Not Your Mother’s Body: Daughters, Moms, and Weight

Body hatred is the adult friendship bracelet– a feminine practice where each woman commiserates in what flaws she has. Each verbal lash is an offering to the group, “because I hate my body too, I belong”. Women bond by making themselves small. Even when I was in a romantic relationship with a woman, she’d do this sometimes. Our text exchanges wilted with diet talk, and I’d halt. Trying not to make her seem small, I’d ask “do we need to be those white women who talk about diets all the time?” She’d oblige, but socially, it was ingrained in both of us. I couldn’t fault her when I was also participating in this. Dieting and a fixation on weight was one of the first ways I learned to bond with my mom.

Visual ridicule has always been a tool to coral women’s behavior and potential. The Greeks believed that women were just deformed men. Biblically, Eve came from Adam’s rib. So our bodies have never been right nor ours. The narrative of women’s bodies as an accessory, as faulty, as other has endured from rib crushing corsets, chest binding in the flapper era, and breast implants and lip injections. There’s community for women in these endeavors: weight watcher’s meetings, primping for events, Botox parties. We’ve made a bonding experience out of self-loathing.

In no context is this body hatred more present than families. We inherit the way we perceive our bodies. We’re born into ideas about its shape, how much space is appropriate to occupy, how much anxiety hums through a holiday potluck. How much of myself am I willing to constrain in a corset, a girdle, spanx? As little girls, we watch our moms primp for events, ever aware of how she talks about herself.

This isn’t my mom’s fault or my grandmother’s fault. I mean, it kind of is. It kind of is because our moms raise us, but I’ve learned that most moms were like this. Most moms trashed their bodies, cursed their cellulite, shamed their spider veins, stocked fridges with diet foods and we, their daughters, became the unintended audience. But for my mother’s generation, weight was currency. Appearance was currency. Born in 1961, professional options were still semi-limited for my mom. No women had sat on the Supreme Court at that time. Women still needed their husband’s permission for their own health care. The Battle of the Sexes hadn’t occurred, and a Second Wave feminism was a decade away. Desirability was a rare bargaining chip for women who were largely relegated to roles of servitude: a waitress, a secretary, a nurse, a teacher. These are all caretaker roles in some capacity. This was the world my mother was born into. This was the world my grandmother knew. Appearance could offer ascension, and a fixation on weight was a part of that rise. So the stakes placed on weight felt extremely high.

I was born the same year Bill Clinton appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. Women had been to Space. I witnessed women who chose to be unpartnered, who were childless by choice, who were making their own rules. All of this is to say that my life is less prescriptive than my mother’s. Yet, her generation informs mine. Her generation raised mine. Therefore, their ideologies are entangled with mine.

Parents can view their children as an extension of themselves. I think mothers feel that their daughter’s appearance (especially weight) is an indicator of motherly competence. I’ve heard other moms talk about their daughters’ weights, politely nudging them to get more active as their sons receive another helping of Doritos. The standards aren’t the same for sons. Attractiveness is a bonus, not a necessity for boys.

We took pictures against the Granny Smith Green wall of our kitchen. Before pictures. Profile, front, back. Me and my mom. I was ten. We were going on a diet together. No memory wires through my brain where I’m unaware of my body, and for as long as I’ve been aware of my body, I have hated it. For as long as I’ve been aware of other women, they’ve hated their bodies too. A characteristic of femininity in the western world is a constant vying for weight loss. Being the girliest girl to ever girl, I thought it appropriate that I allocate an absurd amount of energy to losing weight from a young age. This ideology permeates through adulthood as women bond over bashing themselves– each offering slivers of themselves in exchange for camaraderie, acceptance, friendship.

I was a D-Cup by my freshman year of high school. My body looked older than my age, and it alarmed my mother. My curves signaled danger as I could be targeted by attention I wasn’t prepared for. We went shopping for homecoming dresses. Most were V-Necks, and the plunged too far for my mother’s liking. Her face was in constant disapproval. She never said that I looked pretty or good. I internalized her obvious discomfort as another wrongness about my body. I know her intention was my safety, a preservation of innocence in its waning days. The impact was another voice in a body shaming choir ever at fortissimo in my head. The underlying messages I received about my body from my mom included that it was a liability, that more space meant more danger and also less desirability. It makes sense when we consider that her generation perceived weight and opportunity as indirect to each other. It also makes sense that as I blossomed into a woman, her perception about my body altered from tenderness as a child to critique as an adult– a movement in how we related from parent/ child to woman/ woman.

Meanwhile, by the time I attended college in 2011, opportunity didn’t allow me much time to mourn my imperfect body. I worked anywhere from 2-4 jobs at a time. I enrolled in 11 activities, held officer positions. I traveled abroad twice. I perceived myself as chubby, but my daily life refused any room to really consider my body. In moments of loneliness, it became a dartboard for my discontent, my singlehood, my unhappiness. But it was eye opening to realize that I could either obsess about my weight or live my life. I couldn’t have both. I was away from my mom at this time. From 2011-2015, we had conversations about bodies and dieting. And over that time, I asserted more strongly that THIS is my body. THIS is the only body I will ever have. It must be enough. It is enough. It was enough the first time my mom saw it as a heartbeat in a foggy ultrasound. It has been enough every day that it has awoken to usher oxygen into my lungs and course blood through every vein, artery, and capillary. And I’ll be damned if I have to defend this body for another second in my life.

I know I should confess how my body is imperfect. I know that would offer you some insight to my humility. But I won’t. We’ve been indoctrinated to believe that this Eurocentric, fatphobic, cis-normative, able-bodied image is perfection. I am my own perfection. You are your own perfection. We don’t need to strive or ascend to a higher aesthetic. I used to study other women’s bodies with envy. I used to want any body besides the one that housed me. I don’t want to look like anybody else. I don’t want to be anyone else. I don’t have to love my body every day like I’m in a cheesy dove soap campaign to honor it, to peacefully coexperience life with it.

This past weekend, I attended a Body Positive Girl’s night. Almost every woman had a story like mine: an amazing mom with a bad relationship with her body that she passed down to her daughter. Not a single word was uttered about how much we hated ourselves. It was all empowerment, all building each other up after a lifetime of trying to reduce ourselves. And I have to tell you that after so many years of friendship bracelets, those conversations were liberation– proof that we can bond without shrinking, matter without minimizing.

The truth of the matter is that I never cared if I had a thin mom or a pretty mom. I didn’t notice her weight. I did notice when she was depressed. I did notice when she was lonely. I assume that if I am lucky enough to have a daughter one day, she will observe the same things. And I don’t want to bond with her or my sisters or future nieces or friends over what fucking diet we are on. In healing ourselves, we not only change future generations but heal our ancestors. I believe my choice to find peace in my body has helped my mom find peace in hers. She still cares about weight, but less so now. She’s in nursing school in her late 50’s– which is amazing. Like me in college, she no longer has the emotional real estate to invest in dieting. And she feels freer. Like, at last, we’re bonded over bigger things than the scale beneath us.

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