Like many modern women, my identity all too often over the years has been wrapped up in how much I weigh, what size jeans I wear, and how big my derriere looks.
For a mother of three, who has thrice gained 35-50 pounds and grown size EE breasts, this is the problem that keeps on giving.
After each pregnancy, the babies always left my body. But the baby fat never completely did. Instead, the residual adipose became layered, like an onion. By the time I was schlepping around elementary schools with three children, I was a high-BMI/Size 14 Vidalia.
I was, by many standards, normal. Still, living in a Sports Illustrated swimsuit world as we do, even a 155-pound, 5’4” woman learns to hide minor imperfections with swimsuit cover-ups and long sweaters. She also learns to hide the eating habits that keep her there, waiting until everybody’s in bed to eat Moose Tracks from the carton. She learns, as much as anything, to hide her disdain and obsession from her children – especially her daughter, who she hopes with the fierceness of a warrior to shield from such burdens herself.
To that end, over the years, I consciously avoided groaning every time I passed a full-length mirror when my daughter was around. I never said in front of Emily, “I feel so fat today.” At every juncture, whenever there was a Weight Watchers commercial on TV or a bone-thin model on a magazine cover, I took the opportunity to tell my daughter most women can’t look like Angelina Jolie. How we feel about ourselves should have nothing to do with societal standards for beauty, I preached. The female body is beautiful and a celebration, no matter its contours and imperfections, I insisted.
And then I lost 30 pounds.
I had gone on a macrobiotic diet of whole grains, beans and vegetables for health reasons. Poof. In six months, I became 16 pounds lighter than my lowest post-pregnancy weight, 10 pounds lighter, even, than when I got married.
Very quickly – with no conscious focus for the first time in my adult life on weight loss – I was reduced to the size I was when I was 17 years old.
Suddenly, I was encountering store clerks saying: “I don’t think we carry that in such a small size.” Friends called me “petite,” “tiny” and “thin.” I encountered my own shock at such foreign words being applied to me.
I also encountered questions in my 20-year-old daughter’s eyes.
I feel her watching me now as I flit and turn, looking for just the right outfit to wear – sometimes borrowed from her closet. I feel her presence as I accept compliments, some of them from her girlfriends. I feel her eyes on me, as, for the first time in her life, she sees me not avoiding mirrors, but seeking them out.
And I haven’t quite figured out how to respond.
I feel sheepish, if not hypocritical, if not fearful, telling her that her primary female role model – the woman who told her size and shape and hair color don’t matter – likes being called slender.
Clearly, the greater part of my revelry is related to my improved health, which is evidenced by cholesterol results and other blood work. But apparently I also find something gratifying about maintaining the societally promoted appearances I always told myself and my daughter I renounced.
The connection between feminine identity and appearance – driven as it is by parental and peer pressure, by idealized media images and by historic confusion about the female body – is a complicated one. The National Eating Disorders Association reports that 10 million American women and girls are so confused about body image and societal expectation as to be diagnosed with full-blown eating disorders. I would venture further to say that every woman I know blames, struggles with or hates her body at some point in her life.
We mothers can say and do and be everything right. We can tell our daughters to eat when they’re hungry and push away from the table when they’re full. We can remind them that their thighs are beautiful, strong tree trunks that hold up their bodies as they do great and wonderful things. We can try to be good role models, focused on health and nutrition, not calories, fat and scales.
Yet, they – and we – may still be affected.
It’s like saying as long as you eat brown rice you will never get cancer. There are still toxins in the air all around us.
These are the honest words I need to say to my daughter.
These are the honest words I need to tell myself.
Hard as I try to detach, there’s something exciting about borrowing clothes from my daughter’s closet. There’s also something painfully amiss. Size 6 or 14, the struggle remains.