Since the beginning of my existence on this earth I’ve been bombarded with ideas and ideals of beauty. We all have. Including my own mother.
There is no one, single explanation that pinpoints what created my eating disorder. There is no one clear, definitive arrow of blame. It would be incorrect to say that my eating disorder was caused by solely physiology, sociology or psychology. Scientists and doctors have yet to uncover the exact cause of eating disorders, maybe because there is no exact cause. Eating disorders arise out of a myriad of contexts, social locations, genetics, emotions, familial and societal values. The exact, single cause maybe impossible to uncover, puzzles rarely ever have one piece. And a piece of my eating disorder puzzle is my very own mother.
I love my mom. I love her hugs, her aloofness. I inherited her work ethic, her happiness in helping others, but unfortunately I also inherited her anxiety and her fear of what others thought of her. From a young age I’d wake up every morning to go to the bathroom to wash my face and brush my teeth and see my mom step on and off the scale multiple times and then reporting it to my dad promptly, as if it were the mornings traffic report. As I was getting dressed for school I’d see her dance in front of her full length mirror, turning, twisting, bending. Palms on her stomach, sucking in, flattening out. I’d walk in to her bedroom to say goodbye before I went to school, she’d look at what I was wearing, a shirt tucked into my jeans with a belt, “ah Rachel I wish I could wear things like that.” I was seven. It’s lunacy that a forty-year old woman would compare herself to a seven-year old. But that’s what eating disorders will do, they’ll grab the reigns on your reality, jumble it up, and send you flying through space, lost , confused, with no sense between the rational and the irrational.
Our kitchen counter was always covered in papers. Random scraps of old mail, bills that kept on being “forgotten” to be tossed away. Scribbled on old fliers of town hall meetings, and ripped up envelopes from the bank, were numbers. Addition problems. Meticulous calculations. Every time mom took something out of the pantry she looked at the nutrition label, she wasn’t looking for potential allergens, she was looking for the amount of calories. She’d often ask me, when she started to need glasses, to read the caloric content for her and the serving size. After I’d read them to her, she’d look again, just to make sure. It got to the point, even before my eating disorder’s peak, where I didn’t even have to look at the label, I had them memorized. I knew she probably had them memorized too, but of course she needed to make sure that corn flakes we bought were suddenly not fifty something more calories than they were the last time we bought them.
My mom was never on an actual diet. She didn’t need to be. Her weight was healthy for her height and weight. She never wanted to lose weight, but she certainly had an everyday fear of gaining weight. In fact she acknowledged that they were harmful from her own mother who had once owned a wide collection of dieting books, that had been read for a month and then proceeded to collect dust (as they should). However my mom still talked in allowances, calories, labeling foods “good” and “bad”. Sitting at the dinner table, her plate was always filled with skimp portions of meat and a noticeably smaller bit of potatoes. My mom is in no means a so-called “health nut”, she’d eat Oreos for breakfast, snack throughout the day chips, candies, a sure sweet tooth. And when she didn’t like something, or ate little of it she refer to it as “a waste of calories.”
My family had a tradition of eating out at restaurants every friday night, a nice way to celebrate the welcome the weekend. After the meal, as we’d be waiting for the check, my mom would ask my dad “how much would you give my meal”. My dad would joke, pretending as if she were referring to how’d she’d rate her meal on a scale from one to ten, but he knew what she really was referring to. He’d say “Denise I don’t know” And so she’d guess “400, 500, I don’t know I didn’t eat all of the fries”. And so he’d just nod his head reassuring her estimate.
It would be incorrect to say that I did not learn eating disorder behaviors from my mom. I did, her behaviors became my behaviors. course at first, when I was a child I didn’t see them as behaviors, they just seemed normal, heck all of society made them seem normal. Dancing in front of the mirror, body checking every morning, weighing myself, checking the calories before I ate something, calculating them in my head, scribbling numbers down on pieces of paper. Finishing a meal at a restaurant and instead of thinking about the flavors, the experience, all I could concentrate on was estimating in my head how many calories I just had consumed.
My mother is not the only reason I have an eating disorder. She couldn’t help it, it’s hard to resist invitations to be consumed with physical appearance and food because society serves it to us everyday on a silver platter. The justifying, the calculations, the falsified control and comfort. My mom’s not to blame, she can’t be, when she herself is also a victim of a world obsessed with how we look. She’s merely just a piece of the puzzle, but it’s still hard not to wish that this piece didn’t have to be my own mother.
featured image: “Girl At The Mirror” ~ Norman Rockwell, 1954