Becoming a mother in and of itself was not enough for me to realize how important it was to love myself – as my self. Instead, that epiphany didn’t come to be until I realized that I would be parenting children who happened to be daughters and reflected upon my own development as such
As much as we sisters in the black community supposedly revel in being voluptuous, “thick,” curvy, “healthy” and, to take it way back, “stout,” the reality is that some of us grew up battling our bodies and saw our sistren and matriarchs do so as well.
As a child, I witnessed my mother embarking on a series of diets. From the days of Dexatrim to the discipline of the Atkins diet, my mother was on a quest, every few years it seemed, to fit into a former size. In retrospect, I don’t consciously feel as though observing this damaged my psyche or sense of self, but as a girl who was taller and bigger than my peers until I was about 11 or 12, perhaps it had some impact.
As a child, I was heavier then my classmates and, often, the tallest in the bunch. I was always in the back rows in class pictures, and typically one of the few girls of that comparatively Amazonian stature. I know I broke the 100-pound barrier sometime in the fourth grade. Moreover, I was wearing bras in third grade and had my period by age 10. I was chubby due to baby fat that had not yet been routed to other areas of my body as the providence of adolescence; I had also reached a level of visible sexual maturity that my friends didn’t see for the next three or four years
Having to shop in the big girls’ section and being called all sorts of names by my classmates and my brothers probably did a number on me. But as I reached my pre-teens, the weight began to shift; a waistline emerged; hips sprouted; a bust line was defined; and the body that once was the target of insults eventually became one that inspired cat calls, unsolicited booty pats and ogling by the eyes of boys and men alike.
By the time I’d reached high school, no longer chunky, I’d developed a fat phobia that resulted in all sorts of unhealthy behaviors. I skipped meals, counted calories, restricted my diet, filled up on water, and did cardio most days of the week. I got into single-digit clothes sizes and seriously challenged my genetic predisposition toward curves and muscle. My practices probably resulted in me depriving myself of an extra inch of height.
It wasn’t until I started college that I gradually stamped out those behaviors for good. For one, it was tiring. Secondly, my body was giving up the ghost anyway, and as my 20s took over, so did my thighs and hips. Thirdly, being in an environment in which what I naturally possessed was clearly prized certainly helped.
When I met my husband at age 20, I was still picking myself apart. I’d criticize my wide hips or bemoan the bigness of my thighs. I would find errors where others saw none. Still, I assumed normative eating patterns. This means I ate real meals, sans pork, fried foods, sodas. It also meant that I became more active and more interested in what my body could do than what it looked like. Perhaps paradoxically, this new emphasis meant that I looked better than before and was better nourished. My husband encouraged me to like and love me, as me.
Now as a mother to two little girls, I am proud to say that I’ve never said the word “diet” in front of them or complained about any aspect of how I look while within earshot of them. I speak in terms of health and well-being; they see me going to the gym and mimic weight lifting and floor exercises at home. They talk about “Momma’s muscles” and “being strong like Momma,” even while I down scoopfuls of ice cream with no guilt.
Why is this so important?
The way a mother feels about herself is lined to her children’s self-concept. According to “Moms, Kids and Body Image”:
Your children pay attention to what you say and do about your own body image — even if it doesn’t seem like it sometimes. If you are always complaining about your weight or feel pressure to change your body shape, your children may learn that these are important concerns. If you are attracted to new “miracle” diets, they may learn that restrictive dieting is better than making healthy lifestyle choices. If you tell your daughter that she would be prettier if she lost weight, she will learn that the goals of weight loss are to be attractive and accepted by others.
Moreover, mothers who preoccupy themselves with dieting can foster the same sense of nit pickiness in her daughters, especially. As Jessica Weiner, author of Do I Look Fat in This?, writes of her mother . .
At the age of nine, she remembers, she was taken to the family doctor for a checkup. The doctor revealed that she was about fifteen pounds overweight. He immediately urged my grandmother to put her on a diet to take off the weight. What the doctor blatantly failed to notice was that my mother had matured early and was in fact going through puberty. So the extra weight gain was normal and would most likely work itself out as she continued to grow up.
But it was too late. By the time the doctor passed down the declaration for weight loss, my mother was sucked into the shameful and restrictive world of dieting. This pattern of bingeing, restricting, and punishing herself for being overweight — for being “bad,” in her point of view as a child — ended up staying with her for more than fifty years.
According to NOVA Online, “African-American women are generally more satisfied with their bodies, basing their definition of attractiveness on more than simply body size. Instead, they tend to include other factors such as how a woman dresses, carries, and grooms herself. Some have considered this broader definition of beauty and greater body satisfaction at heavier weights a potential protection against eating disorders.”
However, this is no hedge against disordered dietary behaviors, which may be on the upswing among Black women. It’s also why mothers must muster the will to remain tight-lipped when we feel like tearing ourselves apart. It’s why we must try to model healthy images and behaviors for our daughters.
They are watching and listening, just like I was when I first became aware of my mother’s dieting around age 4 or 5.
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