Tears rolled down my cheeks as I sat in the dark theater next to my teen daughters. We had just watched a screening of a documentary called Embrace. This movie explores how women all over the world view their own bodies, and how we can change the culture of body loathing—both now and for future generations. It’s what the Body Positive Movement is all about.
Body hatred has affected women in my family across at least three generations. My mother has been on one diet or another for as long as I can remember, even though she was never more than a few pounds overweight. One of my earliest memories is watching her painstakingly measure out lo-cal Catalina dressing for her lunchtime salads. She constantly counted calories, fat grams or points—whatever measurement her current diet program used—and lamented the calorie cost of whatever she was eating. And she wasn’t the only one.
My grandmother, aunts, cousins and just about every other female I knew seemed to be in a never-ending battle of the bulge. Even when they were successful in becoming slimmer, they never seemed satisfied. There were always five or ten more pounds to lose. Long before my own teen years, I was already fully immersed in diet culture, drinking diet soda, counting calories and worrying about my weight.
One of the most eye-opening parts of the film Embrace was hearing women from many countries answer the narrator’s question, “How do you describe your body?” the most common answer was “Disgusting.” That’s right. Disgusting. Some other words these women used to describe themselves were “ugly” and “fat.”
Although I didn’t hear the women in my family call themselves disgusting, they did call themselves fat. Conversations at family gatherings almost always included talk of the latest diets and how much weight so and so had lost. Negative language about women’s bodies abounded in my daily life. I remember my mother answering the phone during dinner and responding to the question: “What are you doing?” with “Stuffing my face.” And when Oprah famously regained her lost pounds, it was said that Oprah had “porked up.”
The focus on body size didn’t end with family members. When a slightly chubby friend of mine got a job in an ice cream shop, someone remarked that an ice cream place was the worst possible place for her to work. And when my fourth grade teacher returned from maternity leave still carrying baby weight, the talk at the dinner table surrounded her lack of weight loss. Any female with an extra bulge or paunch was discussed, and why not? They weren’t being any harder on others than they were on themselves.
Hearing the women interviewed for Embrace say awful things about themselves made me cringe, but what really got to me was the last line of the movie. The final scene depicts a carefree little girl dancing in the sunshine. The narrator says,
Beautiful girl,do not spend one minute of your life at war with your body.
That scene hit me like a punch in the gut. Because that is exactly what I’ve done—spent much of my life at war with my own body. The same war that was fought—and lost—by other women in my family before me.
I guess it is no surprise that starting at around age 12, my mood each day was determined by the number on my bathroom scale. Down a few pounds? I was elated. A pound or two up? I was miserable. Because of my weight obsession, I was always on a diet. Liquid diet, low-fat, rotation diet—I tried them all. In my mind, all anyone saw when they looked at me was a fat girl. The best compliment someone could offer was to ask the question: “Have you lost weight?”
When I look back at pictures of myself during that time, I see that my body was perfectly average. In fact, my weight was exactly what those old insurance company height/weight charts said it should be. In retrospect, I am amazed that I expended so much mental energy worrying about my figure. And I am terrified that my daughters will do the same.
My body dysmorphia continued into adulthood. My weight drifted up and down as I made my way through college and then began building a career. In my twenties, I trained for a marathon. During those months, my BMI was high but my body was strong and capable. I felt like a real athlete. The monster that was my body hatred was reduced to a quiet whisper.
That beast came roaring back, complete with teeth and claws, when an ankle injury sustained while running long distance sent me to the doctor. He flipped open my chart, looked at my recorded weight and then informed me that excess weight had caused my injury.
I sat on the crinkly white paper of the exam table, stunned. “Don’t you think I injured myself by running eighteen miles?” The doctor chuckled. That little laugh cut even deeper than the words that came after. “Yes, but if you weren’t overweight, it wouldn’t put so much stress on your ankle.”
And just like that, my bubble burst. I was no longer an athlete training for a marathon. I was just a fat girl again.
In my thirties the body changes brought on by three pregnancies only added to my insecurities. I was now not only concerned for myself, but for the health of my babies. Would my excess weight cause problems for my children? With each pregnancy, I gained more weight than recommended and was regularly admonished by my doctors. The focus on the scale turned what should have been a joyful time of anticipation into just another opportunity for me to feel shame.
Now that I am nearing fifty, midlife and a sedentary job have only made my body struggles worse. My weight problem is no longer in my head—it is real. But I have done my best not to pass on my body-image issues to my children, especially my daughters. My husband and I don’t discuss other people’s sizes in our home. We teach that what matters is a person’s character, not their outward appearance. My children don’t step on a scale unless they need to calculate a medication dose or to fill in a form.
But I know that even though I’ve promoted body positive ideas in my home, I have not set a good example for my kids. They’ve seen me count calories and try various diet plans. They’ve heard me make disparaging remarks about myself. How can I possibly model a healthy body image to my girls when I don’t like my own body? I hate to shop for clothes, I race past mirrors without looking and I delete pictures that include me.
Although my own body issues may never fully resolve, two recent incidents have given me hope for my girls.
While shopping with my daughter who is a gymnast, I brought her a pair of jeans to try on. She promptly tossed the pants back over the dressing room door saying,
“Mom, skinny jeans don’t fit me.”
Her words made me go cold all over. Did my size double zero daughter have body dysmorphia?
I swallowed, took a deep breath and asked, “Why?”
“My thighs are too big. Because my legs are STRONG!”
The second incident occurred when I accompanied my oldest to get her driver’s license. We stood at a cubicle as the DMV worker rattled off a list of questions necessary for the document. She answered the questions about height, hair and eye color but when he asked her weight, she turned to me.
“Do you know how much I weigh, Mom?” My mouth fell open. When I was her age, there was never a day when I didn’t know my exact weight.
I know now that my daughters are strong, both in mind and in spirit. My hope is that they are strong enough to love their bodies, just as they are, through all of the phases of their lives. And then maybe they can teach me.
Tiffany Doerr Guerzon is a freelance writer and the mother of three children. Her work has been featured in the Christian Science Monitor, Brain, Child, This Land Press, Mei magazine, Parent.co, ParentMap, Submittable, WOW Women on Writing and over 60 regional parenting magazines across the US and Canada.