[This is the second post of a three-part blog. Part I can be found here and Part III can be found here.
My mother took great pains to teach me that being a nice person is more important than anything else, especially more important than being rich, pretty, or thin. A woman of the Civil Rights era, she drilled into my head concepts like equality and fairness, reminding me all the time that everyone should be treated equally and fairly by every person. This wasn’t political stuff. They were day-to-day life lessons. Instead of teaching me that the government should treat all people equally regardless of their differences, she brought it down to the schoolyard level. Treat everyone the way you want to be treated. It doesn’t matter how they look, who they are, how little money they have.
The lessons my mother taught me were never explicitly about race or gender or sexual lifestyle, but they did explicitly cover less attractive people, physically and mentally disabled people, unpopular kids, smelly kids, and poor kids. “You don’t have to like everybody,” she used to say, “but you do have to be nice to everybody.”
But as with all parenting, there is a “do as I say, not as I do” factor that crept into all these things my mother taught me. So despite my mother's insistence on being nice to people from all walks of life, there was one person she did not treat well—herself. And she was especially mean to herself when she ate.
You Can Never Be Too Thin
There’s a saying, “You can never be too rich, too pretty, or too thin.” My mom taught me this phrase jokingly. It was something her mother used to say, a woman who cared deeply about not only being thin, but also being perceived as a thin person. Thin people decline dessert. Thin people don't take second helpings. Thin people order salad with no dressing as an entree. They keep margarine and diet soda in their fridge.
Despite trying not to become like her mother, my mother has her own habits that express her thin lifestyle. She has always loved turning down food when people offer it, then eating it later in private, in secret. Every year for 40 days during Lent, she denies herself all foods and drinks that contain added sugar. No sugar in her coffee, no cookies, no jarred pasta sauce—and she's not even Catholic. Sometime around 2004, after the Atkin's diet had its resurgence, a basket of warm, squishy dinner rolls was circulating the table, when my mother announced, "Oh, I don't like bread."
To make matters worse, my mother had been anorexic when she was younger. It wasn't a "she's too skinny" case of anorexia, but "missed a semester of college due to hospitalization" one.
She told me a story once about how she and her mother went to a dieting camp together, like a health retreat. I think she was a young teenager at the time. I picture them walking side-by-side up a grassy hill at a clip, pumping their arms the way my mother taught me to do to power walk and burn more calories.
In the story, the way my mother tells it, she is proud to tell her mother that the only thing she ate that day was grapes. “Oh yeah?” my grandmother replies, “Well, I ate nothing!”
What My Momma Taught Me
So although I certainly did learn to be nice to others, what I also learned is this: eating is shameful. Eating is shameful because eating is a sign that you are not a thin person and therefore won't be perceived as a thin person. However, the shame only extends to oneself. I have never thought ill of other people eating, and I don't think my mother has either. It's purely reflexive.
Without looking at other factors (advertisements, Hollywood) that have been hugely influential in shaping the way I think about food and my body/self, I wanted to point out the enormous effects that family psychology or parent-child relationships can have on a person. In my personal case, it's pretty easy to identify what happened and point to the residual effects, though I'm sure for other people it's not so simple. It's pretty easy to see why, for me, dropping six pounds was such a meaningful experience, why it's something I still hold onto.
[Continue to Part III.]