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Rewriting My Mother’s Legacy of ‘Skinny Is Beautiful’

Suffice it to say, I don’t own a scale and I don’t know how much I weigh. 

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Woman emerging from behind a fork with shadow casting
Anna Parini
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In that middling stage of dying, when she is still leaving her bedroom but no longer leaving the house, my mother lie on the couch making an important decision. My father, an internist, is trying to make her drink an Ensure, which in his mind will extend her life. 

She asks me to retrieve the other Ensure that’s in the refrigerator and bring it to her. She studies the nutritional information of both. She hands me the one that has 50 more calories and asks me to put it back. “Too fattening,” she says. “Your father is trying to make me fat.” She died a month later.           

How do you learn to love your body when your mother hated her own? How do you gain a clear perception of yourself when your very thin mother studied herself in the hall mirror sideways several times a day? 

How do you value yourself outside of a number on the scale when your mother routinely weighed you, starting in early childhood, and that number dictated whether she was pleased with you? Or in my young mind, whether she loved me?           

I vividly recall a night when I was around 8 years old. My mother had weighed me, escorting me down to the doctor’s scale on the dark side of the basement near the workbench. Whatever that number was, she was angry. Shortly afterward, I lay in my bed, crying, my hand on the imaginary fat on my stomach, promising myself that I would lose the weight. I asked God to help me out. “Please, God, after you feed all the starving children in Africa, please help me lose weight so my mom’s not mad at me anymore.” Can you imagine?                      

Suffice it to say, I don’t own a scale and I don’t know how much I weigh. At each doctor’s appointment during my three pregnancies, I turned around on the scale while the nurses notated the number. They knew to shut the file so I couldn’t catch sight of it.  I still do that. My gynecologist’s nurse insists on weighing me but knows to wait 15 minutes or so to take my blood pressure: It starts to spike as I’m driving to the appointment. Years of therapy have me at a point where I mostly don’t hate myself all the time and link my self-worth to a perceived, dysmorphic body image. That only took 50 years.           

Several years before my mother died, she and my father came over for dinner. (I did the bare minimum without cutting her out permanently; I am a dutiful daughter.) They walked into the house as I was hurrying around the kitchen in that final symphony movement of pulling all the dishes together. We pecked each other on the cheek. She appraised me, looking me up and down, and said, “You look skinny. Are you starving yourself?”           

She loved those early months of babyhood, when she was in control and could stick a bottle into our mouths and spoon-feed us rice cereal, our little mouths happily opening for the choo choo train. But right when we could start refusing her spoon, she turned on us. Force-feeding gave way to restricting food if you were deemed too fat (all but one of us), with my mother keeping very few edibles in the house by the time this youngest child was growing up.             

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I was that friend who came to your house to get my hands on your junk food. I cringe when I think of my younger self, who was starving for food and normalcy and real love. It makes me very sensitive to the occasional friend of one my daughters who has come to my house and cannot get out of my pantry. I see myself in them as they stuff Goldfish crackers into their mouths, breaking my heart that adult daughters are still out there shaming their own daughters for their appetites.            

But it’s not like that for this mom of three daughters. Over the years people have made ridiculous comments to me like, “Aren’t you sorry you didn’t have a boy?” as if I had a choice whether my husband’s X or Y coupled up with my X. It’s absurd. But what those folks can’t understand is that having three girls was the gift of a do-over.  

Raising them has challenged me at every turn to become a completely different kind of mother: one who loves them unconditionally and is attentive to their emotional and mental health.  I didn’t have a foundation to draw from, but I have raised three young adults who by no means are perfect, but they possess an abundance of self-love and self-confidence.           

Many years ago I left my 2-year-old with my parents for an afternoon. Walking into their house to pick her up, I see that my mother is doing battle with her granddaughter to get her to finish a bowl of Spaghetti-O’s. I look at my mother, seeing that familiar expression on her face, and my blood runs cold. I turn to my little girl and say, “You do not have to finish that if you are not hungry.”

That singular experience broke me open. I would always struggle to see my worth because my mother could not see mine outside my appearance or a number on a scale. But I would not allow it to infect her granddaughters. It ends with me.

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