Last week my mother came to visit us for the first time in almost a year. Because my kids know my father and his wife (who I lovingly refer to as my second mom) so well, I was very excited for them to get to know my other mom, too.
She got off the plane, jumped in the car, and immediately began talking about her weight.
It didn’t take long for me to remember what I thought I’d forgotten. My life, for the first 18-20 years, had been consumed and terrorized by weight.
My mom never called me fat. She always said that I was “perfect.” She never criticized me at all.
She criticized herself endlessly.
I remember sitting on the floor in her room as a small child watching her poke at her hip bones, looking in the mirror, searching for flaws, then zeroing in on them and not relinquishing her hold until she’d fixed whatever imaginary problem she thought there was. “I need to lose five pounds,” was and continues to be her mantra.
And so, as a little girl in elementary school I started to diet, but it never worked for me. I was a child with no commitment and a love of anything with frosting. I ate and hated myself. As I grew older, I watched my mom spend hours at the gym, running, and working out. I watched her refuse lunch and dinner, always saying that she was “full” but never seeing her eat. With each passing day I loathed my body more, covering up with baggy jeans and sweatshirts as much as the Georgia heat would allow.
When she was a size 6, she wanted to be a size 4, but it wasn’t until she was a size 0 that I told her I thought she had a problem. She laughed at me and dismissed my concern with a wave of her hand and a comment about how that’s “who she is” and I needed to learn to accept it, then wondering aloud why I had such bad self esteem and why I always compared myself to her. Occasionally, when I was feeling brave, I would ask her how she expected me to believe that I was “just fine” as a size 8 when she thought she had weight to lose at a size 0. She never had an answer for me and the older I got, thankfully, the less I needed one. I saw that she had a problem and resolved to overcome my own.
I thought I’d done pretty well too, until after my mom’s visit ended and I started talking to my husband in the kitchen. “I think I need to lose a few pounds,” I said nonchalantly. He laughed and shook his head.
My 3 ½-year-old piped up, “Do I need to lose weight too?”
I froze. A lifetime of painful memories came flooding back to me, except my son’s face flashed before my eyes instead of my own. “NO!” I shouted, “You’re perfect,” cringing at the use of my mother’s exact words to me so many times.
At that moment I resolved to never talk about fat or weight or diets in front of my sons again. Ever.
I always thought of weight being a “girl” concern, but something about hearing my son criticize himself made my motherly instincts come alive and warn me against that shallow thinking. Children hear everything. And, as I read once, “What a parent says will become a child’s inner voice.” I know the truth of that from my own childhood and want something much different for my boys.
There will probably be a time that I want to lose weight and maybe even a time that I need to lose weight, but my children will never hear about it. It will not be a constant theme in their lives as it was in mine. They will see me eating right, not talking about how I’m feeling fat from splurging on a cookie the day before. They will see me exercising in a healthy way. They will not see me picking my body apart.
I will lead by example, living a healthy life, and maybe they will be inspired to do the same. I hope that they learn to love what they see looking back at them in the mirror and most importantly know that what they look like is so very little of who they are. I hope that they grow up and let themselves be defined by their character, not their appearance. I hope they define others based on who they are as people, not what they look like on the outside. I hope they never think about weight and if one day they have to, I pray it will not define them.
As a girl I hated myself because of a few extra pounds, as my mother did before me. I choose to break that cycle, knowing with all my heart that it is within my power to do so. I don’t have girls, but I am raising men. I’m raising men who I pray will forgo appearances and look to the heart of every person they meet and especially look to their own.
For more on weight and health, read why looking thin and feeling thin are not the same thing, the troubles with post-baby weight, and the war we have with our post-baby bodies.