenging each other to be better. Yesterday he talked me out of buying a box of hot-chocolate-and-marshmallow-flavored pop tarts, and I love him for it.
This all sounds great, right? We’re being supportive of each other. In the midst of holiday eating we commiserate about our over-indulgences and the havoc it wreaks on our progress, trying to find an acceptable peace between enjoying ourselves and going off the wagon. Friends and family who’ve known us awhile applaud our successes, and ask what our secrets are. They’re always disappointed to hear we don’t have a miracle fix–we’re eating less garbage, and doing more exercise. In this way we’ve become healthier bodies, but has our attitude-180 made us healthier people?
Explaining calorie counting to him I realized not everyone is raised with acute awareness of food’s nutritional facts. A quick poll of male and female friends revealed all the girls knew calorie counts for a 12-oz bottle of soda, while none of the boys did (as each drank an entire 2-liter in a night). While it won’t always fall along gender lines like this, in our group it does; most of the women are hyper-aware of what we’re eating, while the men are blissfully unaware. Even the girls, aware of calories as they are, often get tricked by something masquerading as healthy.
It makes sense; as a culture we’re so far removed from the origins of our food, and manufacturers can print pretty much anything on a label. Natural, whole-grain, low-fat, sugar-free, low-cholesterol; all these buzzwords imply a food is good for us, that we can eat as much of it as we want without repercussion. The idea that diet soda, being sugar- and calorie-free, is good for you? Ludicrous.
It brought me back to growing up chubby with a mother acutely aware of her body, especially when I read this article about Dara-Lynn Weiss’s Vogue essay. Thankfully, my mother didn’t verge into abuse; she encouraged my development as a person, fostered kindness and intelligence and imbued me with a feeling of potential. Reading Amy Odell’s response to Weiss, “What Happens When Moms Tell Their Daughters They’re Too Fat?” I feel lucky. My mother gave me the tools I’d need to make my own decisions about my body and how to nourish and maintain it; she didn’t criticize me as an outlet for her own dissatisfaction.
If I was raised with a healthy awareness of food and exercise and I still struggle with these issues daily, how much worse is it for people on either end of the spectrum? If parents write off obesity as ‘baby fat’ and assume a child will ‘grow out of it’ without teaching that candy and soda isn’t a nutritious dinner, they’re creating a problem. If parents hyper-obsess and deny children junk food, they’re forcing their own insecurities and damaging body issues on their children as it sounds like Weiss has.
Dr. Silverman encourages mothers not to fixate on their kids’ weight, but overallhealth. She said Weiss’s great mistake was, well, not only putting Bea on a restrictive diet, but also not teaching her about what health means — that certain foods are healthier than others, that she should get an hour of exercise a day, and that she should find healthy ways to manage stress. If, after the daughter learns what a healthy lifestyle is and makes it her own, she’s still overweight, then that’s fine.
I can look myself in the mirror and not hate what I see, and my body obsessions are about how I see myself, because to hell with everyone else and their dumb opinions. It’s my body. I live in it. I don’t care about the approval of strangers. My attitude isn’t wildly unhealthy, but I’m terrified by the prospect of some day needing to help a child navigate these waters. I’m aware I haven’t succeeded in cultivating an entirely healthy relationship with food and my body, so how can I instill those things in another?