I remember him discussing a weight loss plan for both himself and my mother before their… maybe fortieth… high school reunion. He refused to go unless they both lost fifty pounds. They had both been voted “Best Looking” in high school and he could not stand the thought of facing those old schoolmates as an older, fatter version of the gorgeous young man they all once knew. My parents did not lose “the weight” and thus, did not attend that particular school reunion.
This was just a minor blip in my memory but I bet it was a relatively big deal in their lives. I think about the private conversations my husband and I have behind our closed bedroom door, outside the ears and understanding of our children. I think about the decisions we agonize over, feel shitty about, yet have to make all the same – decisions my children are absolutely oblivious to. I wonder what their conversations about that school reunion were like. I wonder what their conversations about their aging and failing good looks were like.
Like everyone living in Diet Culture, both of my parents were victims of the belief that a thin, young body was much more valuable than an old, fat body. The older and fatter they both got, the less valuable they felt. Even as a child, I understood this deeply. I took the lesson of their dissatisfaction with their bodies deeply into my own psyche. My father especially taught me that a person’s worth – particularly a woman’s worth – was in her physical appearance.
While I was learning these lessons at a very young age, I was also being introduced to pornography. I watched pornographic films. I spent hours pouring over pornographic magazines. With the gorgeous, lithe, naked bodies of so many young women spread across the pages and across the screens, I learned that this is what a valuable human looked like. Conflating my father’s messages and porn’s messages, I learned that a woman’s body had to be young, thin, flexible, sexual, open, ready, passive and obedient in order to be desirable and valuable.
I’m sure my parents had conversations that I was never privy to that would shock me. I’m sure they discussed their bodies and their lives and their insecurities in ways I can’t possibly imagine. In fact, it is very nearly impossible for me to believe that my parents ever delved into any sort of deep conversation about any of this. And, honestly, I don’t know if I’m willing to concede that their conversations were ever that “deep.” Like most Americans, even now, they never seemed to question Diet Culture or their long-held belief that physical appearance determined human value. They certainly do not seem to have wondered whether it was okay for their children to grow up with the belief that their physical appearances determined their worth. Still… they MUST have had sorrowful conversations about their preoccupation with their own weight. They MUST have had to reconcile their own aging and rounding bodies with their desire to be close to one another anyway.
In my therapist’s office yesterday, I realized that I’m still carrying around my father’s preoccupation with physical appearance. Like him, I STILL believe that my primary value is in how “beautiful,” by society’s standards, my body is. The problem is I’m heavy (again) and I’m 45 years old. I am not one of the lithe, ready-and-waiting, pornographic goddesses that I was taught women needed to be in order to be valuable. No. In fact, I look much more like my mother did at my age than one of those sexy girls in a porn.
I remember watching my mother stand up out of a bath when I was a little girl. She heaved her massive body up and water ran off of her in great streams. The tub that had moments ago looked like it were filled to the top with water now seemed to deflate to just a few inches of water – her body had been taking up that much volume. I remember staring, fascinated, by her enormous drooping rolls of belly fat and her huge bottom that sagged in pockmarks of cellulitic dimples. Her fat arms full of those same dimples and rolls. The way she struggled and really had to maneuverer to open her legs enough to dry between them. The way her breasts seemed deflated and loose over her body. How even her hips had rolls. She was gigantic. And, from even this very early age, I was disgusted by her body. She was nothing like the porn goddesses.
Between my mother’s self & body-hatred, my father’s obsession with thinness and “good looks” and the daily, sometimes major and sometimes minor, traumas of living in a dysfunctional household, I learned to hate my mother’s body. Everything in the world of my childhood screamed at me to make sure I looked like the porn goddesses and NOT like my mother as I grew up. The porn goddesses were valuable, were worthy of love. My mother was not.
It is no surprise to anyone but myself that here I am, at the age of 45, with a body much more like my mother’s was when I saw her getting out of the bath than any girl in a porn, hating my body and believing my body is simply not valuable; believing, in fact, that in my current body, I have no value in this world.
But I’m smart, and I’m self-aware and I’ve done SO MUCH work on all that internal shit. I know logically this can’t be true. I volunteer at the elementary school. I’m a passionate and dedicated teacher. I love my family and they love me. I’m a writer. I’m a good cook. I’m a deeply spiritual person. I’m passionate about social justice. I’m a good friend. I KNOW in my mind that there is more to me than my body. And yet…
The deep and early conditioning of childhood does not simply disappear overnight. Despite knowing that I have value beyond my body, I still – at times – simply hate myself because I can no longer force my body to be what I was raised to believe it HAS TO be in order to be worth loving. I am deeply ashamed to admit that there are times I consider and even plan killing myself because I can no longer live with the pressure and shame surrounding the size of my body. I have had these suicidal thoughts in response to my own body hatred since I was a young teenager. I rarely admit them because they are SO shameful; so self-obsessed; so petty and vain and foolish. But the emotional pain of not being good enough is truly that intense; truly, THAT unbearable.
It is only dawning on me now that the emotional pain comes from my father’s own vanity; my father’s lessons about what makes a woman worthy of love. I simply cannot be what my father taught me to be. I simply am not capable of being the woman my father thought was valuable and worth loving.
Hearing me say this, reader, I know you’re thinking, “good! What your father taught you was wrong!” Thank you for thinking this. You are right. But, he was still my father – the only father I will ever have – and to feel deeply in my bones that I am unlovable in his eyes, that I always was unlovable and always will be unlovable is heart-wrenchingly painful. Even with my smart mind and heart screaming at me: “YOU ARE LOVEABLE. YOU ARE WORTHY. EVERYTHING HE TAUGHT YOU WAS BULLSHIT,” my bones, my body, my deepest sense of self is wracked by the emotional pain of this realization that I will never be worthy of his love, according to the rules given to me in childhood.
Once, as a full-grown adult, my father picked me up for some family event. As I got closer to the car, he said, “your hair actually looks pretty nice today!” This was the closest he ever got to complementing my appearance. My niece – who was in her late teens at the time – got into the back seat of the car with me as my father gushed about how gorgeous she looked. There was something gross and enraging and depressing about all of this to me – and now I understand it. His non-compliment was another reminder to me that I was the worst thing any woman could be, in his opinion, “ugly.” His gushing over my niece’s beauty was a reminder that he judged women by how much they resembled the desirable porn goddesses that he tucked tightly in his stack of magazines under his bed. The reason this made me feel gross and angry was that MY FATHER – my NIECE’S GRANDFATHER – was judging her based on how sexually desirable she was in his eyes. And yet, however insane this sounds, it made me achingly sad that he did not find me sexually desirable – because I knew that meant I did not have any value to him.
Humans are complex creatures and the human mind and heart is a vast and contradictory tangle of thoughts and feelings that is usually just too much to understand – even for those of us who try desperately. I don’t know if it is possible to free myself for good and forever from my deep need for my father’s love. I do know that since I never really received it, I have spent most of my life pretending as though I never wanted it in the first place. Sour grapes. The easiest coping mechanism. But if I am ever going to reconcile who I am and who I want to be with the lesson’s my father taught me, I must first admit that I did and I do desperately want my father’s love and approval. Desperately.
It is obvious to me now that this desperate desire for his love and approval is a huge part of what has driven me to dieting and weight loss and into my eating disorder again and again and again throughout my life. Every single time has been an attempt to make myself into a woman who is worthy of love.
Logic tries hard to scream at me in this moment: YOU ARE ALREADY WORTHY OF LOVE!
I hear logic and I agree, logically. This is what I believe, deeply, for everyone one else in this world. I want to believe it for me too. I have tried and tried to believe it. But I have to admit that I still don’t. I still feel, in my bones, that I am unworthy. I am unworthy according to my father. I am unworthy of my father’s love, according to his definition of what makes a woman worthy. And in this admission, I am left with a choice: Either I go back into the eating disorder and I try again to gain his approval, to shape myself into the porn goddess he wanted me to be OR I stand, in my mother’s body, demanding to be seen as worthy of love exactly as I am. I know there is only one real choice but that choice is so much harder and requires so much more courage. That one choice – to demand that I am worthy in my mother’s body – means disobeying my father and betraying my father’s teachings. I have done many many hard things in my life – and I am afraid – so afraid – that THIS may be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do yet.