What my dying, weight-obsessed mother taught me about body love
I have lots of conversations with my mother. She's dead now, but still, we talk a lot. I ask her if she remembers those countless mirror sessions she spent picking apart her body, pinching at the dimples on her thighs, drinking Tab and nibbling on Melba toast.
"What a waste," she would say, "I used to have a body and I hated it! Now I got nothing!"
"Shoulda, coulda, woulda Mom," I say. "What are you going to do about it now? You're dead... "
I grew up when Elle Macpherson was peddling Tab, and though I was only 7 years old when this commercial was on, I knew, just by seeing my mom's wistful expression when she saw the 17-year-old McFierce walking on the beach... I knew that there was something dreadfully wrong with the way we looked. My mom and I had the same body. We were short with strong thighs. Some might say "chunky thighs." In fact many did, mostly in the form of my mom, my grandma and my aunt. They disparaged our thighs constantly. And I knew that they were right, that our chunky thighs were something to be ashamed of because if you looked like Elle Macpherson, you would get attention. If you looked like me, you would have to pour a bucket of water on your husband's head to get him to acknowledge you.
Growing up, each morning, I would watch my mom step on the scale. Then she would curse at it and violently kick it back under the armoire. This routine is part of my earliest memories of her and they lasted most of her life. She wanted so badly to lose those last five pounds.
And then one day, she started losing weight. It wasn't because of her strict vegan diet, or one of the many "As Seen on TV" contraptions she purchased like Sweatin' to the Oldies, the Abdominizer, the Gazelle, Oxycise (we had all these things plus more). She started losing weight because her body was no longer healthy. A healthy body holds on to a healthy weight. My Mom had always been at a very healthy weight. But she couldn't accept herself. She couldn't accept her curves, her ridges, her lumps. She couldn't accept who she naturally was.
One evening, a month or two before I lost her, I was sitting next to her while she lay quietly in her hospital bed. A nurse came in to check her vitals and check her body. When the nurse took the covers off, my mother noticed her legs. "What happened to my thighs?" she asked. "What happened? where did they go?" she cried. Her thighs were no longer robust and healthy. There were no more dimples, no cellulite, no fat, no muscle, nothing. It was just skin on bone. She finally had thin thighs.
But it wasn't what she wanted.
I was in my 20s when I lost my mom. And like my mom, I'd had a very acrimonious relationship with my thighs. But things changed after she passed away. I had watched her spend her whole life obsessing over changing a healthy body. Until it wasn't healthy anymore, then, she just wanted it back. We all did.
I decided to embrace my curves. I knew that I wouldn't be able to dramatically change my shape unless I were to become sick either through disordered eating or an organic illness. I knew that my destiny was to have strong thighs and I didn't want to spend my life fighting against it. I wanted to spend my life being in my life. I wanted to actively engage in the world and not wait until I had smaller-sized jeans to do it.
And so I did. I accepted who I was. And these thighs of mine have helped me run marathons, they have helped me balance as I stood rocking my babies to sleep, they have helped me sustain two pregnancies, they have helped me teach my 2-year-old how to kick a soccer ball, they have held me and carried me through grief and through joy. I can't change them. And I no longer want to.
The way my Mom picked on and tortured herself taught me that a healthy body is a gift. And picking on it, beating it up and crying over it is a waste. I realized that the only thing I could do was to take this body and care for it. I needed to try to keep it healthy, use it and enjoy it while I still had it. And that is how I reclaimed joy inside my body.