Yesterday, my 12-year-old daughter walked into the bathroom while I was putting on my makeup. I was only wearing a bra and a pair of jeans, and my first instinct was to suck in my less-than defined abs, to clench and firm up my mid-section as if I were posing in a bikini for a swimsuit calendar. I know that’s not a normal reaction for a mother to have, but I hate acknowledging how legitimately twisted it was.
The truth is, I don’t like identifying as an eating disordered person. The truth also is, I am an eating disordered person and have been for the last 28 years.
So even though I resent and resist the expectation that I’m doomed to process the rest of my life’s experiences through the filter of a radically perspective-altering disease, unfortunately, this happens to be the reality. Motherhood is probably the most profound example.
13 years ago, when the ultrasound technician turned to me and said, “It’s a girl,” my first thoughts weren’t rose-colored feminine fantasies of toddler tea parties and tutus, they were panicked premonitions of passing on my own permanently warped body image and twisted eating habits.
Those fears have yet to be realized. My daughter has the most normal, healthy relationship with food of anyone I’ve ever known: She eats what she wants, when she wants it, and stops when she’s had enough. She intuitively knows what her body needs; she’s as likely to ask for a salad as she is a bag of potato chips. To me, this is nothing short of miraculous.
And while it’s possible that her attitude towards eating is a result of my efforts to remove -– or at least hide –- all traces of sustenance-related self-loathing from my speech and actions, it’s equally possible that I’ve just been lucky. Either way, the real work begins now: At 12, my daughter is no longer blissfully unaware of things like thigh gaps and juice cleanses -- even if she does remain largely unconcerned. Still, I know the absence of BMI-related anxiety won’t last forever.
More to the point, if I should start sliding off the rails on my own journey to self-acceptance, her lack of angst won’t last long at all. What I’m trying to say here is, my daughter is now old enough to see me for who I really am, so I better not screw up now.
That’s why I’m determined not to lose the 8 or 10 pounds I’ve gained over the last year. I won’t go so far as to suggest I gained this weight on purpose; it’s more like these additional inches are the ones my body has spent most of my adult life trying to convince me I need to be healthy and I’m tired, finally, of resisting.
It’s true: I am less weak, less prone to fits of unfounded anxiety and waves of paralyzing depression when I have a few extra pounds on my frame. The funny thing is, I don’t think my daughter’s even noticed the change -– I still wear the same size clothes. But those clothes no longer hang from my body the way they would any straight, sharp-edged hanger; instead, they cling to my hips and conform to the new roundness of my thighs in a way that makes my heart pound and my palms sweat.
After so many years, I am hardwired to recognize flesh as an aberration. It’s an emotional response on what feels like a cellular level: Curves are like a cancer, to my warped psyche, and must be fought at all costs. Except I can’t go to battle this time.
Standing there in my bra yesterday, my daughter’s eyes focused on my exposed, no longer concave, belly, I realized that this new, healthier body is one I have to embrace (or at least endeavor to be okay with) for her sake. She’s at the age when her own body is beginning, slowly, to expand into previously unexplored territory, and I want her to welcome this development, to feel comfortable, even happy about, her new womanly form.
I don’t want her, like me, to experience her body’s development as a cruel betrayal. I don’t want her, like me, to use the degree to which her bones stick out as a measuring stick for her own self-worth.
I don’t know if this is possible. To be perfectly honest, I hate my body right now. This has almost nothing to do with the way it actually looks and almost everything to do with the fact that it feels like something I can’t control. Cleavage, an ass that moves when I walk –- these things send me into a tailspin of terror. They feel like some sort of perversion, something I should eradicate –- immediately.
But if I did, where would that leave my daughter? Exactly where my mother left me at her age, I guess. The story of my own initiation into the anorexia club is a long one, too long to tell here. I’ll say this much: My mother got me in to that club and made sure I stayed a member for a long, long time.
She wasn’t trying to mess me up, she swears to this day, she was just trying to save me from going through that “awkward chubby phase” so many adolescents do. She did “save” me from that phase, but at what cost? Instead of teaching me to build up my inner reserves of self-confidence as a defense against the oftentimes over-critical gaze of the outside world, she showed me how starve myself to “perfection.”
“Lose two more pounds, you’ll look like a supermodel,” she used to say. I can’t imagine -– literally cannot imagine -– saying the same words to my daughter.
My mother’s method of teaching self-confidence was from the outside in. That method didn’t work for me. Of course, it didn’t work for her either. My mother’s hatred for her own body is probably what messed me up the most. I know I have to set a better example for my daughter -– I have to. I can’t give myself a choice.
But damn if holding on to these 10 pounds isn’t one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do.