A few months ago, I found out that my mom has fake tits.
Given the proper context, it’s not that surprising. My mother, a naturally petite woman, birthed and nursed four large, jaundiced babies; that will rack up some damage on any, erm, rack. And this was not her first trip under the knife, nor would it be her last. As a teenager, she had her nose molded into that prototypical 70s ski slope; after delivering me and my three younger siblings via C-section, a plastic surgeon was quickly on hand to erase any scars; her 50th birthday gift to herself was an eye lift. Years of witnessing her work done and redone have given me a pretty laissez-faire view of plastic surgery and body modification in general. Plus, there’s the admitted privilege factor. My mother is a smart, successful, and wealthy doctor married to my dad, another smart, successful and wealthy doctor.
Nonetheless, the revelatory phone call caught me off guard. Not only did I learn about yet another one of my mom’s plastic surgeries; I learned that one of her implants had ruptured, and that she had to get it replaced as soon as possible.
I launched into concerned daughter mode: Are you okay? Is there any risk of infection? Will your procedure and recovery be relatively quick?
Yes, no, and yes — all good answers.
But there’s more.
This phone call about my mom’s boob job also included the news that my younger sister would go under the knife with her for new boobs as well. Picture a mommy-daughter date with less talking and more numbing drugs.
I stared down the front of my v-neck t-shirt. If you looked closely, which I could, you could see the seams of the “v” starting to split. I inhaled and exhaled, watching my au naturel D-cups move up and down.
“While you’re at it, I think I see stretch marks on my boobs,” I quipped. “Wanna pay to have them lifted?”
“No, Stephie,” my mom sighed. “Just exercise and hit your goal weight.”
“Mom, stop,” I replied softly, even though I didn’t really believe myself. I wanted to get off the phone as quickly as possible, afraid she could somehow hear the thoughts brewing in my head, loudly. But she kept going.
“I have the same problem as you, believe me,” she insisted. “When I went in, the doctor asked me if I wanted to get a little lipo, too. And I thought, ‘No, that’s just irresponsible. I’ll exercise, watch what I eat and do it myself.’”
By now my head was screaming, telling me to purge what little I could of a dinner eaten hours ago. I wanted to hang up the phone, run to the gym in my building and race on an elliptical machine until my legs turned to sexy, svelte jelly. Did I mention this all took place at midnight?
I could tell dozens, maybe hundreds, of these stories from across the years. Because through more than 10 years of battling one bitch of an eating disorder, one constant has been my mom watching intently from the sidelines, under the impression that every pound lost, gained, binged or purged, was just the result of a diet gone wrong.
I’ve never shared my mom’s petite frame. By the end of middle school, I had outgrown her in height and hips, and I don’t think either of us had the right tools to deal with that. Even in my early days of development, when I asked her to buy me my first training bra, she said that I didn’t need one; I just needed to lose weight. If the first sphere of people that shape your identity is your family, how is a child supposed to respond when she doesn’t look like the rest of her family?
The summer before my sophomore year of high school, I responded by starving myself to about 108 pounds. The compliments poured in, especially from my mom. I finally felt like I fit in, literally, in family photos. When that didn’t last, as starvation is wont to do, I turned to bulimia to try and keep my weight, and the emotions surrounding it, under control. I would heave into the toilet I shared with my sister under tiny brown splatters flecked the white walls and wouldn’t come off no matter how hard I tried. My mom eventually found out; she told me to clean up my mess and join Weight Watchers.
The mess got worse until I had to withdraw from summer courses at college to undergo two months of intense outpatient therapy for bulimia. By then, I was purging up to six times a day. Trash bags of empty takeout containers and red Weight Watchers frozen meal boxes filled half the kitchen in the apartment I sublet; residue from months of vomiting had stained parts of the white porcelain toilet bowl black; and my credit card had racked up hundreds of dollars of debt, most of it incurred from frequent trips to the noodle joint next door. Luckily, my parents helped pay for the treatment.
I remember sobbing uncontrollably before my mom came to a family therapy session for the first time. I sank into a soft blue chair in a sunlit office, hugging my right knee into my chest and mindlessly pulling on the translucent purple tentacles of a Koosh ball. I don’t think I said a word as she rattled off a list of the things she hoped therapy would “fix” about me.
Lying. Isolation, Sensitivity to everything. She never wrapped her head around the fact that she was actually listing the symptoms surrounding my eating disorder. The sum of the parts made me sound like a pathological brat. And while that may have been the case on some days, looking at the whole picture revealed how sick I really was, how much help I really needed and how much she just did not get it.
To her, people should just muster up the personal responsibility to not be fat, and there’s something wrong with you if you can’t. So when she goes under the knife with my sister in search of some abstract perfection, can I honestly tell myself that her choice to alter her body-and to help my sisters do the same-is a perfectly legitimate decision that just doesn’t work for me?
Maybe I could go the easy route. Maybe I could swallow my pride and what little self-esteem I’ve rebuilt, and beg and cajole my mother into getting the same cosmetic surgeries she has now bankrolled for herself and my sister.
But day-by-day I choose not to. And every day of the past two and a half years, I have also chosen not to purge; it’s the longest break my esophagus has had in ten years. Yet the accomplishment comes with the price of never feeling fully comfortable telling my mother about my growth.
Mommy, I’m better. But am I thinner? I still feel like I have to ask both, though I stopped getting a straight answer long ago.
My mom is my biggest trigger. And I’m learning that I either have to confront her about this, or accept and manage this chasm in our relationship.
Both options are nauseating.