We were getting ready to go out. My dad was in the bathroom down the hall and my mom was in the bedroom fresh from a shower. I was eight years old and sat on the bed telling her about my day as she began to dress herself. My parent’s shared laundry basket was in the corner of the room and my mom grabbed a pair of jeans hanging over the edge. Balancing, she stepped her left leg through and then her right. As she pulled the jeans up a struggle began just over her knees. She jumped up and down, twisting the top back and forth, almost falling over, but they wouldn’t budge past her thighs. The whole scene was sending me into a fit of giggles. That’s when we both realized she had grabbed my dad’s jeans by accident.
That sent me into full blown laughter. My dad yelled down the hall, “What’s so funny in there?” I could tell he was smiling. We both loved a good laugh. As I attempted to tell him, my mother begged me in a hushed voice “Please don’t Erica, please.” I didn’t understand. Why was she always so serious? “Dad, you gotta see this! Mom tried to put your jeans on!” My dad flew out of the bathroom and into the bedroom. “How’d that work out for you?” he said to my mom laughing. I turned to look at my mom who was now sitting on the bed taking the jeans off from around her ankles, her head hanging down, avoiding eye contact with either of us. I immediately stopped laughing. As he continued to tease her I realized that the humor we saw in this situation was coming from very different places.
Although they rarely talk about it, my parents both had difficult upbringings. Neither of them learned how to deal with emotion very well and healthy communication was almost nonexistent in our household as a result. They both played out patterns witnessed in their childhoods. My dad obsessed over trying to make things look picture perfect. My mother battled with depression and became more detached and unpredictable the harder he pushed for that perfection. One of the most obvious ways this dynamic played out was through my mother’s physical appearance, namely her weight.
It was hard to ignore my dad’s mockery of anyone that looked unattractive in his eyes. His fear of being judged by others made him more judgmental of everyone else, especially my mom. She already struggled with body image and the pressure to look like she was supposed to became overwhelming. I remember the Weight Watcher’s meetings in the basement of the Lutheran church, the freezer stocked with low-cal dinners, and endless weigh-ins on the scale at home. The upswings when she would lose a few pounds followed by the deep sadness when the weight came back. She battled with food. She battled with what she saw in the mirror. She battled with loving who she was. Without knowing it, I was also was learning to battle these things. My father saw all of this as weakness and a lack of will power – just get over it and fix it. I learned to see it this way too.
For a long time, I struggled with how I looked. I battled with loving who I was. I analyzed every part of my physical appearance. I was terrified of ever gaining weight because it would mean I was weak. It was exhausting to be so involved with how I looked. It demanded constant attention and weaved its way into every part of my life. It also distracted me from other issues that were harder to see and harder to control. A few years ago I recognized this and I realized that I was just perpetuating the story I had witnessed growing up. I needed to break the cycle.
It took time. It took looking deep inside and seeing that real beauty existed within. I had to get naked from the inside out before I was able to really see myself. I no longer look in the mirror and agonize over my jiggly butt or rogue body hairs. I no longer curse my genes for giving me fine hair or veiny legs. I am imperfect and I am beautiful.
These days I think more and more about the children I will have. I think about what I want to teach them. Not the things I will say to them, but the things they will learn by watching me. I realize that I cannot hide how I feel about myself or my body. If I feel shame I will teach shame. If I feel love I will teach love. The choice is mine.