Trigger Warning: The following piece details the author’s journey with diet culture, restriction, and eating disorders.
Everyone has a teenage crisis they have to get through–a traumatic breakup, a secret spilled to an entire school, getting mono–but most people either get done with theirs and move on, or don’t. I am so sorry that I had to drag my mother back through hers when she’d already climbed out.
What started as an in-the-moment comment, her agreement when I complained about my weight, spiraled. She realized what she’d done and apologized, saying we would “work on it” together. But I didn’t want her to think I needed to “work on it. “ I wanted her to do what she’d always done and tell me I was fine, I looked fine, and I just needed to eat healthy like I always do. Instead, I was infuriated that she’d been telling me that for months and as soon as I threw a number into the situation, was going back on her word. I was blindsided. I knew I was fat, but she wasn’t supposed to think so.
That winter, I began dropping the pounds. I’d lost about 10 when I announced to my family that I weighed less than I had in fifth grade. “You’re not losing weight because you aren’t eating anything, are you?” she asked worriedly. And at that point, I wasn’t, so I assured her not to worry.
At that point a friend, struggling with eating issues himself, sparked me into taking things “more seriously.” I dropped my intake below 1000 calories a day and ramped up my exercise, and by the time of my next check-up, I was down nearly 20 pounds. My doctor commended me but warned me that I should not lose any more. My mother made sure I heard this. I smiled giddily with no intention of stopping. I had 11 pounds left to lose. 102 shone like gold in my mind, reminiscent of the way I’d always associated numbers with colors as a child. 11 was silver. 3 was pink. 102 was bright, glowing gold, and it would be mine.
I must have slipped for a little while, overwhelmed by the incredible urge to eat anything and everything, and gained a couple of pounds, because I remember asking my mother to stop me if I reached for sweets. I began to watch more closely the way she ate. It wasn’t particularly healthy, but it was mesmerizing. She could eat a single slice of buttered white bread, or a Little Debbie snack for breakfast, and not look back. She put hazelnut creamer and sugar in her coffee and drank only half.
She wasn’t a mindlessly skinny person: she had a mental calorie calculator too, I knew, with time-roughened estimates but top-notch adding skills. She knew what she was putting into her mouth. She just knew what worked for her. The only thing I knew to work for me was stuffing myself with vegetables and hard-boiled eggs.
School ended and summer progressed. I woke my mother up at 6:30 each day and we drove to the trail for a run. She’d go even if I didn’t, but I knew that she wouldn’t get up quite so early if the choice was hers. I subjected her to my anxious, angry self as we stretched and laced up our shoes, needing her for her driver’s license in the absence of my own. I hated myself for acting so rotten in the mornings, but the world always looked like it was out to get me until I’d burned enough calories.
On our way home, I’d be a different person, chipper and optimistic and excited to eat my carefully proportioned breakfast once home. Thank god I wasn’t interested in coffee yet. I would have given myself a heart attack. I would talk excitedly about my pace improving and how my back didn’t hurt and what I planned to do that day.
I would eat immediately, unable to wait until after showering or even taking off my soaking, sweaty clothing. It was about the same each day. 1 sandwich thin, 100% whole wheat, with 1 sliced hard-boiled egg, and lots of water with whatever zero-calorie flavoring I was using that week.
Then, still hungry but bloated, my grumpiness would set in again, because I had to start doing things at that point.
I counted miles and ribs and calories and made sure to tell her, acting like I didn’t know why it was happening, when I woke up each morning with leg cramps or shivered in the sun or noticed that my bras were too big.
As my limbs slimmed and torso flattened and mind grew giddy with lightheadedness, it seemed my mother was no longer just scared for me, but also of me.
In mid-July, my mother and I got the chance to stay with her family on Long Island and visit a couple of colleges in New York City. My mother and I packed a few days’ worth of clothing and drove to her brother’s cramped but charming home in Levittown.
On this trip I agonized over grams of sugar in breakfast cereals and ate three desserts at the post-funeral lunch. I ate dinner at a restaurant and then wished I had stuck with Cheerios back at my uncle’s house. I told my mom not to let me eat junk food and then cried when she questioned me as I reached for a rich, fudgy-looking brownie at an open house at Pace University.
I hate myself when I think of this moment. I told her I needed her help on this trip to keep me from eating poorly, and then made her feel like an awful, controlling mother when she did what I’d asked. And then I question, did she not see my pointy shoulder blades strain against my shirt as I threw out that brownie? Or did she just see her own years of insecurity? Her own need to whittle away at her body until no one could accuse her of being too big, until no one could even think such a thing.
She told me once we were home that her sister, my aunt, had said I looked thin. She told me two years later that her sister had said she looked thin. Too thin. And that she’d said yes, I know. And she knew I was watching her as she ate salads and salmon patties. We would make them together, defrosting the freezer-burned pink pucks in a shallow pan over the stove and hungrily eating lettuce as they cooked.
I felt entitled to my puny sum of calories each day, but terrified to go the slightest bit over. I was perfectly familiar with my mother’s anxiety when she ate more than a few tortilla chips in the evening. She always said no to s’mores when I couldn’t bring myself to do so, and seemed perfectly capable of having just a bite of a cake, when I had to restrain myself from downing the entire sheet. We were rarely even. When I dropped to 102 pounds, however, I felt victorious. I just wished for the tiny appetite she had, able to take a couple of French fries and walk away while I on the other hand, stuffed myself with lettuce and lite balsamic dressing, trying to make myself feel full on a 60-calorie lunch.
I look back on this now and I do feel that I wouldn’t have slipped so far if we hadn’t been in silent competition. But then maybe I’d still be trying. I wouldn’t know that 102 feels like constantly being about to cry or fall asleep and a pointy nose and always being cold and waking up to leg cramps and doctors’ appointments twice a week, and I would always chase that, wondering if my body could sustain it.
So that it happened, I’m not sorry. What makes my heart ache is that my mother had to do it twice, this time with her oldest daughter screaming the same fears into her face that she stared down in her own teenage years. I’m sorry she had to spend yet another summer counting and weighing and scrutinizing. I’m sorry that her mother blamed her. And I’m not sorry because it’s my fault, because I don’t believe that eating disorders are a choice. But I’m sorry to have hurt her all the same.
Nearly three years after that horrid summer, I published a blog post about intuitive eating and the freedom I felt with it. I got a text from my mother about it, saying that she knew exactly what I meant, and she’d found it for herself several times, and that she was so happy I had this too. Like mother like daughter like mother.