Tag Archives: body positivity

A Year of Revelation

My mother’s mother, my Bubbie Fran, watched me frequently when I was a child. Once, while eating scrambled eggs, I reached for the salt shaker on her kitchen table. My grandmother swatted my hand. I looked up at her furrowed face, and my own face contorted in confusion.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“Salt is poison,” she told me, while stirring two fizzy saccharine pills into her otherwise black Folgers.

There were other poisons in her apartment, too. Sugar. Fat. Cholesterol. From my grandmother, and ultimately my mother, I learned that food could be dangerous and even deadly. My mother reinforced a contradictory food message each time she had an insulin reaction, when only sugary foods could save her. In ordinary time, these foods were forbidden: cookies, candy, sodas. But they held the power of God each time her blood sugar dropped.

We both internalized the belief that the worst thing a woman could be was fat. Our bodies were our currency, and thin bodies made us visible, gave us back the sense of control we lacked in our lives. For years, I was thin, and I took my thinness for granted. I believed being thin made me better, made me good, made me worthy. I think differently now. After years of food restrictions, I refuse to deny myself pleasure. I refuse to limit what brings me joy. I’m at the top end of my weight range right now because I take pleasure in eating. I cannot control whether I get sick, even while eating foods I used to fear. That has been the hardest and most poignant lesson of 2017. I am not at fault for my illnesses. Neither are you.

________

Here’s a list of all the foods I’ve eliminated over the years:

  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Dairy
  • Soy
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Grains
  • Raw cruciferous vegetables
  • Fruit

________

Restricting my diet escalated my anxiety. I could rarely eat with other people. I missed family holiday dinners because I feared not having control over the menu. Once, on a meditation retreat, I awakened in the middle of the night in a sweaty panic about quinoa. By restricting my diet, I thought I could cure myself from an autoimmune disease and other mysterious medical symptoms. This line of thinking, while quite common in our culture, is also a form of victim blaming. I believed what I ate made me sick, and I believed what I didn’t eat could make me well. I believed I had power, and I believed I didn’t have power. If I ate the wrong foods, I deserved whatever ills befell me. Food could be a miracle cure, and food could be poison.

I am not alone in my beliefs. Morality and magical thinking have long been associated with eating ––  take it all the way back to Genesis ––  and many women are taught to reduce food intake, to deny ourselves the pleasure of eating in a culture that denies or seeks to limit our power. Also, our oldest stories, our fairytales, imbue food with danger and magic. We are taught to feel shame when we indulge in the pleasure of eating. And when we do not feel worthy of food, we do not feel worthy of pleasure or joy.

________

Earlier this month, a new female physician listened to my mysterious symptoms, viewed another rash spreading across my neck, and said, “I think you have Lyme Disease.”

I laughed. But it turns out she was right.

The last time I pulled a tick off my body was in 2011. I’ve had a handful of bizarre rashes, but never a bull’s eye. And my former GP tested me for Lyme in 2015. Although my labs showed some abnormalities consistent with Lyme, he dismissed my symptoms and the results. In retrospect, he should have ordered repeat tests, as my abnormalities and symptoms were consistent with an early infection.

My new labs showed no autoimmunity, and no abnormalities associated with an autoimmune disease. Despite the fact that I’ve been eating all the foods on my forbidden list for months, my thyroid health is improving.

2017 has been a year of revelation.

Food did not make me sick.

Food could not make me well.

________

The other day, I saw a meme circulating Facebook. The meme pleaded with women not to make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, and especially not to talk about weight loss goals in front of their daughters. The meme asked women to consider eating as a means to a nutritional end, a practice in body love.

If only our lives were so simple. I know many women who want to follow this logic, who’d love to follow this logic, and yet food and our bodies are so fraught with anxiety and contradictory messages, that we don’t know how to start to free ourselves. We have been given few tools for fighting back against a culture that frequently diminishes our bodies, our habits of eating.

I am by no means cured from my food obsessions, and I still fight against the desire to restrict food. I fear that my diet will be restricted once I begin long term treatment for Lyme Disease, but I hope I will advocate for myself in new ways in 2018. I will not follow a doctor’s advice without doing my own research or seeking a second opinion.

I want less resolutions, less restrictions.

I want more revelation.

We cannot control what happens to us. We can only surrender.

On Dead Mothers & Bathing Suits

For as long as I knew her, my mother had the same black bathing suit, a one piece that covered her cesarean scar. When she changed in front of me, I loved looking at that scar, a train track that ran down her navel. Her scar signaled her ultimate sacrifice, her body broken open in order to give me life. She never hid her body from me, but I inherited her shame, her scorn for her hips and thighs. I don’t know when this started, when I came to understand that mine and my mother’s bodies had failed in some deep and unknowable way, but I remember being nine and not wanting to put on my bathing suit for a swimming lesson. I remember wrapping myself in a towel and walking, head down, to the pool, hating my hips, wishing they’d disappear. I carried that shame into my adolescence and stopped swimming, even though a swimming pool is, to this day, the one place where I feel most boundless, and most like myself.

Years later, before her funeral, I uncovered a mirror and took a good, long look at my reflection. In that exhausting moment, I felt my shame dissolve. My body looked exactly like my mother’s. How could I not be comforted?

A week later, I left the house to swim. It was a big deal, one of the first times I re-entered the world without her, understood my life could continue beyond my most unfathomable loss. I wore a black bathing suit, a two-piece she would never have worn, and lost myself in the water. For that hour, as I kicked and pushed and breathed, I returned to myself, and to my mother. I felt the sharpest glimmer of hope arise within me. In the pool, in the water, I could stop time. I could shed my sadness, even if only briefly. I continued swimming that summer, and a year later I wore that same bathing suit on a beach bordering the African Sea, on the Isle of Crete. A person I’d just met snapped a photo of me standing, waist-high, in the pale, sun-dappled water. In the photo, I am squinting light out of my eyes and smiling. My head falls back in joy. I am thinking about dolphins and hiking and writing in a journal I’d given my mother to record her dreams; she’d never written a single word.

I wish I could say I batted shame away for the rest of my twenties, but that would be a big lie, or maybe a half-truth. I’m 35 now, and my body shows it –– grey hair, spider veins, a stomach that won’t quite ever be what it was nine years ago, when I wore bikinis on my honeymoon to Mexico. I still wince when I see my hips and thighs in a harshly-lit dressing room mirror. I still feel old hatred simmering. This week, as I prepared for a beach vacation, I spent more time worrying about bathing suits and my hips, than appreciating my good fortune, the fact that I’m going to the beach.

I resented my mother’s absence, the fact that this was just one more thing I’ve had to do without her for the past fourteen years. Often women tell me they can’t imagine doing the big things without their mothers: graduations, weddings, mothering their own children. But I think the small, everyday things are more brutal in their relentlessness. I’m incapable of shopping alone. Each time I try, I am reminded of how utterly, miserably bad I am at shopping without my mother. I need her in the mundane spaces of my life. And she’s not there. A particular grief stirs when I shop for bathing suits, a grief for the mother who is no longer with me, and a grief for the body I’m told I should have, but don’t. And then, there is the grief I feel for the body I once had, and is no longer mine.

I think bathing suit shopping is among the most complicated experiences a woman can have. By late May, the only options left seem to be bathing suits for a Kardashian or my Bubbie Fran. There’s rarely a middle ground in department stores, at least in my city. For comfort, I turn to Anne Lamott, whose book Traveling Mercies has sat on my shelf for almost as long as my mother’s been dead. Lamott describes the typically fruitless body-comparisons most women experience in dressing rooms, locker rooms, and on beaches. She details her own misgivings about her “dimply thighs,” but finds consolation in the “grace” of “comfortableness,” and writes: “And of the several things of which I’m most positive, one is that if I live to be an old woman, I won’t be sitting on my porch berating myself for having leapt into a swimsuit to swim in warm ocean water at every opportunity even though my thighs were dimply.”

Truly, I want to  leap out of my chair and shout “Amen” at the end of this sentence, but am afraid I will frighten my Unitarian husband and our skittish cats. So I will quietly whisper namaste, namaste, and start packing, knowing how happy my mother would be with the life I’ve created, and how if I called her right now to tell her I felt badly about my body, she would tell me I take after her. I am beautiful.

Purgatory

(According to random internet googling, I am the exact same height & weight as Beyoncé.)