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Guest Post by Genie
So here's another great guest post by Genie! As you may recall, Genie shared some of her inspiring progress towards healthy eating and exercise in "Deciding I Don't Want to Die" and "Half Sick of Shadows". She hinted that there was a backstory to her weight struggles, and some of you were curious, and so here she is with a story that some of you may be able to relate to all too well.
Thanks so much Genie!---Crabby
The first time I knew there was something wrong with my body the whole family was at the beach. I thought I looked pretty cute in a bright green two piece with orange sunglasses. I was pulling a pose I thought was all Hollywood for Dad and his ever-present camera. My mother, my seriously beautiful mother, took a long drag on her cigarette, “We’re going to have to watch her or she’s going to get chunky.” My grandmother, to whom this was addressed, laughed cruelly and said, “Well, we put a stop to that with you, didn’t we?” She looked like Rita Hayworth. I am not kidding.
I come from a long line of beautiful women. Some of my cousins were crown wearing, Southern beauty queens. I was a genetic anomaly. I didn’t look like any of them and that day at the beach I learned I didn’t measure up. I was six. Yes, six.
That began a long, complicated time in our house that I suspect is a mirror of what a lot of girls experience.
At puberty, my body turned on me and I became all curves and round parts. No more angles. My mother put me on my first restrictive diet. At 12, she had me on 1000-1200 calories a day. She sent me to school with terrible lunches as if to broadcast to my friends in the cafeteria, “Hey, look everyone! I hit puberty and got fat! Don’t you all hate me now?!” It seemed my mother did. And my grandmother certainly did. The funny thing was the kids at school didn’t hate me, tease me or ostracize me because of my size. I was a fairly popular kid in middle school. Our school was so small there really wasn’t room for that sort of thing so I was spared there. But at home? Let the shame and hatred begin! Food became the battleground. I was grounded when Mom discovered I ate a cookie. I was rewarded when 10 pounds came off.
I bought into all of it. I recently found a childhood diary where I had written myself a note of pure hatred calling myself “fatty” and warning myself to lose 20 pounds “or else.” I wrote that the first time I was put on a diet.
My Mom would pat my behind and say, “If there were less of that, there would be more of this” and point to a cute new something she had recently bought for herself. She was not above bribery to achieve the goal. Food related events would set off my grandmother’s attacks. One year at Thanksgiving, when I was 14, as we sat down to eat, she said, “If we didn’t eat so much, we might have a date.” “We” meant me; she thought she was being funny. At other holiday meals, she would cut big pieces of her amazing chocolate cake for the rest of the family and then hand me Jell-O saying, “You don’t want that cake, do you?” I knew better than to admit that I did and I still won’t have Jell-O in the house.
The food in our house was awful. Mom hated to cook. She often brought home KFC but I wasn’t supposed to eat it. When she did cook, it wasn’t pretty. And often the food was cold by the time Dad and I got home, so I certainly didn’t want to eat it. She cooked early to make sure my demanding sister had dinner when she wanted it. Anything she had cooked would be cold and mostly inedible by the time we got home. So I responded by eating at the veterinary clinic where I worked with my Dad after school. I ate junk so I wouldn’t have to eat at home. My diet lunches at school left me starving by late afternoon.
All of the focus was on food denial rather than a healthy balance of good food and activity. I was a strong swimmer so I asked to join the swim team. Mom warned me that I would have to wear a swimsuit in front of people, but I did it anyway. Eventually, I was told there wasn’t time to take me. My sister needed more time, Mom explained. Between this and the constant criticism of my swimsuit body, I didn’t fight it. I gave in and became completely sedentary. So this was a conundrum, wasn’t it? I just wasn’t supposed to eat. So, once I got a driver’s license, the brakes came off. The drive-thrus of my hometown were all mine!
The next battleground was the shopping mall. Mom thought surely material motivation would accomplish what threats and criticism could not. I was not bought cute clothes since I obviously did not deserve them. I had to buy many of my own clothes on lay-away. I was promised new wardrobes if I would “Just lose the weight.” This was more than difficult for a high school girl. By this time, I thought I was getting too big to be considered cute and ugly clothes weren’t helping. But if I look back at pictures of me in high school, I think, “Are you freaking kidding me?!!” I wasn’t FAT. I was a little heavy and could have been OK with the right clothes and encouragement.
Does this high school sophomore look “fat” to you?But things just got worse during those four years. I was finally asked to Homecoming and needed an outfit to go. Mom had to take me shopping for this or risk the exposure of what was going on since we were not an economically strapped family. She put me in a matronly suit that would “Hide your behind for the pictures.” At least the shoes were cute. But I could barely dance since she insisted I needed serious control top pantyhose.
I lost a few pounds before this dance so a dress that was pretty in 1985 was bought for me!
I lost a few pounds before this dance so a dress that was pretty in 1985 was bought for me!
Borrowed horror show of a dress for a senior year dance. But still, does that girl look “fat” to you? My date was sweet enough to say I looked pretty!
My sister suffered from the same pressure. In some ways, it was worse for her because she was deemed “beautiful” as a toddler. My grandmother declared, “Now, I have a little doll to dress!” With all this attention, my sister decided she didn’t want to be treated the way I was so she refused to eat. When she did, she threw it up. Anorexia and bulimia will indeed keep you thin. She was rewarded for her appearance with designer clothes. By the time my parents decided to recognize her problem, it was too late. She now has heart problems and all her natural teeth are gone. Her issues with weight are still unresolved.
I’m still working on it too. I am grateful that I was never a binge eater. I did not have to fight that battle when I decided to get healthy. I guess if nothing else Mom did teach me portion control! But I did make bad choices and food could be a comfort device. Much of my eating, I see now, was about rebellion. I don’t need to rebel any more. I am an adult who can move past the hurts of childhood.
I know now that my mother was repeating a pattern from her own experience and passing down her unhealthy relationship with her own body to her daughters. To maintain her weight, she chain smoked and would go a couple of weeks on nothing but Sego (an early liquid meal replacement). Then, she would crack and go on serious sweets and peanut butter binges. I remember one sleepless night going downstairs to find Mom standing at the counter with a store bought chocolate cake that she had eaten most of her way through. She looked at me with guilt written all over her face, “I’m just so hungry. I am so tired of being hungry. But your Dad will leave me if I get fat.” She lit another cigarette and buried the rest of the cake in the trash so he wouldn’t find it. That leaves a powerful impression on a young woman. I learned that I wasn’t valuable if I was fat.
This is the short version of many years and many hurts. But what I see now is that I did develop what might be called a complicated relationship with both food and my body. When I hear my female students talk about their bodies, I hear echoes of my own past. If I know them well, I will often stop and talk with them about why they feel the way they do about their bodies. We talk about culturally mandated ideals of beauty and why we shouldn’t care about all of that. Their mothers will often come up in these conversations. We cannot allow this cycle to continue. I wasn’t given the gift of a daughter, but I hope that if I had been I would have given my own daughter a gift—an appreciation of the beauty of her body. We don’t care for what we don’t love.
Mom once joked that my only rebellion was learning to cook. It wasn’t but I was careful to hide the fast food wrappers! I took my love for cooking and now cook healthy, tasty food for The Husband and myself that we look forward to eating. I also recognize that eating is about fueling my body for the things it needs to do. Sometimes food is also about celebration and those moments (and the food!) should be savored. What food is not about is guilt. And self-loathing. Our bodies shouldn’t be about self-hatred either. We should celebrate them with care, love and good food. My body isn’t perfect and it never will be. But it can do all sorts of wonderful things. And it likes to dance without control top pantyhose!