Ending the War With My Body
When surrender means you’ve won
It’s been two years since my last doctor’s appointment. At that visit our discussion was shrouded by social distancing and early motherhood. It was a time when I desperately begged for closeness and the world replied with a stern and final, “No.” My days were held together with a matching pair of bookends, tiredness, and sadness. The doctor asked me to rate them on a scale from 1 to 10 and I wanted to laugh. I gave birth to those feelings around the same time as my son and everyone knows you can’t compare your children.
As always my blood pressure was high and the doctor talked about my weight. Mercifully she indicated that I didn’t have to worry about it quite yet. I was given a hall pass by society to walk freely in my body for a few more months until it would need to pass inspection. I greedily accepted my temporary bill of health and left the doctor’s office with the casual urgency of a shoplifter.
In the subsequent days, weeks, and months I watched that baby slip away and grow into his body and strength. Unexpectedly, I did the same. My arms became equal parts soft and strong. My son nestled his furrowed brow into my chest and my body enveloped him, providing safety and security. My body changed and was wholly indifferent to society’s demands to bounce back.
Still I felt the nagging urge to become smaller, and once again I armed myself to go to war with my body. It was not the first battle but instead a well-worn patch of land, desolate and dry because nothing can grow amid starvation. My body fought back against my attempts to restrict it with irritability and weakness. A pot full of boiling vitriol and cabbage soup for dinner.
I wanted a well-behaved body but found disobedience instead. My body would not let me shrink. Would not let me slip into the shadows and carve off another piece of flesh to please the family legacy of self-hate. My body had become a great protector, and in realizing that I became a parent to my son and the mother I always needed to myself. Body knows best.
My weight has always been a problem in my family. Too big until I was too small. The numbers fluctuated along with my sense of self. As a child I watched my mother’s obsession with measuring her body consume her thoughts and her tenderness. Her ability to feel need, honor want, and trust herself. Now she has traded thinness for frailty. Too weak to hold a phone to FaceTime with her grandson, she calls on the landline putting it on speakerphone to proudly state that she weighs the least she has since having me. The great destroyer of metabolism. I tell her she’s dying and she brushes me off, like a diner putting their napkin on the plate. She’s finished with the conversation and would like to have it taken away. I’ve always been serving up uncomfortable truths that she doesn’t have the appetite for.
It’s impossible to not see the genetic links between my mother’s body and my own. We hold softness in the same places and our hands are trick mirrors showing both past and future. She always wanted to contort her body into a shape that it would not rest easily. A weight that was a goal rather than a measure of mass. A hundred and twenty pounds of lifelong longing where each victory became more short-lived.
Frustrated with her own body’s inability to be dominated, mine became an easier target because children are used to being told what to do. Another battlefield to fight the same war. Ushered to Jenny Craig at 14 years old, the middle-aged women that I sat with had so many years of experience to share with me. They implored me with an urgency reserved for zealots to convert to thinness. “Don’t be like us,” they stammered. As if they were actual monsters and not just women sitting in a circle sipping on coffee and Sweet’N Low.
Losing weight was the easiest way to please my mother so I did it in earnest. Eager for love and affection, warmth and closeness. I knew I would always be starved one way or another. Hungering for love or food.
However, my mother did not start this war. It was a battle she inherited, just as I did mine. A long lineage of women so brutally resilient and forceful that the only way to cultivate obedience was to douse them with the stench of shame. The obsession with claiming dominance over shape left little space for the pursuit of individuality and contentment. It was a method of control, and it has worked devastatingly well for generations.
A young girl dancing on a stage with classmates in matching leotards and ribbons in their hair. After the performance instead of flowers her mother gave her the advice to lose weight because she was the largest girl on the stage and an embarrassment to her family. My mother comes by these issues honestly.
I have immense empathy for her journey and the trauma she endured in a childhood colored by war and impermanence. The only reason I’m here at all is the strength of women who were able to craft stability and success out of chaos. I am honored to be among them but as a mother — I wish she did better by me. I wish she taught me softness and respect. I wish she held my hand and squeezed it to say “I love you,” instead of “Don’t order that.” I wish she told me I was beautiful a couple of times and I wish she could hear me today when I say that she is so much more than how little her frail body weighs.
For the sake of my son and myself, I will stop fighting the heirloom battle of not-good-enough that we have been bred with. Society may feel differently but as a mother of two I know this: My son does not need to hit a certain milestone to be worthy of pride just as much as I do not need to weigh a certain number to be worthy of respect. We are not designed to fit in something as small as a doctor’s checkbox.
I can see peace forming in my mind’s eye. Fragmented through a prism it radiates a technicolor glow and yet remains elusive, shifting in the light. It’s there, until it’s not. The clouds creep in and the shine is lost and all that remains is fear. Because without light this revelation is just glass, hanging by a thread. It is a dream and a day-to-day working toward.
The first woman in my family to end the war with their body.