My feet are size nine, my posture is lousy, and regardless of how many lunges and squats I perform over the course of my life I will never have a round and perky butt. These are just a few of the attributes I inherited from my mom. On the bright side, we also share a quick sense of humor, a talent for knowing when we’ve over-accessorized, and a vehement disdain for bake sales. (Because, as Mom always explains, “Who knows how clean their kitchen is? They might have cats.”) But the one trait I could really do without is our common obsession with dieting.
This fixation with food has deep roots. My mom was an overweight kid, a condition that left its mark on her like an ugly tattoo. The lovely trim woman I liked to show off to my second grade friends because I thought she looked like Jackie Kennedy, never thought she was thin enough. There was always a new diet stuck to our refrigerator door. Her favorite was a tattered copy of the grapefruit and egg plan. But there was also the cabbage soup diet, the Scarsdale diet, the Beverly Hills diet, Stillman, Atkins, Pritikin, and of course Weight Watchers. For years Mom’s idea of a treat was blending up an Alba Chocolate shake; a 77-calorie concoction that tasted like cold foamy air, with an aftertaste.
She belonged to an Elaine Power’s figure salon in the 60’s, and when I was seven or eight I’d occasionally tag along. Trying to stay out of trouble, I’d watch as leotard-clad women hooked giant vibrating bands of elastic around their hips, under the insane assumption the pulsating belts would work off the weight. My mother did yoga before most had ever heard of it, drank her coffee laced with saccharine, and ate her way through boxes and boxes of Ayd’s diet chews.
I was an average-sized kid, but it was impossible not to absorb the message. The food I loved was the enemy, because becoming thin equaled becoming happy. Except the message was confusing. My mom was a talented cook and passionate baker, and she filled our home and dinner table with wonderful meals. But she also kept close tabs on the sweets. Sneaking treats from the kitchen cookie jar while she and Dad watched tv down the hall, was no simple task. I learned to remove the lid from the porcelain pineapple with surgical precision so as not to make the telltale clink.
As a kid I’d watch her try on clothes in the communal dressing room of Loehmanns, while she bullied the body she saw in the mirror. I never understood why she didn’t see the reflection I saw. She had given birth to four kids, and still had a shapely figure and an amazing sense of style. I thought she was beautiful. I still do. My mother at 86 years old continues to worry about her weight. I’ve known her for 58 years, and I’ve never seen her eat a sandwich with two slices of bread.
So like mother, like daughter, and eventually food morphed from something I simply ate, into something I had a “relationship” with. I inherited my mom’s love of baking and not so ironically found a career in it, where I made decadent desserts for others that I struggled not to eat.
My preferred method of disordered eating was binging and fasting. I wasted years of my life eating great gobs of food I didn’t really want. Pounds of Twizzlers and Pepperidge Farm cookies, jars of peanut butter, boxes of Lucky Charms and gallons of Ben & Jerry’s. It brought the numbness I craved when I was lonely, or disappointed, or angry or sad. Eating was how I coped. When I binged I felt like a death row inmate eating his last meal. Because it was always my last binge. Each and every time, I swore I’d never do it again. Until I did it again. And then finally, a year into my marriage something happened. I had my first child.
By forty years old, I had two remarkable kids, an exceptionally tender and patient husband, and yet I was still saddled with the self-esteem of a stapler. I was determined not to make food an issue for my children. Which meant it had to stop being an issue for me. I knew I could not tell my two preschoolers on some steamy August day, “Oh, sorry kids, we can’t go to the pool – Mommy feels fat.”
I actually thought my crazy behavior surrounding food would change when I had kids. That somehow a switch would be flipped that I hadn’t noticed in the past three decades. We would eat whole, healthy foods, and in the words of my therapist slash nutritionist, “Learn to listen to our hunger.” Sure, my children would eat desserts, but they’d also crave fruits and vegetables, fresh fish, unsweetened yogurt and buckwheat! What a delusional idiot. The only things they ever craved were gummy worms and SpaghettiOs. And I gave it to them. I tried not to demonize food, any food. At every meal I provided healthy non-processed options, which they had to take one bite of before Daddy would make them a pb&j.
As far as fixing my own behavior, I kept working at it. My binging style changed. No longer able to remain upright and conscious after 9:00 pm, I gave up my late night free-for-alls. I replaced them with scarfing down every bit of leftovers from the kid’s Pokémon and Dora the Explorer plates. From cinnamon toast crusts and cold French fries, to bowls of tepid oatmeal and slobbered-on macaroni, I was the queen of the clean plate club.
All these years later I wish I could say that we all came out the other end unscathed. While my college-boy has developed a downright joyful attitude toward eating, with an adventurous appetite, it’s not so simple for his younger sister. A varsity tennis player, an honor student, an adorable, devoted, and funny friend, she is one of the best people I know. But a small, persistent voice in the way back of her DNA still claims her worth is somehow related to the number on the scale. When I look at my perfect girl all I see are the dimples, the bright smile, the strong athletic legs that go on forever. My daughter sees herself through her own distorted lens. As do I, as does my mom. Along with blue eyes and a tendency to freckle, that lens, however out of focus, runs in our family.
Over the past few months something wonderful has begun to “click” for my girl. Maybe it’s being finished with the idiotic pressure of high school, or the simple act of maturing, but she seems happier with who she is these days. It’s as if she’s begun to see her reflection for real, the one the rest of us see. Her current buoyancy reminds me of when she was three, the exuberant tutu-clad star of the family. She’d pirouette with chin pointed high, and arms outstretched across our living room rug, or the playground, or even down the produce aisle. She danced, adorned in glittery pink tulle for everyone to see, without restraint or apology.
As she now eagerly prepares to leave for college, she’s clearly finding her way. Looks like that old distorted lens might finally be left behind.