My relationship with food, my mother, our bodies, and each other

“What did you eat there?”

My mother has asked me this question more times than I can count. In grade school, she’d ask me what I ate during the school day, what I ordered with my friends at the movies. In high school, she’d ask me what I prepared myself for dinner, what snacks I ate between classes. In college, she wanted to know what was served in the dining halls, what my friends and I ate over the weekend. Even after graduating, she still asked me about my workday lunches, the dinners I made myself, the food I tried on any vacations.

We love to eat in my family. Food is important to us.

As a first generation American, my Jewish, former-Soviet family is very concerned about feeding everyone in the nearest vicinity.

Family recipes are divulged in secret and only at a certain coming-of-age. We compare meals to my grandmothers’ recipes, or to the Russian deli blocks from our house. Food is essential. It brought my family around dinner tables hundreds of years ago and still does today, at least a few times a year for Rosh Hashanah, for New Years, for Hannukah.


“What did you eat there?”

My mother’s question would always come with a bit of curiosity — but also an expectation.

She and I were always on a diet, always counting calories, always checking the time for the last meal and dividing portions into “reasonable” amounts.

I picked up her habit of commenting on how guilty I felt whenever I’d treat myself to a pastry, or mac and cheese, or something that wasn’t just lean protein and veggies.

The problem with constantly being on a diet was that our goals were not only set for our overall health — we really wanted to change our bodies. We wanted to be slimmer, smaller, more fit. Her body, my body  —  our type of body was never meant to be a prototype for the Project Runway supermodel. It was never meant to squeeze into the uniforms of the dancers and cheerleaders I admired. Whenever I watched stunningly sexist ’90s films, I mourned the fact that I would never look like the girls in bikinis.

“What did you eat there?”

My mother always loved to dance; she still does. She loves going to Zumba and dance classes. Movement and music brings her such joy. She often tells and retells the stories of how, in the Soviet Union, she was rejected from different dance troupes for the size of her waistline — not for her lack of talent. I, too, adopted her love of dance, bouncing from one style of dance to another, always running into the problem of a controlling coach, a teacher who said I led too much “for a girl.” Gymnastics was where I found the most solace — then my trainer eventually told me that, if I had any chance of competing more, I would need to lose at least 10 pounds.

I wonder if my mother, too, would sit in her classrooms, unable to pay attention to teachers because she was too engrossed by how her stomach was protruding, wondering if she was sucking in hard enough, if the position she sat in made her thighs seem less bulky.

I often wonder if my mother, too, would nervously prepare for any moment when she would have to position herself in front of a camera. We were both lovers of academia, yet I wonder if she, too, found herself distracted from her work, her mind — instead focused on her body.


“What did you eat there?”

I started running when I was 16, and began to tone up and slim down quickly. My mother was proud, my family complimented me on my excellent figure, my friends told me “how skinny I looked.” I was so pleased. I was in the best shape of my life. On nights when I couldn’t go to the gym to work out, I cried. I would instantly feel my body suffer, my stomach protrude. I counted the folds in my skin and the stretch marks on my legs.

My mother went running, too, but it was with an extreme health group in Kiev that would run barefoot through trails and streets. She started running with them in the late spring and continued until the early fall. They proceeded to run through the winter, but she could not do it. She told me that, during that time, she was in the best shape of her life.

When I felt down about missing workout days or eating one too many cheat meals, my mother encouraged me, commenting on how wonderful, how slim I looked. She would suggest different things I could eat.

Sometimes, we would join in a cheat meal or forbidden snack together, like it was our little secret.

“What did you eat there?”

I was lucky to have a moment of clarity about my body, but I wish the realization had come from within. I went on so many lunch and dinner dates with my first serious boyfriend. Together, we’d eat Chipotle, noodles, pizza, Italian food, wings — I barely felt any guilt for it. I enjoyed the food, I enjoyed the time with him, and he didn’t see me as any less of a person for indulging in junk food with him. He was the first boy to see me naked. It might have been one of the things I feared most about my body: not being beautiful or attractive enough for someone to want me. And when he did find me attractive, when he did want me, everything changed.

We broke up and I went to college that fall. I went running…sometimes. I kept track of my diet… sometimes. I would skip workout days and eat pizza with my friends without hesitation, without promising myself that I would be going to the gym the next morning. I worked out when I wanted to. I stopped counting “cheat days.”

When my parents first immigrated to the US, my mother became pregnant with me and my father had his first job in Chicago working as a pizza delivery guy.

My mother says she remembers that pizza so well; how my dad would come home after midnight with a fresh, hot pizza.

She enjoyed herself tremendously.


“What didn’t I eat there?”

It took too long, but I gained a confidence in myself that I should have had all along.

I was always more than rolls and folds and skin; I was always muscle and brain and voice and laugh and tears.

My mother is the most beautiful woman I know, and not simply because of her stunning looks. She is beautiful for her eyes: they shine brighter than stars in the desert, and they perceive and dissect the world more aptly than any philosopher or politician. She is beautiful for her arms: they are freckled, elegant, and reached for new worlds, in moving across continents, studying new trades, learning new languages, all done with the strength of a warrior. She is beautiful for her head: it is covered with fiery red locks, and holds her sharp, creative, boundlessly flowing mind.

But sometimes, all she can see are the rolls and the folds and the skin.

“Eat everything.”

Mama, this is for you.

Others asked, then we asked ourselves: what are you eating?

We were both told we were not beautiful by those who wanted desperately to make us smaller and quieter, because they were too scared of what a powerful woman could do. We were both anxious and self-conscious in romance, when it was our partners who were the luckiest to be graced by our bodies, our arms, our love.

Filed Under