When I was eight, my dad put me on my first diet.
I was a heavy kid. I was active, I played outside a lot, but I wasn’t athletic or terribly coordinated, and I preferred to read a book. I didn’t get too little exercise, but no one could accuse me of over-exerting myself.
And I liked to eat. We visited my grandparents a lot during the years of my preadolescence and adolescence, because my mom was sick and in the hospital a lot, and then died. My grandparents helped care for us kids, and my grandmother was an amazing Southern cook who made us fried chicken and mashed potatoes and okra, fresh tomatoes and peaches from her garden, big breakfasts with eggs and grits and grapefruit.
(Lately I’ve been eating a grapefruit for breakfast every morning, and every morning I think about her – how whenever she served her big breakfast for the family, 10 or 12 or 15 of us, we’d all come to the table to find a grapefruit half at each place, segments carefully sectioned with a paring knife – how early she must’ve gotten up to cut all those grapefruit for all of us.)
I don’t think I ate an excessive amount of food when I was very young; it’s hard to say. I do know that once my dad began moderating my portion size, cutting me off when he decided I’d had enough, cautioning me not to overeat, teaching me to measure out exactly one portion size according to the side of the cereal box – once I started fearing that my food intake would be limited, I compensated by overeating whenever I could, whenever he wasn’t watching, stuffing as much as I could until he noticed and made me stop. I remember his teaching me that eating an appropriate amount meant leaving the table when I was still a little bit hungry, so my stomach would adjust, over time, to needing less and less food. I began to feel obsessed with the food I wasn’t having, so whenever I could, I overate.
Caught between a grandmother who loved us with food and a father who was trying to keep me from eating it, and entering puberty at the same time that my mother died of cancer, my body size fluctuated dramatically. So to help me learn to regulate my weight, my dad implemented a morning routine for me: PFW, for Pee, Flush, and Weigh. He’d wake me up in the morning, and I’d go to the bathroom, flush (when you’re ten it’s best to spell that step out), and then step on the scale. Then I’d record my weight on the line graph that was taped to the inside of the bathroom cabinet.
I’m not sure what I was supposed to be learning from that. I think he was doing the best he could to teach me to be aware of my body. (It was no different from his own morning routine, one he still keeps up with; he weighs himself daily, and then either indulges in or denies food in order to maintain his weight in the same five-pound window. So he wasn’t trying to make me do anything he thought was unreasonable. It’s just that his definition of reasonable was…pretty unreasonable.) But what I saw was a line on a graph that went up and up and up, never down. Never mind that I was pubescent and growing, that my body was in the midst of myriad changes. Never mind that food and emotion were by then hugely complicated issues. For me it became quite simple: every day that the line went up was a day that I was failing.
From there it was a short path to self-denial and self-loathing. By my early teens I joined Weight Watchers, ate as little as possible, allowed myself only enough food to quell suspicions of an eating disorder (which were raised when I passed out during the halftime cheerleading show of a varsity basketball game, thrusting my pompoms high into the air and then crumpling to the gym floor). I packed my lunches for school and threw them away, untouched. I bought diet pills that made me shaky, jittery, and unable to concentrate, but at least took the edge off the constant hunger and the ceaseless thoughts of food. And I hated my body, sincerely honestly thought I was enormous, could find fault after fault with my thighs and my arms and my belly and my butt, wished my size-8 pants were size 2’s.
And all the while I was being praised for my shape – my dad called me “willowy”; my aunt complimented my flat stomach (the product of the 500 crunches I did every night in my room before bed); a nerdy girl at school included me in her denouncement of snobby cheerleaders, “with your little hips and boobs and everything.” Finally I was being treated like my eating habits were successful, not unhealthy.
It wasn’t sustainable, of course. My metabolism boomeranged, my body chemistry rebelled, and during my senior year of high school, I gained nearly 100 pounds. By the time I turned 20, my weight had doubled since I was 15.
And I hated myself. There wasn’t an alternative. Everything I knew told me that fat was failure, and I was fat and ashamed.
I’m revisiting all this now because this evening I stumbled onto a blog written by a mother whose seven-year-old daughter is obese, according to her BMI. You can hear the heartbreak in this mother’s words, the agony of seeing her daughter picked last for kickball, ignored or teased by her classmates, her self-image crumbling. At her pediatrician’s urging — because this child is overweight, and therefore unhealthy — she’s met with a nutritionist, put her daughter on an eating plan, is teaching her daughter to count carbs and fat grams, to measure portion sizes, to monitor her weight.
She describes her daughter as being very active and athletic – involved in weekly karate and swimming classes, a member of a basketball team, a little girl who loves to play outside. And yet her daughter can’t find clothing in her size. She doesn’t own any jeans, because plus-size children’s clothing is so rare. She is becoming depressed and withdrawn because of how her size separates her from her classmates.
My heart breaks for this mother, who is struggling with how best to care for a child she believes to be in poor health because of her weight. But my heart breaks more for the seven-year-old girl who is picked on by classmates, and whose mother is inadvertently teaching her that her classmates are right – there is something wrong with her body.
I wish someone would tell her, Your daughter is obviously healthy; would say, You just said she’s active, gets plenty of exercise, doesn’t get out of breath when she runs, is practicing for her belt-test in karate. Don’t second-guess that because of her size. Instead of teaching her that her body is the wrong size, teach her that healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes, that weight isn’t a measurement of health, and it certainly isn’t a measurement of character. Teach her that yes, her classmates are going to be awful, because kids are awful, they find a vulnerability and they pry it open and poke it with sticks; and that the way to handle them isn’t to try to remake yourself in an image the other kids will find more acceptable, but to accept herself — and celebrate herself — the way she is and stand up for that. Don’t teach her to count calories and restrict food in an attempt to conform to an arbitrary, external standard. Teach her to celebrate the things she’s good at, the things she enjoys doing, to eat the food she needs for fuel without worrying that it will go to her thighs.
I hope this mother — a mother who clearly loves her daughter, is doing the very best job she knows how — will learn to teach her daughter differently. I wish someone had taught me differently, too.