I don’t remember a time when my mom wasn’t on a diet. It was a fact of my childhood that confused and baffled me, since my mom was the prettiest woman I knew. Alas, it was the 1980s. Weight Watchers and Jane Fonda had arrived in rural Indiana and my mom was caught up in the trend.
I’m sure it didn’t help that my family’s love language is teasing. Seeing her obsession with diet culture, a term I was not yet familiar with, my dad had taken to lovingly calling her “Fatty Patty.” My sister and I soon followed suit.
Looking back, I can clearly see how the teasing would have driven her, a woman whose own mom suffered from distorted eating, to buy the dull metal food scale that sat on our kitchen counter next to the cookie jar.
To clarify, my mom is not currently fat nor has she ever been, although when I told her this fact last week, she disagreed. But just like any complicated and layered part of life, my mom’s relationship with food is not simple: she also loves to cook. Food is her love language, and that cookie jar is always filled with homemade treats.
From a young age, I knew the difference between "good food” and “bad food” in our house. The “good food” tasted bad and the “bad food” tasted good. And, of course, the “bad food” was given as a reward for “good behavior.”
On our birthdays, Mom would serve my sister and me pancakes adorned with bright candles. She would heat up the syrup on the stovetop for an added warm gooey treat. I went through a phase where I wanted only Karo syrup, and my mom lovingly obliged my childhood idiosyncrasies.
Being a home economics teacher, she packed us school lunches straight from the food pyramid. She would always include snack-size canned peaches for me, my favorite. She would have preferred to include the fresh peaches from my dad’s tree in the yard, but I preferred the ones pre-soaked in corn syrup. Once again, she obliged with the “bad food,” making it a “medium food” to make me happy.
It was a rare night when we didn’t all sit down as a family for a home-cooked meal. We were midwesterners with German and Swedish roots, and the homemade meals were generally of the meat and potato variety. But Mom would also always insist something on our plates have “color” as she quoted from her college textbooks about nutrition, deeming the vegetables “good food.”
Despite her own constant dieting, she would always give us seconds if we ate all our “good food.” After dinner, we would all move to the family room for a “bad food” treat of vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup while watching network television.
Sometime around junior high, just like my mom, I decided I was fat--with zero evidence--and started my own diet roller coaster. Replacing meals with Slim Fast, skipping the family ice cream treats, and going to bed hungry. Dieting was just something you were supposed to do as a woman. I never questioned it. Nor did I question the shame cycle or self-hatred that failed dieting brought into my life. It just was. Eventually, and without her knowledge, I would take her dieting methods to the extreme with my own distorted eating behaviors.
When I came home from college actually fat, not the imaginary fat I was in high school, I remember my mom’s concern. The concern wasn’t about the fact that she now had a fat daughter. It was more that she had an unhappy daughter.
We never really talked about me being fat or unhappy. She simply called a clinic not far from my college and enrolled me in a weight-loss program.
Then she filled the back of my Jeep up with all kinds of “bad food” to make me happy. I remember a cake precariously balancing on the floorboard behind my bucket seat. I also remember shoving all the cookies in my mouth to keep myself from crying as I drove the five hours back to college.
Mom had no idea how to fix her unhappy daughter, so out came what she did know -- fix the outside, and show me love.
I would show up to the clinic shame-filled and miserable, praying that no one I knew would see me. I binge ate “bad food” during the hour drive there and back from campus. The doctors and nurses never did anything to fix me; rather, their surveys, weekly weigh-ins, and food journals just added to my unhappiness. I would eventually drop out of the program, adding to the shame cycle of my twenties.
I don’t have a real memory of my mom and me ever directly talking about weight, body image, or dieting. When I called her as I wrote this essay, looking for those missing memories, she told me there purposefully weren’t any to be found. She spent a lifetime watching her anorexic mother shame her obese sister and vowed she would never do that to her daughters.
And yet, I still received the very loud message that being on a diet was the only way to walk through the world as a woman.
Maybe it was the Weight Watchers meetings I attended as a kid, coloring in the corner while my mom participated.
Maybe it was the food scale next to the cookie jar.
Maybe it was my grandmother’s favorite topic of conversation -- portion control.
Maybe it was my dad’s fat sister -- the only family member who shamed me about food and my body.
Maybe it was the kids who chanted “Ogre!” as I walked through the halls.
Maybe it was the college boyfriend who broke my heart by calling me fat.
Maybe it was the inescapable diet ads playing on the network television as my family indulged in our post-dinner ice cream treats.
Does it really matter how I got the message?
My mom is still on a diet. She said to me the other day, “I don’t want to die being on a diet.” She’s still the exact same size she was when I was nine, still the prettiest woman I know.