I love my mom. When we are together, we never run out of things to talk about. We both enjoy flea markets, interior design and reading magazines. When we are not together, we call, email and text. My mother is the reason I became a dietitian. Growing up, she served my brothers and I rice cakes, and wouldn't buy cereal with the preservative BHT (hence a life with puffed wheat -- blech!) well before it was the "in" thing to do. And while she has instilled in me a life of health through diet, the way she taught it wasn't always accurate.
For instance, watermelon was fattening, but pretzels and nuts in lieu of lunch was perfectly acceptable. And Weight Watchers wasn't a good diet because it allowed for too much food and you could get fat on that diet. This wasn't information that she made up. She learned it from her mother. Her mother being my 87-pound grandmother who, to this day, still states at the end of every meal for all to hear, "I'm busting! I'm a fat pig!" And at almost 93, is still on a diet, eating the same fruit and cottage cheese for lunch for as long as I can remember. So I became a dietitian, initially, prove my mother (and her mother) wrong. To be fair, my mom taught me about calories and carbs and let me try my first "diet" at the age of nine so that I would avoid the torment she suffered as a girl. My mother is absolutely the tiniest, most fit, youngest looking 60-something year-old woman you have ever seen. Yet, she still recalls growing up as a "fat" teen and being ridiculed by a neighbor who caught her red-handed with chocolate, declaring her a,"fat pig." If she were to really stop and think about it, that moment in her life has driven her to watch every single morsel of food that enters (and mostly does not enter) her mouth. It has, in turn, driven her to save me from that same ridicule. Unfortunately, her good intentions have passed down her distorted body image and self-shame issues to me.
That first diet at nine helped me to lose a few pounds. I would see my mom's support for my weight loss efforts as attention -- something that I wanted so badly from her. She worked six days a week and I was the oldest of three, so there was very little mother/daughter time, and I relished in it. Sometimes, the weight loss would earn me a shopping trip with her. She loved clothing and owned a clothing store, so shopping was never a chore for her, it was therapy; it was her joy and she wanted to share it with me. But being a kid that didn't yet know about calories in versus calories out, the weight would come back more easily than it had gone. And when it did, I felt her disappointment. Maybe it wasn't disappointment; maybe it was her fear that I would suffer the ridicule that she did at my age. But I took that disappointment as disapproval - that I didn't have the willpower to stay away from bread, to only eat two m&ms while my brothers ate them by the handful, to be the skinny daughter she wanted. I hated that feeling, so to spite her I would give up the diet. But after a while, I would crave the attention and find another diet. And so the cycle began, and life went on like this for many years.
When I was in my early 20's and attending graduate school, getting my master's in nutrition education, I lived on my own. It was my chance to be independent, which also meant I could eat what I wanted. I continued to diet and tried many of the fads. Some of them I tried as part of my schooling, and others I tried because one of them had to be my key to a life of thinness. After all, when my mom went to college, she dropped 50 pounds eating salad with ketchup or mustard and shunned peanut butter and danish for the rest of her life. Since then, she has only gotten thinner and more fit. She needs to alter a size double zero (can you believe that's even a size?) to fit her slender frame. I wanted the same, but I had rules. I am a rule-follower by nature and my rule was no cheating. And by cheating, I didn't mean on my diet, I meant cheating on dieting. It meant no pills or drugs. It meant not cutting out one or more entire food groups, and it meant no starvation and no purging. If I was going to be thin, I was going to do it in a healthier way than my mother and grandmother had achieved it.
It took me a long time, even with two degrees in nutrition to learn how to be in control of my weight. I came to the realization that however disappointed my mother was in the way I looked was her business. I needed to take care of my body for me and no one else. After the birth of my son, I finally did it. I went on Weight Watchers. I didn't tell my mother. I lost my baby weight plus a little. I was the healthiest and thinnest I had ever been, and I was nowhere near my mother or my grandmother's definition of thin, but I started to feel good about myself. Mostly, because I took control of my body. I started with my inner voice. I stopped hearing my mother and started to hear me. When I looked in the mirror and didn't like what I saw, I would tell myself, "At least I'm doing something about it." Changing that voice from negative self-talk to positive self-talk was the key to my success. It's not an easy thing to do and I practice it every day. Weight Watchers supported me while I developed this new habit, but that doesn't mean that this is the program for everyone.
As I dietitian, I tell people to find a diet (see my definition below) that works for you where you can make it a way of life, be accountable for your actions, and then learn to accept your body as something to praise; not to punish. As a parent, I vowed I would not talk negatively about my body because my children are a piece of me; one is my spitting image. If I say I hate my belly or my butt, in some way that tells my mini me to hate those parts too. After all, that's how I learned; those parts of my mother that she hated were smaller than those parts on me. I was a quick study and shame was an easy lesson.
We talk about food differently in my house. My children are served organic food and non-GMO snacks, as my mother would have done had she raised children in this generation. But food is not the enemy in my house. Food is fuel. Food is what makes our brains function and food is what makes our muscles and bones grow. Diet is not a word we use to describe deprivation; "diet" ensures that we eat a variety of foods from all food groups to ensure proper nutrition for a healthy body. I don't call myself names or put down the way I look. That cycle has ended with me. Instead, I flex my muscles and show my kids how strong a body can be when it is cared for. Will I encounter food issues with my kids? Sure I will. Will my kids think they are too fat or too thin or too short or too tall? Most likely, but my goal is to approach these issues differently than my mother did, so my kids don't suffer the ridicule and torment that I, my mom, and most likely my grandmother, suffered both internally and externally. Will I be successful? After eight years of studying nutrition and 40-something years of life lessons, I sure hope so. So I work at it everyday.
Today, I am spending the day with my mom. She wants to shop and go for lunch. My inner child cowers in a corner, wondering if she will judge my body, my lunch choice, my clothing size. But my grown-ass self shuts down that thinking and reminds me that I put a stop to that cycle long ago. Now the only voice I hear is my own and it's saying, "You go girl!" And in truth, my mother has learned that her quest to help me be the skinny girl she envisioned, the one who would protect me from ridicule, wasn't the key to my happiness. But the unconditional love that quest stemmed from was. And that cycle of love is one that will never end.