My mom and I were kicking back in the grass of Sheep Meadow in Central Park last summer when it hit me–we needed to write the manual on positive body image in the context of the mother-daughter relationship. We are exceptional in that we share a positive image of our respective bodies. I learned it from her, and she learns it from me. We understand we are lucky, and we are grateful. We talk a lot about what holds women back in society, and we’re convinced that struggle with body image is one of the major culprits. The pressure comes from the culture, it comes from the family, from friend groups, the media, ourselves. Disliking, hating, and shaming our bodies, our desperation to change them to an unattainable ideal all take valuable energy we could be using for gender-advancement purposes. We have to do something.
My mom never talked about her weight. She never talked about what size clothing she wore. She never talked about parts of her face or body she didn’t like. She did not talk about dieting, or caloric count, or grams of fat. She did not keep a full length mirror in the house, and the bathroom scale was dusty with disuse. She walked around the house naked, to my chagrin, sometimes appearing in bra and underwear when a close friend was over, and she’d just left the shower. Moooom! I would cry in embarrassment. She was comfortable in her own skin.
My mom didn’t keep diet food in the house. She didn’t keep junk food in the house. She didn’t eat fast food, unless she really wanted it, and then she had it. Sometimes she sneaked in Chili Cheese Fritos when I wasn’t looking–she’s a human with taste buds, after all. She didn’t talk about what she was eating or why or how much. A registered nurse, she academically understood the connections between diet, exercise and physiology, and made choices accordingly. Physical activity was important to her, so she walked instead of driving, played softball and tennis, and gardened.
I grew up understanding that certain foods were off limits because they weren’t good for you; not because they would make you look a certain way, but because they would make you feel a certain way. Sugary drinks would rot your teeth, and diet drinks were chemically dubious and sapped your energy. Wonderbread and Jiffy peanut butter had little nutritional value, so she bought whole wheat and ground peanuts. I hated her at the time for it. I wanted Diet Coke and a Big Grab of Doritos in my lunch and McDonald’s for dinner. I wanted to come home after school to a cabinet full of snack food, instead of jars of dried lentils and wild rice and a basket of produce. Friends’ houses were a refuge with their Twinkies, Lunchables, and cans of pop. Sometimes at home we had what we called “junk-a-thon” where we’d eat TV dinners and ice cream, a very special treat. Not once was any of the dialogue around food about weight, body shape or size or dieting.
I grew up without a thought for numbers–weight or clothing sizes. My mom mostly threw on menswear, and it was the 80s and 90s so everything was oversized. She would get dressed and walk right out of her room without self-scrutiny. I never heard her ask my dad how she looked. There was no anxiety when bathing suit season rolled around. I never heard her utter a single word of dissatisfaction with her looks, in or out of clothes.
My mom didn’t do much with makeup. She didn’t do much with hair. She didn’t seem to have a need to cover, conceal, enhance or diminish any feature of her face. She did not examine her image in the mirror unless she was plucking her brows. It drove me nuts when I became a young teen and she had no beauty lessons to teach. I can remember begging her to subscribe to at least one women’s magazine, like other moms. She chose Vanity Fair, which wasn’t at all what I had in mind. The rag was stuffed with text, and there was only a single page outlining beauty products. She allowed me to subscribe to Seventeen, as a further compromise.
In middle school I began to hear talk around the lunchroom table about feeling fat, or certain foods being “fattening”, or about being on a new diet with mom. I didn’t understand. Was I missing something? Was it important to add up caloric values of each item of food before and after consuming it? Should I be looking in the mirror with distaste? Should I be examining my lunch and the lunches of others to categorize which foods were safe and which were fattening? Did I need to know my exact weight from day to day, rather than hearing the number once a year at my doctor’s office? Was it really not OK to wear horizontal stripes? How did one go about identifying certain body flaws and publicly scrutinizing them? Where did one even start?
To fit in, I decided to go on a diet. I wrote out a meal plan on a piece of notebook paper that included a self admonition to exercise. I followed the plan for a day then abandoned it. I tried shaming myself for my lack of discipline. I tried joining in the lunchtime dysfunction, but my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t get it, and it was yet another thing I stood on the outside of, nothing to add, words unnatural in my mouth. There simply wasn’t support in my home for body negativity. There wasn’t a model for it.