I’ve been overweight for my entire life, and have been dieting and obsessing about food since I can remember. That plus more than a few “fat cow” comments have made my life miserable. All of those comments came from men: first my father, who seemed embarrassed to introduce me as his daughter. Then it was the guys in school. At best they looked through me like I was invisible. At worst, they mooed when I passed them in the hallways. Even my husband, who I know loves me, keeps “concern trolling” me, saying he’s concerned about my health when he really just wishes I was thinner.
All those men made me feel terrible. But my mother was the salt on the wound. She made me “earn my dinner” by walking the dog for at least one mile, measured and monitored everything on my plate, and put me in “nutritional counseling” with a scrawny woman I called the Food Nazi.
I have a daughter now who’s in middle school, and yes, she’s on the chubby side. And I’m grief-stricken when I think about the life in front of her. Although her father has been great about accepting her as she is (so far), I know the teasing at school has already begun. And I’m afraid if I try to help her, I’ll make her feel the way my mother made me feel. I’m afraid I’ll pass my issues on to her – not just with weight and food, but with hating herself, too.
I feel like a terrible example. I want my daughter to love and accept her body, but it’s obvious that I don’t love and accept mine. I don’t want her to ride the diet rollercoaster for the rest of her life, but I’m afraid to stop riding it myself. I don’t want my daughter to measure her self-worth by a number on the scale, but I do. Where’s the balance? How can I love myself and help her at the same time?
Dear Heavy Hearted,
I wish you were sitting here right next to me, right now, because I would give you the fiercest hug. You so clearly love your daughter. But you’ve never loved yourself.
It’s a lonely life. I know this because I’ve been there. While everyone around you is laughing and clinking glasses and passing the bread basket and ordering dessert, you’re eating lettuce and pretending to like it. At parties, you don’t even go near the buffet because you’re scared of losing control. At birthday parties, you stick to a tiny sliver of cake. Add three mini candy bars on Halloween, one bite of Thanksgiving pie, and absolutely no Christmas eggnog, and you’re navigating a minefield that never ends. So of course – of course – you don’t want to pass that on to your daughter. Who would want their beloved child to live on lettuce, skip their own birthday cake, and feel miserable at every party and holiday? Throw in a large dollop of self-hatred and it’s a lonely life indeed.
I’m speculating, of course, about the lettuce and cake and candy. I could also speculate about the chocolate stashed in your freezer, the wrapped cookie hiding in your purse, and the donut that you eat every time you go to Starbucks alone. But these are actually my issues, and now I’m passing them on to you.
In fact, the only time I have ever felt joyously happy with my body was during pregnancy. What a relief it was to eat without feeling guilty and to flaunt my belly instead of hide it. Once my son was born I thought about losing the “baby weight,” but I still felt pretty great, especially when my baby snuggled into me. My body seemed soft and comforting, and for the first time in my life I thought maybe I had the perfect body after all.
Unfortunately, of course, those feelings didn’t last. As my son grew older, my body became the subject of a strange tug-of-war. The fat-shaming media pulls one way, and fat-acceptance blogs pull the other; the latest fad diet pulls one way, and my DNA pulls another; the stores that don’t sell clothes in my size are outshouted by the stores that do. Even now, many years later, I still feel yanked and pulled every single day.
But dear Heavy Hearted, here is what I’ve learned: You don’t have to choose one side or the other. You can choose your own path; the path toward self-acceptance. What does that mean? Heck if I know. And no one else does either. Your body and your life belong to you, and you are the one who gets to decide what that means. Here’s the trick, though: The path you choose won’t matter to your daughter. It’s the act of choosing that will. Show her how a strong woman stands up to the opinions (and cat-calls) of others without losing her footing. Let her see your journey toward self-love, including the pitfalls and the forgiveness. And don’t plant the seeds of shame: Stop eating in secret, and don’t diet in secret. Own your choices with calm self-assurance – and let her own hers.
All of this is crazy hard – I know. It’s not as easy as just deciding to change your mind. But don’t give up. Counseling can help enormously. Read self-help books, write in a journal, pray, take a walk in the woods: whatever leads you to self-acceptance and self-love, regardless of what others think. And while you’re working on yourself, work on your connection with your daughter. Have a “Compliment Dinner” with your family and say nice things about each other. Watch TV with her, and listen as she talks about clothes and bodies and the media. Take her swimming or dancing or to her first facial. More than anything, stop judging yourself and start accepting yourself. That’s what matters, to you and to your daughter.