When my daughter was around 4 years old, she was frustrated with her hula hooping skills. “I need to be fatter, mom, to make this fit better so I can do it.” Her innocence would charm most, but this statement horrified me. As someone with body dysmorphia, who struggled with disordered eating for most of my life, my daughter’s wish to be bigger was in stark contrast to my lifelong secret wish to just be two, five, 10, and 20 pounds less.
I was 8 years old the first time I went on a diet. Our teacher had weighed us, one by one, at the front of the classroom in front of all our peers. Though the numbers weren’t called out, everyone wanted to compare notes. At 80 pounds, I was one of the heaviest girls among my friends. After that experience, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I hated my body. Unfortunately, that hate galvanized a cycle of shame and overeating and compensating for the overeating by overexercising, and that cycle lasted for decades.
When my daughter was born, the one thing I wished for her was that she’d never struggle with food or body image. So far, the only problem she’s had is a misguided perception of how a hula hoop should “fit.” But she’s a girl, who’ll develop into a woman, and American culture is still hellbent on perpetuating a universal standard of female beauty and shape. It’s come a long way since I was a kid, sure. Barbies were only made with one body type back in the day, and now there's a variety. There was never a fat character on TV that wasn’t played for laughs or to represent some grotesqueness. Now we have Kate in This is Us, and Rebecca, with her heavy boobs on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and I see more of myself represented in the media than I ever did growing up. My daughter has more examples of "real women" now, but society still has a long way to go. As long as magazines are touting ways to “Get Your Body Back After Baby,” we have a lot of work to do when it comes to abolishing beauty standards.
So I expect, at some point, I’ll share what I know about having an eating disorder with my daughter. I have lived with it for so long and it’s had a poignant effect on me, most notably because of the work I’ve done to quash its power over me. I am a better person for having done this work, and I need to show my daughter that it’s always possible to do the hard things. These are some of the reasons why:
It Took Up Way Too Much Of My Time…
To offset the effects of my binge eating, I would spend hours a day working out. Most weeknights I’d get home after 9 p.m., having spent two hours after work exercising. This left little time for anything outside the most basic tasks — laundry, food shopping, and being dead tired. Eating too much and overexercising defined my 20s. I wasn’t being healthy with all the running, spinning, and lifting after a binge session, and I was trying to sweat out the guilt and shame I felt for stuffing myself with carbs earlier that day.
I hope to be raising my daughter to have a more balanced approach to life. Being consumed by any one thing, and especially one’s body, is such a waste of time. Literally.
…And Brain Space
Along with all the hours I lost on an endless treadmill loop, was the ability to think about much else. I try not to have regrets, but I could kick myself for committing so many of my thoughts to figuring out how long I had to run to burn off the last binge (spoiler: it was never going to be enough). I could have been planning a trip, writing, or doing something with a friend instead of spending so much time alone, in my head, counting minutes and miles and calories.
I hope I can show my daughter how none of that calculating actually made me feel in control. In fact, it only served to give me yet another number as a “goal.”
I Ignored Other Aspects Of Myself
Obsessing over my weight and constantly berating myself for falling short of some goal defined by some magazine, or a height and weight chart that didn’t account for muscle density, meant that I had little time to recognize things I truly liked about myself. I never gave myself enough credit for everything I was doing right — getting good grades, doing my chores, being a reliable and loyal friend — because I was so focused on the one thing I felt was “wrong” (my weight). I had sportsmanship trophies and high achievement certificates in a multitude of subjects, but as a teenager, nothing mattered to me more than the size of my thighs. This continued into adulthood and it was as if all the other accomplishments in my life we made less remarkable because of the double-digit size of my clothing tag.
I don’t want my daughter to let any one aspect of her life eclipse another, especially when it comes to physical appearance. If she is healthy and feels good, that is all that matters when it comes to her relationship with her body. I need her to know that she is so much more than a number on the scale, or on her jeans label.
I Let It Define My Happiness
I had a pretty serious case of the “if only” before I had kids. “If only” I lost 10 pounds and “If only” this waistband didn’t dig into my stomach and "if only” I could eat whatever I wanted and not gain weight. This warped mindset prevented me from being truly joyful about a lot of stuff in my life. How could I possibly enjoy winning screenwriting grant, if I was so fat? How could I put any faith that this guy thinks I’m relationship material if my butt is bigger than his? I couldn’t just take happiness at face value; I was constantly putting it through my fat filter. I honestly believed that the thinner I was, the happier I could be, about anything.
Luckily, packing on 30 pounds during pregnancy showed me that my way of thinking was bullsh*t. I was gaining weight, for the most spectacular event of my life so far. True, seeing the scale number creep up over nine months was a mindf*ck, but it also made me realize that my body needed to get heavier. When my daughter was born, I knew I couldn’t let my fourth trimester body shadow the blissful moments I was experiencing with my new baby. Going through pregnancy, and postpartum body issues, helped me gain a healthier perspective.
I Felt Ashamed For Enjoying Food
Imagine being excited for Thanksgiving and your dad’s amazing sweet potatoes, only to feel totally disgusted for eating them. Overindulgence is never good, but we all get a pass on the holidays, right? I can’t remember a celebratory meal that didn’t end in me hating myself, whether I ate too much or not.
Knowing this about myself, I am very tuned in to how my kids feel about food. I want them to enjoy it, and listen to their bodies to tell them how full they are. I invite them to slow down when they eat, so they can really taste their food, especially dessert, and savor it. When you are ashamed about eating, you tend to eat fast (at least I did). So even as I binged, I wasn’t registering any enjoyment; I was just eating to stop time so I wouldn’t have to deal with something in my life at that time.
I Weighed Myself Too Much
At my thinnest, when I was wearing size 0 and 2, I was weighing myself at least three times a day: once when I woke up, once when I got home from work, and once more before bed. I was tracking patterns, and making sure I didn’t all of a sudden edge past the 2-pound buffer I gave myself for daily weight fluctuations. I was constantly grading myself with the number on the scale.
I had to have known I was so much more than my weight, but I never acted like it. So I’m determined to have my daughter know that she has so much more to offer the world than her shape. I praise her problem-solving, not her face. I compliment her style, but not how she looks in her clothes. I commend her for doing the hard things — keeping calm when her brother baits her, studying, fixing her spelling mistakes — because I want to shore up her confidence when it comes to her abilities. Size, weight, and shape do not fall into that category.
I Was Loved At All My Sizes
I will do my damnedest to help prevent my daughter from developing an unhealthy relationship to food or her body, and part of my strategy is to share that my love life was not dictated by my jeans size. I was at my heaviest in college and did my fair share of hooking up. Even as a pudgy high schooler I had a couple of boyfriends. At my lowest weight I started dating the man I would eventually marry, but not before I gained 17 pounds by our wedding day.
I Had To Learn To Listen To My Body…
Growing up, I was a people pleaser (still am, but I’m learning to put myself first because I’m no good to anyone if I’m tapped out). I depended too much on external cues when it came to my body. My pediatrician said I had to weigh a certain amount, according to my height. My mom shot me looks when I reached for second (or third) helpings of pasta. I rarely stopped eating at the point I was no longer hungry and, instead, always cleaned my plate.
Knowing how damaging that behavior was for me, I encourage my kids to listen to their bodies. If they’re hungry, they should eat, and they should stop when they are done. I do not push them to take “just one more bite.” I find that my kids are very good at regulating their own food intake when they are tuned in to their bodies. They have even left uneaten cake on their plates, because they just didn’t want anymore (although that made me panic in thinking maybe these actually weren’t my children).
…And That Took A Long Time
It wasn’t until I was well into my 30s, and pregnant for the first time, that I became really attuned to the needs of my body. I really wish I had a better mind-body connection when I was younger, so I’m doing all I can to show my daughter that listening to her body is, not only within her power, but crucial to avoid getting sick (and missing playdates).
I Am Not Cured…
Every day, I think about food. Who doesn’t, I know, but I really think about it. I’m still keeping general calorie counts. I don’t drink during the week (usually). I try to reach for seltzer when I really want something doughier. I fail at this often. The bingeing, though, has mostly been curbed. Having my body in service to something more than me — a new baby — galvanized a change in my relationship to food. I knew I had to treat my body better when I was pregnant, because someone else depended on it for comfort and nourishment.
It’s important for my daughter to know that having an eating disorder is not something you can recover from quickly. If she finds herself battling a demon of her own, I want her to be generous with herself, and recognize that change can’t happen overnight.
…But I Have Learned To Live With It
Despite having the ghost of my eating disorder hanging around, I have not resorted to my old ways of overeating to the extremes I once did. I have to try to be the best version of myself for my kids. Plus I couldn’t spend all that time at the gym anymore. As a working mom, I have prioritized and while I do work out most weekdays, it’s just for 30 minutes at most. My daughter knows I exercise, but she knows I do it to feel healthy and be strong, just like she has gym class at school and takes dance classes every week. Exercise is not punishment and, like food, it has its place in our lives. I am not the figure of perfect balance, but I can show her you can actually have it all, in moderation, and maybe not all at once.