“So you can’t even eat pasta ?”
The time my mother went low-carb is a strangely persistent memory. It was a long time ago; when they called it Atkins and not Keto. She bought carb-reduced bars and sugar-free cookies. She started making different meals for herself. Dinnertime felt weird. If she wasn’t putting potatoes, pasta or rice in her body, then why would I need to ? I was too young to really understand and thankfully not impressionable enough to truly think about following her lead. Or so I thought.
I’ve always loved my mom, even though she clearly didn’t like herself very much. She had long, beautiful curly hair. I loved looking at pictures of her as a little girl, with her wide smile and untamed afro. Despite having a father with curly hair as well, the mystery of genetics made mine a little bit wavy at best. I would have died to have the beautiful curly hair that my mom burned every single day with a straightener. Whether it was endlessly having to lose those “last five pounds” or taming the beautiful mess growing out of her hair, she was determined to make herself smaller, and no amount of compliments convinced her to stop.
She never put me on a diet. All the love she could not give herself, she gave to me. All the time she spent criticizing herself in the mirror she compensated by telling me how beautiful she thought I was. But I still saw the way she looked at herself, the way she treated her body, how she weighed herself every morning and changed the way she ate every night.
I grew up fast. My mom isn’t very tall, and by the time I was thirteen, I was the same size as her. Well, not exactly the same size. I was just as tall, yes, but I definitely wasn’t as thin. She never told me anything that made me feel any less than beautiful, but she didn’t need to. I knew what her perfect weight was, and since it wasn’t mine, that meant my body was wrong. I started avoiding mirrors and dreading fitting rooms. I copied my mother’s meals. I would dread having to weigh myself. For years, I avoided it. The number on the scale was a painful reminder of my inadequacy.
Years later, when I started living by myself, the dormant self-hate suddenly exploded. No one was there to make sure I ate, so I didn’t. I restricted as much as I could. I exercised for hours. I cried everytime I dared to indulge in a bit of chocolate or a slice of pizza. My body temperature dropped several degrees. And no matter how much I lost, I could never be satisfied with the reflection in the mirror. It didn’t even last a year, and it hadn’t developed into a full-blown eating disorder yet – but if I hadn’t been given a wake up call, it very easily could have.
I never told my mom about this phase, but she’s the one that saved me all the same. She is much skinnier than she was a couple of years ago – but no amount of dieting did that to her body. What made her look this way is a huge amount of chemo, months of radiotherapy, and a little something called breast cancer. I remembered the endless days when she couldn’t bring herself to eat, the nights when she’d throw up everything, the mornings when she couldn’t get up. I remembered the first time skinny wasn’t pretty – it was just scary.
Then I looked at myself, wearing my coat inside while the heating was on. I thought of all the mental space I used up thinking about my body when I could have been writing, spending time with friends and taking care of my family. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life shivering and wishing I could make myself smaller.
My mom stopped dieting a while ago. And now I did too.
Some days are hard. At our last family dinner, my uncle commented on my mother’s lack of exercise by saying that it was ok since “she wasn’t fat”. Hearing all the time about other people’s diets gets exhausting, and there are some days where I wish the mirror would be kinder to me.
But then I think about my mother’s body. I realize that not once when I think of my mother have I thought of her thinness. I think about how it put me into the world and helped me be a part of it. I think about how it fought sickness and won. I think about the beautiful mind it carries, one that taught me how to be kind, smart, forgiving, brave. I never looked at my mother as a body, and she never taught me to look at myself this way either. It’s about time we return the favour to ourselves.