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When my mother died, I could finally heal from a childhood of body shame

Charyn is a Seattle-based print and digital writer, editor and strategist, specializing in food, travel, lifestyle and sex-positive topics. Her work has appeared in more than 100 media outlets, including AFAR, Delta Sky, Marie Claire, Na...

I loved my mother, but she was also the root cause of all my shame

During puberty and dramatic periods of physical change, my mother never missed an opportunity to remind me that at her heaviest she weighed 119 pounds. To put things in perspective, she was 5 feet 10 inches tall and pregnant with me at the time.

At a young age, she instilled the fear of “secretary spread,” a made-up condition where one’s backside loses bouncability if seated for too long, and reveled in sharing post-Weight Watchers meeting recaps. I remember my shock as she told stories glorifying high school classmates with eating disorders, some who ate tapeworms. She was rail thin at the time, so her obsession didn’t make sense, but it sure did a number on my body image. The loud and clear message: I was never enough.

I loved my mother dearly, and I know she adored me. But she cared way too much about what other people thought about herself, me and my sister, her marriage, and the whole family package. It was exhausting. Plus, I despised wearing Laura Ashley — her label of choice.

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And then I got boobs — clearly not a hereditary trait. There had to be some higher power that was hell-bent on ruining my life before I even hit my teen years.

The growth spurt was humiliating. I made every attempt to conceal the new additions with oversized sweaters and T-shirts. Luckily, rugby shirts and sweater dresses were ’80s fashion staples and helped with the great cover-up. When I finally got a bra — a B cup — I appreciated the binding effect it had on my physique. The definite reaction from male classmates who made their desire to grope no secret? Not so much.

My dance teacher only worsened my body issues by suggesting I lose 10 pounds for a dance recital. Three years in a row. I was 5 feet 6 inches tall and maybe 130 pounds at the time — well within a healthy weight range. Both hers and my mother’s words echoed in my head for years as I’d equate losing a certain amount of weight with some kind of reward. Like if I lost 5 pounds, I’d look so much hotter in my bandage dress. It always went back to how I’d look rather than how I’d feel.

With a constant focus on looks versus how to act, I was not prepared for life as a young woman. So I didn’t hesitate when it came to losing my virginity. I was 15 and crazy about a sophomore lacrosse player named Andy. Needy and eager to please, I lapped up every bit of attention, especially in the front seat of his car in the Dairy Queen parking lot. When he offered to tutor me in French (I was already an A-plus honors student), I finagled a session at my house while my parents were out. Before we made any headway on French agreement with compound verbs, I was face down on the sofa giving head. When he suggested we go all the way, I may have paused for a minute, but he had a condom handy. I obliged, and after a few thrusts of piercing pain, it was over before I could give it much thought. The condom broke.

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A month later and a missed period, my mother eavesdropped on a phone conversation during which I confessed my fears to a close friend. She confronted me, screaming what a slut I was, and grounded me. My father thought I was the victim of rape. I argued otherwise with no empathy from either parent. It was all my fault, and my actions made me damaged goods. The slut-shaming did not end there. News of my popped cherry spread throughout my high school, and for many weeks, I walked the halls in a haze of shame.

Two years later, my mother’s 38-year-old body conceded a brief battle with lung cancer. It was an epic loss — the kind that fragments childhoods, infiltrates every stage and aspect of life, and never fades.

A much as I wish there’d been a different outcome to my mother’s disease, her death made it easier to start healing the wounds of shame. It took years to deprogram the commentary I’d heard for so long from so many sources — but mainly her. I learned to make peace with myself and embrace my body and sexuality. I’m not textbook perfect, but I do love myself. At 43 years old, I can’t imagine my body without curves, 36DDD boobs and an ample booty. I’m healthy, happy, sexually satisfied, and I give zero fucks about what people think. I have a hard time playing the what-if game in life but believe there would’ve been many more hurdles in my path to me acceptance if my mother were still around. My only hope is that she’s proud of the woman I’ve become.

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