My Mom And I Look The Same, So Her Body Issues Feel Like Mine Sometimes

Tina Fey recently said that she won't talk crap about her own body in front of her daughters because she doesn't want to set a bad example. I wonder if my mom did the same thing, but now that I've grown up, she no longer has to maintain the illusion.
Publish date:
March 13, 2013
body acceptance, moms, body, body image

My mom and I used to play a game together in church.

I hated Mass except for the singing parts, and so to stop me from wriggling and kicking the pew in front of me my mom would frequently grab me by the hand, palm to palm, and compare the lengths of our fingers.

It sounds kind of stupid now, but I can remember her sliding the fingers of her other hand down between our clasped ones, making sure they lined up evenly. I have freakishly small hands for my size, but my mom does too, and she'd whisper, "We got stubby fingers," into my ear to make me giggle. "Got 'em from Grandpa Mike."

That kind of talk was par for the course. My mom's always really loved to remind me how alike we look: that we share the same high, rounded cheekbones, the same smear of orange-yellow around the pupils of our eyes, the same smattering of freckles across the bridges of our noses, the same weirdly small hands.

And I'm just as bad. I still get a kick out of digging up photos of my mom in her early twenties, startling at her doofy expressions that look exactly like my own selfies. Honestly, we act sometimes like resembling one's biological parent is a miracle of nature rather than a fairly typical expression of genetic phenotypes.

Obviously, some of this is narcissism. But I think it's also because on the surface, we really don't have that much else in common. Sure, we both have the Conway aversion to emotions and distrust of strangers who hug us at parties, but she's a reticent traditionalist who can't understand why anyone would crave the spotlight, let alone use it to crack oral sex jokes, while I write about my personal life for the Internet.

Growing up, whenever I'd sulk because I wasn't getting enough attention or run in circles around the house scream-singing "My Heart Will Go On," she'd snag me by the collar and sigh, "If you didn't look so much like me, I'd say they'd given me the wrong baby."

It's as shallow as wearing the same brand of jeans, really, but our resemblance has made us feel connected. We've been anchored to each other at times when we'd otherwise be tempted to drift apart.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about this similarity, because my mother has started to voice unhappiness about her body for the first time that I can ever remember.

Everyone in my family is pretty solid, and my mom and I are no exceptions: we're both simultaneously pretty flat-chested and kind of squishy around the middle and thighs, though I am winning the moon-face competition by leaps and bounds. It's just the way our stock shook out.

Aside from the whole stubby-fingers thing, my mom's always seemed to view her body in the same practical way that she does everything else. Even when we used to go to Curves Lady-Gym together when I was 12, I never heard her frame our workouts in ways that emphasized anything but "Getting in shape" or "Being strong."

And despite the fact that my dad has proven negging-jerkwad tendencies (case in point: the time he held up two basketballs next to my mom's ass to compare their sizes), she's always projected an air of nonchalance about it all, like she couldn't give a fuck what her measurements were as long as she could run a mile without stopping and beat me in an arm wrestling match.

In the last year or so, though, she's started to let some things slip. "Urgh, I have the widest shoulders," I heard her say when I was at my parents' house for a visit over Christmas.

I glanced at her, startled. "Um, no," I said. "I have the wide shoulders here, thank you very much."

She squinted. "Mine are wider than yours."

We measured. She was right.

"Well, whatever," I said. "At least you don't have Hulk forearms. Somebody kept the delicate wrists and ankles for herself."

"You're still cuter than me," she shot back.

"UNTRUE," I said, and dashed out of the kitchen before she could say anything else.

Later, I narrowed my eyes at myself in the mirror. It'd been a long time since I participated in a "My-body-is-worse-than-your-body" competition. I'd done that kind of back-and-forth before, hundreds of times, even, but always with peers or housemates. Playing at it with my mom, who essentially has my body 30 years in the future, made it seem at once farcical and deeply disturbing.

I wondered then, like I do now, how much effort she'd actually put over the years into seeming comfortable with herself for my sake. Did she pull the same faces in the privacy of her bathroom that I do? Did she, in moments of abandon, pinch bruises into the chub under her arms or palm her hipbones after skipping dinner and breathe out, relieved?

In Tina Fey's book, "Bossypants," she spends a good chunk of time outlining the various details of her body. I don't remember most of her descriptors, but she does refer to her inner thighs as "crotch biscuit" at one point, so they're not particularly flattering renderings. But she's still apparently vowed not to talk crap about her own body in front of her daughters, mostly in the interest of not demonstrating the seductive quality of these self-deprecating rant sessions.

I wonder if my mom did the same thing, whether throughout my terrible adolescence, she felt like she had to be brave on behalf of the face that we share, and now that I've grown up, she no longer has to maintain the illusion.

If that's the case, I'm definitely grateful. As it was, I spent a lot of time in my teenage years crying at her while half-zipped up into prom dresses and taping magazine pictures of hollow-cheeked models to the fridge.

If she'd indulged me, spouted the same kind of "Yeah, can you believe how fat my kneecaps are?" crap that my peers were saying at the time, I think it would have been even worse. I'd've believed that since she wasn't happy in her body, there was no hope for me either.

Now, her occasional grumps about how many chins she has or her flabby legs make me feel weirdly protective of her instead. I recognize that it's irrational, because my mom is a terrifying, kickass woman who knows more about the world than I probably ever will, but I'm finally at a place where I feel more or less reconciled to the lump of skin that I call home and I want her to feel that way, too.

And hell, maybe she's just blowing off steam and I'm projecting. But she spent so much time making me feel beautiful and accomplished and capable in ways separate from weight or size as a kid that it makes me sad that she wouldn't do the same for herself.

"You realize that you're talking about my body, too, right?" I asked her recently after she'd made a snide comment about her own thighs. "Like, you basically have the body I'm growing into. Do you think my thighs are gross?"

"No," she said. My mom hates lying more than anything in the world, so I knew she wasn't bullshitting. "I don't think any part of you is gross."

"Except this noise I make," I said, twining my arms around her neck and making a horrible hacking sound in the back of my throat. "Annnnggghhh. Right?"

"Even that," she said, trying to shake me off.

"You're beautiful," I told her, even though I was kind of embarrassed for the both of us. Like I said, actual demonstrative human emotions aren't really our thing. "I mean it. I'm going to keep making this noise until you believe me."

"Uh huh," she said, finally ducking out from underneath me and heading for the door. "Not gonna happen."

Kate is on Twitter: @katchatters.