When I was a baby, my thighs were so chubby that one of my aunts used to “eat” them like drumsticks. I’ve seen the pictures. Today’s pediatricians would have scolded my grandfather for feeding me rice and beans every chance he got before I was 10 months old. Back then, I was just a happy baby with baby rolls and thighs that served as a family punchline.
It’s a story I heard often when I was growing up, usually told with the requisite giggles from my mother and a pinch on my legs from whomever else was within reach. I thinned out as I grew, but I never thought myself skinny.
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Instead, “big” was how I classified my body because “big” was how I had been referred to by my well-meaning family my entire childhood. “Big” because I was 5 feet tall at 8-years old. The same height as my mother and almost every other adult woman in my family. “Big” as in “not dainty,” with curves that snuck up on me when I was 12 and muscle definition that would have put me in the “athletic” category. But that word didn’t exist in the Spanglish craziness my family resided in. Instead, children were scolded for not finishing what was on their plate and reprimanded for needing to watch what they were eating — usually in the same breath. Then we were offered dessert.
My father noticed my new set of hips when I was 15 and let me know it. I wore a size 10 and only now realize I only thought that was a bad thing because my mother constantly preened about the size 6 she could still squeeze into after five kids no one could believe she’d had. If I could wake up with that body today?
Dad pinched the curve of my hip. “You need to lose some weight,” he said. What he meant, I now know, was that he had seen men his age watching me as we worked side by side at a family-owned Mexican restaurant. Maybe he wouldn’t have to worry so much about the few that crossed boundaries by calling the restaurant asking for me or saying things that made me blush because I didn’t know how else to react as I refilled their waters and brought fresh bowls of salsa and chips. These men saw my curves and ignored my age. My father, I think, was hoping that by cutting out the chips I snacked on while I worked, I’d lose the body I was growing into. He had no way of knowing what his words would trigger.
I started making myself throw up after watching a news special about a woman caring for eating-disordered girls in her revolutionary treatment center. The point of the special was to enlighten and educate on the dangers of eating disorders and the needs of those suffering. I took it as a how-to manual.
Sometimes I wonder if my actions are the cause of the body I see in the mirror today. The underactive thyroid. The polycystic ovarian syndrome. The number on the scale. Just because I was the only set of ethnic hips in the sea of curveless white girls at school, I thought that meant I needed to better control what I was eating. And because I had failed at being an anorexic previously, the consolation prize was closet bulimia. If I didn’t have the control not to eat, I could at least force my body to get rid of the evidence.
I should have just opened my eyes.
My daughter is 9 and often confused for a teenager. She’s built like her father’s side of the family: tall and lean. My nickname for her is “Little.” I used to skip the word “fat” when it was included in any of the books I read to her. Honestly, I stopped being surprised at how often that word appears in children’s picture books.
“She’s so big for her age,” strangers still often say when they realize how young she actually is. I always smile and gently correct them, whether or not she is paying attention.
“Yes,” I say, “She’s very tall.”
Because I can’t control what the rest of the world says or what she will hear, I try to sidestep any of the emotional triggers adults verbalized when I was a kid.
I never criticize my own body in front of her. And I never diet. Instead, we all eat what’s best for our bodies. We exercise, not for bikini season, but because we want to be healthy and strong. I’m not doing everything right. I can’t say with certainty today that I have managed to help my daughter sidestep the increased chances of developing an eating disorder tomorrow. Because of my history, she’s at a greater risk. Because of my history, I will do everything in my power to make sure that she loves herself, now and always.
It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, (Feb 26 – March 4) spearheaded by The National Eating Disorders Association. #NEDAwareness week is to bring awareness to eating disorders and lifesaving resources. This year’s theme: It’s Time to Talk About It. Click here for information on getting screened and getting help. You are not alone.