I sometimes reflect on the path that led me to dieting. I had been a chubby child and a pudgy teen and then finally a somewhat fat young adult. I started my first official diet at age 22. That’s the beginning and end of the story.
Except, really, it isn’t.
Lingering a bit longer on the tale, I look back on my childhood and the way I grew up eating. After my parents broke up, family meal time transitioned from the dining room to the living room (hey, it was the 70s). At the very same time that I ate with alternating anxiety and abandon by myself in front of the TV, my mother experimented with the “egg” diet (I have no idea, but it involved a lot of hard cooked eggs), drank Diet Pepsi and TAB, and ate mostly the scraps left over from my meals stealthily in the kitchen.
Only years later would I put it all together – my mother’s incredibly complicated relationship to food and her body and how it affected her ability to feed me. Stacked like a flip-it book, photos of my mother throughout my childhood would show her body undulating from thin-to-thick over and over again (in one picture, she bears a sad resemblance to an anorexic Karen Carpenter). She had been a naturally slim person most of her young life, yet she doggedly pursued ever elusive holy grails of lower body weights well into her middle years with varying degrees of success. Without fully understanding her experience, I would do the same years later.
Looking even further back, I realize now that my grandmother – Gram – had been just as avid a dieter most of her life. Gram was an old-school glamor gal. She had flashy clothes and loved putting her make-up and high heels on before my Granddad would get home from work. She idolized Hollywood stars and keeping “her figure” was paramount. In glamor shots of her from the 40s, she was gorgeous.
But she was also what they called in those days a little “full-figured” and photos of her over the years show a weight trajectory similar to my mother’s: average sized, thinner, a little heavier, thin again, very thin, fat. I remember that she only picked at meals but ate yogurt like a fiend standing up over the kitchen sink. When she stayed with us for a week every year at Christmas, I never saw her eat a full meal, even though by that time she was very fat. My mother said that for years, Gram always had the latest diet pills in her bathroom cabinet. Her crowded spare bedroom housed all manner of “exercise machines” from the 1950s through the 1970s: a contraption with a massive belt that was supposed to shake the fat from your midsection, an exercise bike, and a hand roller that was supposed to help with push-ups (or so I guessed). She dieted and dieted and only ended up fatter and fatter. Worst of all, she constantly referred disparagingly to herself as a fat old lady, even though my five-year-old self saw only the beautiful, funny, and fabulous creature she was.
Speaking of rollers and contraptions, my mother had a few of her own. Her middle-aged version of exercise was to stand in front of the television while “rolling” her stomach with a rolling pin. Lord knows that thing was never used to actually bake anything. She explained to me that this would rid her stomach of its excess fat. She wore girdles to bed as a “slimming” technique, and in one hilarious moment, devised a “chin strap” to help lift her middle-aged wattle back into a youthful chin (she wore it only once, it was so uncomfortable). I laughed, but I don’t think any of this was particularly fun for her, nor did it seem to make her happier about herself.
A lifetime of dieting left my mother no love of cooking and like many children, I was a picky eater of the meals she made. To supplement what she felt was my in my lack of intake, she allowed me to eat whatever and whenever I wanted. Cookies for breakfast? Sure! A big bowl of ice cream right before dinner? No problem! Mealtimes were unstructured and meal choices were largely up to me (This doesn’t work well for kids. More on this in the future). I know now from comments she made that this was in reaction to how she had suffered on diets and that much of the time she was eating vicariously through me. My mother clearly had no idea how to feed herself or a child, and my body became the reflection of that. I grew outward faster than upward and soon turned into a chubby child with her own complicated relationship to food.
I’ll credit Mom with this: she never, ever put me on a diet. Of the things she might have gotten wrong, this was not one of them. She new that children shouldn’t be put on restrictive food regimens. She became alarmed if I ever mentioned dieting as a teenager and worried that I could become “anorexic” (now I understand why). Despite this warning, “Do as I say and not as I do” didn’t work for me in the long run and I became a dieter too.
Dieting put down deep roots in my family. I was merely the stem poking above the ground with my measly dieting efforts. I escaped the cycle of restriction and body self-hatred but not without scars. Dieting leaves that kind of legacy wherever it goes.