“Look at that belly. Do you want a belly like that?” Although it has been over twenty years, my mom’s words still sting sometimes. I had a stomachache that afternoon and my mom had caught me with pudding on my face (a friend gave it to me during lunch and I was a messy slob of a child who always forgot to wash her face after eating). It was my little brother’s birthday and because I had eaten the forbidden pudding, I was not allowed to eat a pastel-colored homemade snickerdoodle.
“You can have two sweets, but that’s all, and if you have one of those big cookies, that counts as two” my mom warned me at Christmastime, as I watched both my brothers get thirds and fourths of every cookie, pie, and chocolate bonbon that our relatives had brought over. I was seven and we were at our aunt’s house. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong.
“You don’t need to eat that much if you’re not going to work out,” my dad would say.
When I was in high school, mom bought me a scale and told me I looked like I weighed 125 pounds. I’m not sure what that means, but when I got on the scale, I weighed 112 pounds. Mom weighed herself and at 5’6’’, she weighed 107 pounds. “Hmmm, maybe it’s broken,” Mom said as she went to get an unopened box of kitty litter to check the weight shown on the scale against the weight listed on the package. The scale was accurate. I was told to weigh myself once a week in the morning before I ate breakfast.
I stopped eating sandwiches in sixth grade because I was afraid of getting fat. I would basically starve myself between school and swim practice and then eat too much at suppertime and feel sick because I couldn’t not eat and swim for two hours a day. “Suck in your gut.” “Nat the fat.” “Well, it ain’t over til the fat lady sings” “Sing, Natasha.” “Oh, hahaha, that’s not very nice.” In short, food became some weird, treacherous creature that I was supposed to avoid at all costs. Even in college, I used to get annoyed that I would get hungry and I couldn’t survive on coffee alone.
When I was in my early-twenties, I made a scrapbook of my high school days. I caught a picture of me at age 16 with other girls from the cross-country team. What’s odd is, I wasn’t just not fat, I was muscly and objectively thin. I looked great. What’s even worse is, I don’t actually care whether I am fat or thin, as long as I am capable of achieving what I wish to achieve. I had spent so much time regurgitating my parents’ values that I had ignored my own.
Law school, with pizza, stress, and more pizza, caused me to gain a lot of weight. 30 pounds, to be exact. Guess what happened? Nothing. My fiancé still loved me. My clothes didn’t fit, but buying new ones wasn’t the end of the world. Because I missed my old clothes and my circulation was getting a little bad, I tried losing weight a few times and yo-yoed because it’s true: diets are not a long-term solution. I didn’t believe it until all the weight I lost in fall crept back with a vengeance by spring and I had to rethink my strategy.
In a bind, I looked up what classic movie stars used to eat. Enticed by titles such as “Audrey Hepburn Didn’t Diet,” I took notes. Mostly, I learned that many of those lovely, thin ladies died of cancer because the forty cigarettes they smoked a day curbed their appetites.
It took eight months of trial and error, and a lot of internet research and some failed calorie-counting attempts, but I finally took the mystery out of eating. Turns out, you need to eat. And, you need to eat carbs and protein and fruit and veggies and chocolate… I eat breakfast. Lunch. Snacks. Pasta and cheese for supper. No, I don’t weigh what I did in high school, but I’m a lot healthier. And, I have a lot more space in my head to worry about other things, like how I’m going to get a job after I graduate so I can actually afford to eat!
No, I don’t blame my parents for my eating issues. I can imagine the chain of beliefs surrounding food and body image passed down from their own parents that went into their upbringings. I can’t make my mom see that fatness doesn’t make a person weak, and I can’t stop her from skipping lunch because “she has a headache.” What I can do, however, is make sure any children I have feel comfortable around food. I want to teach them to eat when they’re hungry and not to eat when they aren’t. I want them to know that food is nourishment, not punishment or reward. Gaining weight and losing weight is part of life. Mostly, I want them to know that if they finish all the food on their plate, that’s okay, and if they don’t, that’s okay, too. Because, whatever they look like, they will be gorgeous, inside and out.