I recently came across an article I’d written in January of 2010. As I read it, I realized how, unfortunately, this is still relevant today. Given that I am raising a (now 14yo) girl, it struck an especially poignant note. P.S. My weekly phone conversations with my grandmother have now changed into weekly written correspondences. Unfortunately, her hearing isn’t what it used to be. I miss hearing her voice… even though she does still sometimes revel in lamenting.
She came at me with her arms outspread, her orange beehive lit up it all its glory… and licking her lips. I never understood the lip-licking thing, but maybe that was how she prepared for a kiss. I always melted into her chest, my face smashed by her hard pointed bras that were so in fashion at the time. She smelled like laundry detergent and Chanel No. 5. And whenever she hugged me, she made this little moan of pleasure, like I was her absolute most favouritest (her word) person in the whole world.
And I still am.
I love my grandma. And though the pointed bras are long gone and I’m now much taller, she still gives the best hugs around.
I spent every Sunday of my childhood at my grandma’s house. My granddad would pick me up at 12:30p to be back in time for our 1p lunch. Lunch was always some type of meat and potatoes and an overcooked vegetable followed by a ridiculously large dessert. One of my favourites was the big slab of pound cake mounded high with Weight WatchersTM ice cream.
After lunch, we would sit around the kitchen table playing cards or Othello, always keeping a hawk-eye on the other in case of cheating. My granddad would come in and try and start a conversation with us and my grandma would cuss him out for interrupting her concentration. When she turned her attention back to the game, my granddad would give her the finger behind her back while smirking like a kid. “I saw that, Joe,” she would say without turning around. I used to believe she had eyes in the back of her head.
Around 4p, we would go out to dinner, to “beat the crowd,” as she would say. I was never hungry for dinner at 4p, but you don’t argue with my grandma. So, I would order my food and stuff it down, feeling so full I ached. This was the norm. This was how it felt to “get enough” at a meal.
During the summer of my 11th year, my grandma and mother informed me that I was going to Weight WatchersTM. I was utterly confused because I wasn’t even really aware of my body yet. I didn’t understand the concept of fat or thin. I went to that first meeting and did the initial weigh-in. I think I was around 100 pounds and was just under 5′. Looking back now, I know this was not fat for a kid. I remember my mother exclaiming, “Wow! That’s more than me!” (My mother was 5’1” and had a very tiny frame.) My mother and grandma then left me to attend the meeting by myself. I was the only child there. I was surrounded by several middle-aged women all bemoaning the hardships of cooking for their families, of resisting temptations, of staying on the plan. Only about a third of the women in the room were women I would categorize as fat.
That summer was spent weighing out all my food, writing everything I ate into my food chart, feeling hungry, and gradually getting more and more pissed. By the end of the summer, I had gotten down to 67 pounds. I look back at pictures of myself during that time and I feel a great sadness. I was too thin. To put this in perspective… I have a 12-year-old daughter who is a little over 5′ now and weighs around 96 pounds. She is a dancer and has a beautifully-proportioned, lithe body. Most people I know call her slender. 67 on my frame was an abomination. How could my mother, my grandmother, and the women weighing me in at Weight Watchers have all agreed that I was overweight?!
When school started in September, people were floored… and not in the way I expected. Girls that had just the year before teased me for wearing glasses and being a teacher’s pet were all now inviting me to their back-to-school parties. Boys that previously tripped me in the halls between classes were now passing me notes. I hated it. It felt fake and contrived. I was starting to realize that this thin thing may not be for me. So, after school one afternoon, I stopped by the convenience store and bought as much candy and cookies as my allowance could afford. I stored this under my bed and ate at night with a rebellious glee. This was the most joy I’d felt in weeks! In the dark… just me and my food… no one bothering me… no one pushing me to weigh anything. I was in heaven.
Over the next few weeks, all my weigh-ins began showing plus signs: +1/2 pound, +3/4 pound, +2 pounds. I remember the last weigh-in like it was yesterday. I was 12, feeling a bit ashamed at lying to my mother and grandma this whole time, but also feeling a strong sense of defiance and independence. As I stepped onto the scale, the woman compared the last week’s numbers to this week’s numbers and looked at me with this great disappointment. “You’ve gained another pound,” she said gloomily.
I stepped off the scale and looked at my mother, who seemed to be processing something. “You don’t want to do this, do you?”
“I never did. You wanted this, not me. I liked being my size.” Ironically, I felt so small saying this. I could never judge how she was going to react.
My mother looked at me for a while, sighed, and said, “OK. Come on. Let’s go.”
We never went back again. I continued to gain weight and, what I would call, “normalize” back to a weight that worked for me. My mother nor my grandma ever spoke about losing weight to me again during my childhood.
It wasn’t until years later that began to understand the effect being raised by these women had on me. There were certain assumptions, certain unspoken truths, in my family. They were all centered around how a woman should look and act and dress and eat. There was this place between girl and woman that was supposed to somehow move from joy and carelessness to obsession and fear. Women were – and still are – to transform from living for themselves to living for others. And I’m guessing now that age 11 is the preferred age of transition.
I am now 41. I have spent these last 2 years consciously trying to reclaim joyful and intentional eating. Ideally this is defined as uncovering your definition of true hunger and eating when that arises and stopping when it’s been satisfied; being totally present in my food gathering, preparation, and consumption; and marveling afterwards at the food consumed and the abundance available to you. Sounds like a fantasy, right? This isn’t the easiest thing in the world, I know. This awareness flies in the face of everything this culture is built upon.
I’ve found though that changing your approach to food consumption changes who you are on a molecular level. Once those changes begin to occur, something shifts in the way you think, feel, and react. Deciding to take control of what goes in determines who you are. The most powerful step on the journey is the one where you realize that it’s your feet that are doing the walking.
Even though we are many states apart now, I still talk to my grandma every Sunday. She’s more vocal now about her desire to diet and revels in lamenting the days when she “could eat whatever she wanted.” When we are talking, a part of me feels a great sadness. I know that she is still invested in the idea of food being the enemy, the one to be battled with. But another part of me feels such appreciation… because this is also the woman who taught me the value and necessity of independence.