This month’s Food Is Not The Enemy Newsletter has a special treat enclosed. Emily’s story. Emily is in the process of understanding her eating disorder. She has recognized that it isn’t about food, and is currently wrestling with the underlying issues. In her story, she talks about her struggles with her body image and learning to own her feelings regarding her relationship with food and her body. She also shares how her mother lovingly wanted to help her but hurt her instead. Emily shares this hoping that the parents who read this will learn that encouraging your child to lose weight may do more damage than you want.
I hope you enjoy and gain from Emily’s story as I have.
“I’m 27 years old, I’m originally from New York, I love horror movies and musical theater, I have 2 cats and a boyfriend and (like the title says), I’m fat. You may be wondering why I chose to tell you I was fat, before anything else about me. It’s pretty simple, really. For 20 of my 27 years, the fact that I’m fat has been the single most important thing in my life. Everything else has come second.
My mother, like most parents, has always wanted what was best for me. When she was a child, she had weight problems of her own. She was teased about her weight for years. She finally did lose weight in high school, only to have other eating disorders later in life. So, understandably, my mother wanted to do her best to prevent me from having the same hardships.
But when I was about 7, I also started getting teased about my weight. And at first I had enough confidence to stick up for myself when I was confronted with bullies. (“You’re a fat red tomato!” “Oh yeah? Well, you’re a skinny string bean!”) After a while, the teasing and bullying started to wear me down, and my mother decided to try and help me. At least, in her mind, she thought she was helping me.
What my mother decided to do, was to make food my enemy. We didn’t have snack foods in the house. We hardly ever had dessert after dinner. If I wanted a second helping, it usually ended in a fight. If I wanted to eat junk food, I was made to feel horribly guilty about it. These foods are BAD. These foods are GOOD. If you eat the BAD foods then you are BAD. Of course, I quickly learned, that these rules only applied to me. My dad could take second helpings. My brother could eat chocolate. My mother would go as far as to actually hide food from me, so that my brother and dad could eat it.
But this wasn’t enough. She started taking me to as many different places to get me to lose weight. We went to my pediatrician, who warned me of the dangers of heart disease and high cholesterol and diabetes. I think I was about 10 years old when we had that talk. We went to Weight Watcher’s meetings. Overeaters Anonymous meetings. The local YMCA gym. A psychologist. A nutritionist. And so forth.
My mother was so concerned about my weight, that she made my weight the defining characteristic of my entire existence. It wasn’t just that I was fat. It was that I was fat and we had to fix it. It wasn’t okay that I was fat. *I* wasn’t okay. I was wrong and bad and shameful and I didn’t deserve anything good until we fixed me. My mother loved me, of course. I never doubted that. But if I was thin, then she would love me just a little more. At least that’s how it felt.
Eventually, my mother’s determination for me to lose weight was absorbed into my own determination. It wasn’t just that she was telling me that I was wrong and bad and we needed to fix it. After a few years, I believed it completely. My self-esteem plummeted. I had no confidence in myself, and I truly believed myself to be worthless and undeserving of anything positive. Because, you see, I was bad. I was wrong and bad and I hadn’t fixed myself yet. And until I could fix myself, I was just wasting space.
But I couldn’t fix it. I tried for years and years to lose weight, and I could never do it. Sure, I might lose a few pounds here, a few pounds there. A few times, I actually did lose a considerable amount of weight. But eventually, it came back. It always came back. And then I would feel even worse than I did before. How could I have let myself get fat again? I should know better by now!
It was only this past year, that I think I finally figured it out. As a child, your parents are everything. The saying goes something like, “Mother is God in the eyes of a child.” If my mother told me I was fat and that it was wrong and we had to fix it, then clearly that must be the truth. But somewhere deep down, I didn’t believe it. And I was mad. I was mad because she was convincing me of something that was a lie. Being fat is not WRONG and it is not BAD. It is not a defining characteristic. It is one thing, not everything.
I now believe that deep down in my subconscious, I’ve been rebelling against my mother’s voice that has been telling me I need to be thin to be worth something. I haven’t been sabotaging my desire to lose weight, because it was never my desire in the first place. It was my mother’s. I just wanted to eat a doughnut every now and then. My constant struggle between eating the foods I want, and feeling guilty about eating the foods I want, is really just a 20 year long argument (in my head) between my mother and my 7 year old self.
I’m not a parent yet, but I can understand the gut-wrenching determination to do what’s best for your child no matter what. But sometimes, what is best for your child, is to just let them be. Guide them, and support them, and let them know every day that you love them completely and unconditionally. But let them make their own choices. Let them make their own mistakes. Let them decide what they want their defining characteristic to be. Even though it’s hard to resist the urge to step in and help them along the way, it’s important to let them ask you for your help.
I may never have a normal relationship with my mother. I may never feel 100% comfortable eating in front of her. I will probably always be a little sad about that. But at least I can better understand how I got where I am now, and who I’ve become. And if I can help save someone else’s relationship with their mother, I think that would be enough.”