If you’ve ever been overweight, or even a little pudgy, there is one thing in your life you will never forget — the moment you realized it.
For me, that moment took place in the third grade. It was lunchtime and Dominos pizza was on the menu. I had finished my first slice and went to get another when my teacher stopped me in the middle of the cafeteria and told me I couldn’t have one. Plenty of other kids had gotten seconds and there were about four boxes of pizza left. I tried explaining this to her, but she insisted I couldn’t have another piece.
When my mom picked me up from school that day I immediately started crying and telling her how mean my teacher was. She comforted me, like any mother would. Then a few days later, when my teacher found it too difficult to continue depriving me of food, I found out my mom was the one who told her not to let me eat seconds because I was “too fat”.
I know my mom had good intentions and was only doing what she thought was best for me — she just went about it the wrong way. And continued to do so again and again. Whether it was bribing me with a Poo-Chi (because robot dogs were cool back then) or promising to take me to Limited Too if I lost 5 pounds.
I was aware of the fact that I was bigger than the other kids in my class, but was too young to understand why. And instead of teaching me about nutrition and how the body works, my mom always told me to simply “eat less”. I don’t think she was trying to be malicious, she just didn’t know what else to say. And I can’t really blame her. I mean, every parenting book teaches the basic, “If they get sick, take them to the doctor.” But none of them mention how to handle telling your 8-year-old daughter she should shed a few pounds.
So I ended up learning about weight-loss from watching my older brother, who was a high school wrestler constantly working out and practically starving himself to get into a lower weight class. I started to do the same. Only I didn’t stop once wrestling season was over. My mom didn’t really notice my unhealthy habits. She just assumed I naturally grew out of my baby fat (which a lot of kids do).
By eighth grade I was a size small with a dangerously unhealthy body image. I remember being so afraid of anyone thinking that I was fat, I would wear bathing suits under my clothes to suck in the little body fat I had and then safety pin all my shirts in the back so there wouldn’t be any loose fabric. Of course, my mom didn’t know any of this and probably figured the pinned shirts were some kind of weird fashion statement. Even if she did find my behavior odd, it wasn’t exactly a topic she, or anyone for that matter, wanted to talk about. It was easier to avoid it and hope it was a phase I would eventually grow out of (like the time I wore the same jean mini-skirt everyday for three weeks).
But an eating disorder isn’t like wearing your favorite mini-skirt — you don’t just grow out of it.
So in high school things got even worse. Like every other teenage girl, I wanted to be a model. And because I was 5’10 I thought it was something that could actually happen. The only problem was that I was more of a size six than a two. But I figured that was something I could easily change. I started dieting and exercising more (my mom even got me a personal trainer). When that didn’t work fast enough, I began taking extreme measures. I would starve myself, barf myself, take laxatives — anything I could do to fit into a size two. And when I did, it was one of the happiest times in both my and my mother’s life. She loved to take me shopping and watch me pretend to walk down the catwalk when I came out of the dressing room. I loved it too, especially when other shoppers or employees would tell me how gorgeous I looked.
To be honest, I didn’t need food — I was feeding off of random strangers’ compliments and my mother’s approval. Both of which had more power over me than they ever should have. I truly believed that being thin and attractive was the only way to be happy. And when modeling didn’t pan out because my measurements still weren’t small enough (I was 5’10” with a 32” bust, 26” waist, and 37” hips) my world came crashing down. I kept thinking, “If only I had exercised more or ate less, things would be different.”
But they wouldn’t have been. My skeletal structure wouldn’t allow it. But of course, my 16-year-old self didn’t realize that. And instead of telling me my body was beautiful and that I didn’t need to change anything, my mom took me to get a “detox body wrap” that could supposedly take twelve inches off of your entire body. In all fairness, she probably only did it because I begged her to.
At that point, I was so convinced that perfection not only existed but was attainable, and I was willing to do anything I could to achieve it. I felt like anything less than perfection would mean I was a disappointment. I was so scared of going back to being the chubby third grader my mom was ashamed of that self-destruction seemed like a better option.
It wasn’t until I moved away for college that I realized how toxic these thoughts actually were. Slowly but surely, I was able to stop obsessing over my physical appearance and the idea that happiness comes from other people’s acceptance. My life stopped revolving around what size my clothes were, how much pizza I ate, or if I missed a workout. I gained more than the freshman 15, but I didn’t care. I was just happy that I no longer felt the need to barf or starve myself.
But my mom didn’t see it that way. Every time I went home to visit, she would make little comments here and there about my weight gain. Each stung deeper than the one before. I never said anything though. I knew that once again, she was only trying to help. But the thing about my mom’s “help” was that it always seemed to do more harm than good, and this past Christmas was the last straw. She gave me check for 200 dollars and told me to use it on a personal trainer. I was so humiliated that I broke down crying. She just stood there with this confused look on her face telling me, “It’s okay. I want you to have it.”
I felt like I was going to explode. How could she be so oblivious to what was happening? Surely she had to know how horrible her gift was. But she didn’t. She had no idea how insensitive she was being or how complicated my body issues were. She didn’t know that less than four years ago I almost died choking on a toothbrush after Thanksgiving dinner. She didn’t know that I obsessively wrote down everything I ate or drank. She didn’t know that I ran on the treadmill in the basement everyday until I almost passed out. She didn’t know because I never told her. And I never told her because she never asked. Sure, she probably knew something was going on. How could you not? But she didn’t know to what extent and certainly didn’t realize she was a contributing factor.
I could have told her why I was really crying that day, but she wouldn’t have understood — at least not the in the way I wanted or needed her to. It would have just made her feel like a terrible mother and I didn’t want to do that to her — especially on Christmas. So I dried my eyes, took the check, and said thank you.
We haven’t talked about my weight, or really anything of substance, since and I’m not sure we ever will. There are a lot of things my mother did right, but calling me fat was not one of them. And as much as I love her, it’s hard to be around someone who, for years, unintentionally diminished my self-esteem.
So mothers, please be good to your daughters. And by this I don’t mean shower them with compliments and make them feel as though they can do no wrong. If their weight is a problem, talk to them about it. But in the right way. Make sure they know you love them for who they are, not what they look like. Most importantly, never pressure them to be perfect. Nothing will ruin a childhood faster than the feeling of inadequacy.
Trust me, I’ve been there.
Danielle Austin is a freshly minted writing graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design. She recently interned at Savannah magazine and spent the summer teaching children and rehabilitating wild animals in South Africa. She also loves Boston Terriers and wants to save the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey. You can view more of her writing here. Follow her on Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest.
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