I grew up in a fatphobic household — one that was created by my mother’s fear of getting and staying fat. Her fatphobia, often directed at me, was then reinforced by my brother, and unconsciously supported by my father. My parents were extremely concerned that I would grow up to be fat even though there was no indication that I would — I wasn’t a fat baby or a chubby kid.
However, my fate appeared to be set —I would end up the fat one in the family.
“Eat your food slower.”
“If you want a snack, have a carrot.”
“If you don’t watch your figure, no one else will either.”
While it’s true that fear can be a good motivator, in my situation it backfired big time. I was expected to be fat, so I internalized those expectations and made my family’s fears a reality.
I grew up in a middle-class family, on a pretty tree-lined street, and had what I needed to survive: a roof over my head, clothing, and three meals a day. By all accounts, I was privileged. But there were some things that I lacked: support, encouragement, and unconditional love.
I wanted to take tap dancing classes, but my mother signed me up for tennis lessons instead because she felt that they burned more calories. I’d cut tennis class to go to the grocery store and shoplift candy completely sabotaging my mother’s goals for me.
The dinner table for most people is a place that family can come together and share the highs and lows of their day. For me, it was where my behavior was analyzed, criticized, and commented on.
“Why are you eating butter,” my father would ask repeatedly.
“Chew each bite 100 times,” my mother instructed.
“You’re not allowed to eat mashed potatoes,” my brother teased.
There was never any food in our house growing up, not because we couldn’t afford to buy groceries but because my mother was always on a diet, which meant we were all on a diet. She would eat iceberg lettuce and Melba Toast for lunch and call it delicious and satisfying.
If anyone said that they were hungry between meals my mother thrust a carrot at them. Since I was denied any sugary, salty, and fatty snacks, they grew in importance for me. I lusted after Moon Pies, Fritos, and Oreos the way some kids covet electronic devices and phones.
My mother wasn’t just obsessed with her weight and mine, she also commented on the weight losses and gains of our neighbors, friends, and celebrities.
“Look at how fat Pat is. She’ll never get remarried if she continues to balloon up that way. No one wants a fat woman for a wife.”
Since neither of my parents drove, we walked everywhere — one because we had to, and two because it was good exercise. I wanted to take tap dancing classes, but my mother signed me up for tennis lessons instead because she felt that they burned more calories. I’d cut tennis class to go to the grocery store and shoplift candy completely sabotaging my mother’s goals for me.
The summer before 9th grade, my parents sent me to summer school in the country. The school started off with a three-day backpack trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Since my mother had been at me to lose weight, I decided that I would stop eating sugar, dairy, meat, and grains — basically surviving on air — so it wasn’t surprising that I became sick on the trail. My parents wouldn’t send me to a weight loss camp for another couple of years, but that didn’t mean I shouldn’t take any opportunity to get into shape.
“Take advantage of the natural resources like the river — get a tan, get some lard off, and come back looking healthy,” my mother wrote to me.
I spent a lot of time with my mom watching her try on her clothes and telling her how beautiful she looked in them. When something didn’t fit, my mother would become very agitated and immediately make a vow to make her diet even stricter.
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Sometimes she gave me her old clothes to play dress up in. In her closet, she had a gorgeous chocolate-brown velvet pleated skirt that cinched at the waist. When I was six years-old, I would put it on and twirl in it feeling as if I was the star of a movie musical, but by the time I was a pre-teen, I was too big to get the skirt’s impossibly small waist past my thighs.
“You’ll never fit into this,” my mother told me indicating that despite her best interests my weight would only go up.
While my mom was always on high alert with what I put into my mouth, my brother got free reign to eat whatever he wanted because he was a boy. Oh, how he loved to point this out and rub it into my face.
“Oh, this cheeseburger is delicious. I could eat 10 and not gain an ounce, but you’re probably getting fat just by looking at it,” he said standing in the doorway.
I wondered how he knew I’d get fat? Was he psychic or did he just sense how vulnerable I was about my weight?
I tried dieting on my own but, being a teenager, my diets were things like having a Diet Coke float instead of a regular root beer float, or eating only sunflower seeds for lunch.
The Dietmaster, AKA my mother, wanted me to make healthy choices. She didn’t approve of any diet product because, as she put it “they had chemicals in them.” I thought if something helped me to be “good” it should be allowed. There was a now-defunct drink called “Pepsi Light” that was cola mixed with lemon and filled with massive amounts of saccharine. But it was only one calorie.
Who cares how unhealthy it was, it was only ONE CALORIE!
When I tasted it for the first time, I thought that the gods had sent it down from heaven! I kept a stash hidden in my closet because I knew that my mother wouldn’t approve. When my mom found my Pepsi Light, she went all Mommy Dearest on me and poured every drop of this precious liquid down the drain.
Another method that my mother used to control me and my body was to make bargains with me. If I lost five pounds, she’d buy me new school clothes, or if I got my hair cut short, she’d give me extra spending money. It was all about how my mother wanted me to look — not so good that I was better looking than she was but slender enough so that I wasn’t an embarrassment to her.
Although my mother is elderly now, she’s still incredibly narcissistic, so staying slim continues to be a top priority for her. She has something wrong with her mouth and is losing her taste buds, but she won’t see a doctor about it: she believes not being able to taste anything is a handy and natural diet aid. You won’t overindulge with chocolate if it tastes like cardboard.
When I was under my mother’s roof, I felt as if I had no control over what I ate, so whenever I had the opportunity to eat whatever I wanted I took full advantage of it. By the time I got to college, I had a ravenous appetite for candy, cookies, and junk food.
However, the downside was that once I was away from the watchful eyes of my family, I steadily gained weight. Now and then, I’d try a diet and lose some weight, only to gain it back.
I’m fat, and the fear of getting fat is no longer viable.
My father and brother have passed on, and at this point, a fat daughter is better than no daughter at all. In some ways, my mother has had to come to terms with the fact that her fears are separate from me and my life, and that she has no power to control me any longer. I decide what’s best for me.
I go to the gym because I enjoy it, and I try to make better food choices because I feel better — but the truth is I’m probably never going to be able to make that chocolate-brown skirt with the impossibly tiny waist, twirl, and I can live with that.