I realize that no one likes to use the F word anymore. Nowadays we sugarcoat it with more politically correct terms like, overweight, heavy, or the worst, obese. To anyone insecure about their weight, it all equals Fat. I have never used the F word around my own daughter because I know from painful experience what it can do to a person. I have been remarkably careful to never speak about my own weight or the fact that I’m trying to rid myself of some of it. I have never talked about exercise as a way to burn calories or get thin. And I have never uttered the other profanity of the fat person’s world, the D word…Diet.
Instead I have always stressed that it’s good to be active in order to let out extra energy and keep your body strong and balanced. That it’s important to eat healthy foods for nutrition and good energy. And above all, I have done my best to teach her to accept people for who they are inside, without regard to what they look like. I have tried to emphasize that not only is she a beautiful girl, but also funny, kind and smart. It’s simple, it’s positive and it looks good on paper, and I am happy to say that my daughter is genuinely kind and non-judgemental, and so far, feels comfortable in her own skin.
But my mission to protect her views about weight and appearance run so much deeper than just building her into a kind and loving person. Remembering my own childhood and adolescence has given me a laser like focus of concern for the area of her young life that molds her self image and confidence. I have heard and read that a person’s personality is pretty much set by the time that they are 3 years old, and that until people are about 6 or 7, we’re nothing but sponges, accepting anything that’s thrown at us, absorbing the good the bad and the ugly as the whole truth from the people around us. Being aware of the mental and emotional torture that engulfs anyone with body image issues, I was hell bent to make sure my child’s little ears would not hear self deprecating speech, or criticism about her appearance. As far as I can tell, so far it has worked, but my deep fears of what adolescence and outside influences may bring sometimes has me in knots.
So where does it all really come from, the self loathing and disgust at one’s own reflection? I know that everyone likes to point the finger of blame for Anorexia and Bulimia at the fashion industry and Hollywood. Although I realize that standards posed by our Western culture have contributed to the problem, I don’t know that it’s as simple as that. I am glad to see that some members of these industries are slowly but surely making changes in the way beauty is viewed. But I can’t help but hope, that if a girl is instilled with an appreciation of her own beauty (inner beauty, foremost and loving of her own appearance as is), health and well being, right from the beginning, that they wouldn’t become obsessed with what anyone else considers attractive or unattractive.
My own experiences with striving for beauty leave me cringing and feeling sick when I look back on it all. If I look down the timeline in reverse, from my current frustrated place of being “overweight”, it’s an uncomfortable journey. After a long and difficult struggle to accept food as a good thing, I have arrived at a place in my life where I eat healthy, drink lots of water and exercise regularly, only to remain at an unhealthy weight. The struggle to drop a pants size or two has gotten my mind in a whirl trying to figure out why I’m stuck, and fighting off thoughts of falling back into old habits of starvation and purging. I like to stay positive and believe that doing so is beneficial, but feeling out of place and uncomfortable in my body releases negative emotions that thunder around inside of me. Perhaps it’s the lack of vocalizing about my troubles that is part of the trouble. I have spent a lot of time releasing other emotional hurts and regrets and discovering ways to move forward. Perhaps I have avoided announcing how unhappy I am in this physical state because I feel as though it’s trivial, or ungrateful for the fact that I really am healthy and have no illness or injury to be concerned with. But unhappy is unhappy no matter what it’s about, so I am taking this journey backward to find some peace, and hopefully find the key to preventing my daughter from ever feeling the dark levels of self loathing that I have felt.
During my pregnancy was the first time I started eating with real thoughts of health and wellness. I suddenly became hyper aware of labels, additives, sugar content and nutritional value. As with so many things in life, parents find themselves doing things for the well being of their children that they never thought they could, or never thought about to begin with. This was true for me, as the journey into a lifestyle of making healthy eating a habit began with taking care of my unborn child; what I never allowed myself to do for me, was easily done for her. I maintained these healthier habits and look back in shock at what I used to put into my body without even a thought. Or worse still, what I refused to eat in order to be thin, and lovable.
My 20’s were something along the lines of eating only enough to keep me going. I actually had a thought process that permitted me to eat just enough to prevent me from passing out in public, because I was very aware that was something that could happen. In fact, I remember very clearly one instance when I was standing in a store with my then boyfriend and feeling things get hazy. I snapped out of it, but it startled me enough to avoid that sort of embarrassment from actually coming to pass. That, and the annoyed look I got from said boyfriend when he looked at me and realized something wasn’t right, but never asked what was wrong. I would also review everything I’d eaten in a day, over and over to make sure I wasn’t in risk of eating too much. My method was to imagine a plate in my head, and only eat enough in a day to barely fill that one plate. If I ever did eat enough to make myself feel full, diuretics were my choice purging method. I spent the majority of my twenties as a waitress and bartender, on my feet and moving 6-8 hours a night, five to six days a week. I worked at night, so I went to the gym for an hour almost every day. I also took dance classes at a local college once a week, so looking back, my calorie output was a whole lot more than what I took in. I stayed geeked out on diet caffeine drinks during the day and kept myself standing with calories from alcohol at night. It is truly amazing that I didn’t end up in the hospital.
During my teens I felt the power of being able to skip meals. Living in a very controlling environment, I think it was an act of defiance on some level. When I was 12 we had just moved to a new place, again, and I didn’t fit in anywhere for a really long time. The phrase that kids can be cruel is an understatement, and the ridiculous rhyme about stones hurting and words bouncing is a load of crap. Not only was I tall and pudgy, I had bad skin and worse hair thanks to getting the cheapest haircuts in town, and I wore the same outfits two and sometimes three days a week, depending on laundry day. I wasn’t involved in any sort of extracurricular activities, so there was no group that I could hide in and feel safe. I was an easy target for teasing and mocking. At that time I didn’t have the nerve to defend myself, and when reaching out to my parents about being unhappy, I was very bluntly told by my very angry father that my problems were not a big deal, that I was being selfish to unload more stress upon them. So there I was, hating my reflection and myself more and more with each passing day. I was left as a young girl trying to problem solve this situation of ugliness and the only thing I could do was to stop eating. Everything else was out of my control. All of those after school specials were not so much warnings about the dangers of anorexia and bulimia, but guides into the world of being thin and accepted. After all I just wanted to feel normal and told myself that I would never starve myself to being skeletal and in the hospital. The problem with that plan, I would realize 20 years later, is that my perception of how thin or fat I was would never change, no matter how much my body did. The other realization I had, after too many years, is that being thin has nothing to do with being lovable.
Finally I delve into the age range that my daughter is now, and having watched and loved her for the past six years, I sometimes become angry at memories that creep into my consciousness. Memories that I thought I had moved past and forgiven, but I look at my innocent child and realize that in an overwhelming way I have complete power over her life and well being. That power is something so precious and special because if used always in love, can produce a joyful, healthy, radiant little person who will hopefully grow into a joyful, healthy, radiant adult. So when a long distant memory pops to the front of my mind of how I was treated as a child, I sometimes get angry, but beyond that anger is a much larger cloud of pity and sadness for the little girl I once was. I think the pain of feeling unloved because you are flawed must be one of the most miserable places on earth. And I cannot remember a time that I didn’t feel flawed and horrible because I was fat. There was constant berating about what I was eating, how much I was eating, frustration because I was hungry “again”, eye rolling and heavy sighs when I would ask for a snack or more at dinner, and asking permission for food and drinks from my overweight father, which carried on into my teens. Clothes shopping was something I really wanted to be excited about, I was after all a little girl, but a trip into the dressing room, trying on clothes for a neighbors 5th birthday washed away any desire to ever get excited about pretty dresses again. My mother scolded and grunted as she tried to zipper up a dress that I liked. If only I wasn’t so fat, she said, it would fit. Being told that I needed to go on a diet was a phrase that could have just been printed, framed and stuck on my bedroom wall. Then I would have seen it as many times as I heard it. The other adults in my family were no different, explaining that I had a pretty face if I would get rid of the fat, that I shouldn’t be eating certain foods, but then loading up my plate explaining that, right now though it’s okay. My grandmother gave me a diet plan that she’d gotten from her doctor for herself when I was about 10. I held onto it for so long, asking my mom if I could try it, which of course never happened. There were continuous mixed signals about food and beauty and it wasn’t until only a few years ago that I realized how ridiculous they all were; the comments, mixed messages and the people. Just a side note about all of this criticism showered upon the child I was- nearly every adult in my family was and still is overweight, inactive and unhealthy.
I have worked at forgiving these injustices, but occasionally as moments of my life with my own child pass by, there are situations that stir the cauldron of the past and cause insecurity and sadness deep in my heart. There are moments of rage and disbelief as I look at my daughter and couldn’t imagine ever saying anything to her that would cause her to feel unworthy of her mother’s love, let alone repeat it over and over again. There has not been any event in my life that I can remember, not a single day where conflicts about what I’m eating, or not eating or should be eating haven’t run through my mind. There is not a single day where deeply instilled insecurities aren’t knocking at my front door with criticism about how I look, and how much lovelier everyone else in the room is. I have learned methods of keeping these demons at bay, but there is always an awareness of their presence. At least now, I have discovered what love is really about, and made the decision to keep fighting off those devils and only let in the good things, until hopefully one day, they are permanently silenced.
Just a side note: I initially wrote this about 6 months ago, but never summoned the courage to post it. The fear of upsetting people in my life who contributed to my issues (in their defense; it was probably unintentional) made me very nervous. What has become more important to me now though, is that anyone who suffers from these emotional, and sometimes physical repercussions, can see that they are not alone, and that there is hope and help available.
Through a lot of self development, spiritual work and focusing on my health rather than my appearance, I am now in a better place with my self image and health than I have ever been, and hope to be able to help others find this place as well.