Sure, I doubt any parent sets out to ‘make their child fat’. I’m sure most parents want their children to be healthy and happy. I know that’s what my mom wanted for me. Her intentions were pure. Unfortunately, she had no idea how to help me and, looking back, no one can argue that her well-intended attempts to ensure that I was healthy were the root of my issues with food and weight that have followed me for my entire life.
Disclaimer: I love my mom and she loves me. I never doubted her love, only her acceptance. No one was teaching parents how to help their overweight child and she did the very best she could. We are able to look back now and laugh together over some of the things that happened. She understands that her approach was imperfect and knows that if one day I’m sitting on Oprah’s couch, her name is sure to come up! My mom is my biggest encourager and she’s so proud of me. I love you, Mom. Thank you for never giving up on me. Lastly: this is not about blame. I take full responsibility for my weight challenges. Part of that process, however, is identifying where they stem from, specifically the emotions that fuel my food obsession. This is a critical part of overcoming my battles.
I was a chunky baby. This came as a surprise to my family because my mom is so slight and she was pretty sick during her pregnancy with me. The expectation was that I’d be a scrawny little thing but nope, I was a brawler.
There’s never a time when I remember my mom not being concerned about my weight. It was an issue for her from my earliest memories. I’m not sure which of my memories marked the beginning, they all run together, but I learned to be ashamed of my weight before I was 5 years old. I knew my mom was monitoring what I ate and that awareness was the onset of sneaking food and feeling like I could only enjoy food in private. Sweets were naughty and off-limits which made them larger-than-life and unusually desirable in my defiant, young mind.
I’m sure it started rather benignly – extra encouraging to go outside and play or denial of seconds at a meal. By the time I hit middle school, in hindsight, things were pretty dysfunctional. My mom would have me weigh myself in front of her every morning. I can remember the daily anxiety and fear of what the number would reveal and if it would result in her being proud or disappointed. If I’d be praised or if I’d get a carefully worded lecture. I remember doing crazy things that only a young girl would think of in the minutes before getting on the scale, praying they’d influence the number. I’d spit repeatedly into a cup, jog in place while the shower blasted hot water and the room filled steam, I even cut my hair on a couple of occasions. I remember the first time the scale registered triple digits: 100 pounds. I don’t recall how old I was but I clearly remember my mom saying, “Well Betsy, just tell yourself that this is the heaviest day of your life”.
I remember the food scale. It sat in the kitchen and only weighed my food. Not my sisters’ – just mine. I remember walking into a Weight Watchers meeting as a 9 or 10 year old. A room full of middle-aged women complaining about their weight. Me and my thin mom. I’m sure I just assumed that food and weight obessession was normal as I sat and listened to women talk about their struggles with food obsession, binging and restriction.
God, then there was middle school. I was given an orange reflective vest and I would jog two miles verrrry early in the morning (it was often still dark out). Mom would follow me in the car (I think sometimes she would walk behind me). I remember hiding behind a street sign for a while, knowing I had a minute or two to rest before I’d be in her line of sight again. If I didn’t complete my jog, I’d lose privileges.
She “hired” my older sister to “train” me. She had an orange whistle she’d blow while I was encouraged to run wind sprints in the driveway.
She insisted I run on my middle school cross-country team. Those were some of the worst years I can remember. My sister was the #1 runner. She came in 1st effortlessly. Me? Last. Every single race (except the one when I got lost, cut off half the course and came in top 5, much to everyone’s amazement. I didn’t confess to getting lost). I’d hide in the woods during practice. I was embarrassed every.single.day.
I swear I had to have tried 15 diets before I was 15. I remember being in the grocery store the night before starting a new one, my mom encouraging me to go pick out a special treat to enjoy before launching into my strict new lifestyle in the morning. Even then I was either “on” or “off”.
I knew my mom thought I was beautiful, but all compliments were followed with “imagine how beautiful/amazing/unstoppable you could be if you met your full potential” which was code for “if you lost weight”. School shopping was so stressful because I was embarrassed to try on clothes in front of her. I knew what she was thinking. Another summer went by and I hadn’t lost any weight.
Through all of this, my shame and embarrassment grew. My dissatisfaction with myself grew. The only thing I felt control over was food. The only way I could rebel was to eat. I would sneak food from absolutely anywhere. I stole quarters out of the coffee can in our family RV and ran after the ice cream truck to buy as much as I could. I’d sit on a rock down the road and eat 3 or 4 ice cream treats plus a couple pieces of candy. There was a teacher at my school who kept candy in her bottom desk drawer. When the room was empty I’d sit under her desk and eat as many pieces as I could. My mom didn’t keep sweets in the house so sometimes I would mix butter, flour and sugar and eat it off a spoon. Food was so restricted and that made me increasingly drawn to it.
In high school, my guidance counselor called home to warn my parents that I was purging in the bathrooms. My mom never addressed it with me but I overheard her telling my step dad that it was just for attention. It was desperation. It was self-hate. I was out of control.
I never felt accepted. I always felt that food needed to be hidden. I felt different. I felt less than. I’m crying as I write this because even as an adult, I remember how badly I wanted to be fit and thin but my food obsession got stronger and stronger and my self-loathing increased everyday. I couldn’t pull it together.
I got into a series of really messed up relationships. Men who didn’t accept me. They didn’t value or cherish me. I apologized for who I was. I stayed in the relationships because I didn’t know any other feeling. I didn’t know that I could be accepted as I was. I didn’t expect anyone to treat me that way. I believed they were justified in the way they treated me because, afterall, I wasn’t good enough and I never had been.
In recent years, my mom has asked me what she could have done differently. I’m hesitant to answer that question. I don’t know how I would have turned out had things been different. I don’t know that there is a “healthy” way to intervene if your child is overweight. I can’t offer a solution to parents in her situation other than this:
Love your child fiercely. Make them feel loved and cherished AS THEY ARE WITH NO EXCEPTIONS.
If forced to Monday morning quarterback my childhood, here’s my honest thought: I was an incredibly active kid from a young age. I was a competitive swimmer. I was a good basketball player. I played on a traveling soccer team. I played AAU basketball through middle school. I ran cross -country. I played varsity sports in high school. As a family, we ate healthy. We played outside. If no mention was ever made of my weight, I think I would have grown out of the baby fat. I wouldn’t have known to sneak food or be ashamed. Those behaviors are learned; they aren’t innate. My weight was a result of my over-eating. My over-eating was a result of shame. My shame was a result of my mom’s negative attention and constant intervention.
When it comes to food obsession and obesity, food is rarely the problem. The emotional root of the problem is not something you are born with, it’s something you learn. Do NOT teach or influence your child to develop an unhealthy psychological relationship with food.
I can’t go back and honestly, as painful as a lifetime of shame and self-loathing is, I’m a strong, determined, motivated, focused woman now. I can’t regret the experiences I’ve had because at this point, I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished and I’m excited to help other people.
Mom – you did your best and you did it all because you love me and want me to be well. I love you.
**I did tell my mom I was going to publish this post. After discussing it, I believe she has a valid, important perspective. Come back Wednesday – I’ll be sharing her open letter to me on this issue**