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Is Avoiding My Body Issues an Issue?

Is Avoiding My Body Issues an Issue?

The sweet spot

After being raised by a mother who hates her own body, a reader wonders how to instill a healthy attitude toward food in her own daughter — and herself.

CreditHeidi Younger

By Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond

Dear Sugars,

I’m the overweight 42-year-old child of a tiny mother who hates her own body. She has always attributed moral value to weight. I know I’ve lost weight when she exclaims how “healthy” I look. I know I’ve gained weight when she “encourages” me to exercise. (I’m a fit gymgoer.) I watch as she congratulates friends who are three weeks postpartum on how it looks as if they were never pregnant. I see the constant calculations she does around “good” and “bad” food, both for herself and others.

For a long time, I thought I’d escaped her obsession because I refused to monitor, calculate or obsess over food. I prided myself on eating what I liked, when I liked. But recently I’ve realized that what I’ve actually done is swing to the other end of the spectrum. Where she obsesses, I avoid. I can’t plan meals because it involves thinking about food. I can’t track food for weight loss because I get highly anxious even writing down what I eat. I don’t binge, but I know that I’m compulsively unthinking about food. Someone recently asked me what sort of food texture I liked best: Crunchy? Smooth? Creamy? Chewy? It saddened me that I didn’t know.

I’ve begun untangling this with the help of a good therapist, but my question is this: How do I repair my relationship to food in the shadow of a mom who will never change the way she understands weight? I want to do this for my 5-year-old daughter. I delight in her own delight in her body. I talk all the talk — she will grow up hearing nothing but pleasure in what our bodies can do, and celebration of health and beauty at every size. I just want to believe in what I tell her.

The Answer Was Crunchy

Steve Almond: I actually think you’re doing everything possible to repair your relationship, both with food and to your own body! Your letter tells us so. You write: I can’t track food for weight loss because I get highly anxious even writing down what I eat. To which I would respond: Bravo! People aren’t meant to track food. They are meant to consume it, both for sustenance and pleasure. Our guests on the podcast this week, Hilary Kinavey and Dana Sturtevant, started their organization, Be Nourished, precisely because so many people (and women in particular) live, like your mother, within the prison of the “diet mind.” Hilary and Dana suggest that people tune out the pathological messages aimed at them by consumer culture — the idea that their value resides in a number on a scale, in virtuous deprivation — and instead tune into their own bodies. This “weight-neutral approach” sounds revolutionary. But it’s completely intuitive, once you silence the sad and greedy voices that equate weight with worth.

Cheryl Strayed: Steve’s right: You’re doing so much so well, Crunchy. You escaped the self-hating value system that your mother and so many others are caught up in — one that tells us that thin equals worthy. That is no small feat. Women and girls are under enormous societal pressure to be thin and that pressure is even harder to bear when a parent also espouses those ideals. The fact that you’ve managed to avoid obsessing over food and body weight leads me to be optimistic that you’ll succeed at answering the deeper questions about your relationship to food that have arisen for you recently. I don’t think it’s a coincidence they’ve come up now, as you watch your daughter grow. The delight you take in her delight in her body is a stark contrast to the messages you received from your mother about your body, and it’s one that likely calls up feelings of anger, hurt and betrayal. I’m sorry your mother wasn’t — and isn’t — able to model and nurture body acceptance for and in you. But the fact that you’re doing that with your own daughter is tremendously good for her — and healing for you.

Listen to ‘Dear Sugars’

What’s really to blame when you fall off of a diet plan? The Sugars Advise.

SA: In the first line of your letter, you call yourself overweight. But that’s your mother talking, Crunchy. The real question is this: Are you happy in your body? And this: Can you trust that body enough to connect to the positive aspects of food? Your mother didn’t give you much help, in terms of modeling, so it may take a bit longer. But that’s your challenge, one that will require a reckoning with your mother. After all, her obsession with food didn’t come from nowhere. I suspect she had a mother — and probably lots of other voices in her head — that convinced her being thin would make her worthy of love. This is the cycle you’re seeking to break, not by reviling your mom, or casting her out of your life, but by recognizing her petty comments and compulsive calculations as symptoms of a sorrow you refuse to inherit. I think you feel bad for your mom, is what I’m saying. She doesn’t trust her body. She hates it. Forgiving her that weakness will allow you to write a different story about your relationship to your body and to food. That’s the one your own daughter will see and learn from.

CS: Keep challenging the false notions about what’s healthy and not. Keep questioning what motivates you to eat and avoid eating. Keep talking to your therapist and loved ones about the tangled web that body shame weaves. Keep exploring what your inclination to be “compulsively unthinking about food” means. And most of all, keep taking pleasure in the food you eat — crunchy, chewy, smooth and creamy. You ask us how you can get to the point where you believe the body positive things you say to your daughter, but I think you already know the answer. It’s to keep remembering that your body isn’t a problem to be solved. It isn’t a product to be displayed or an object to be judged. It’s not separate from who you are. It is who you are. At this size and in that shape at that weight. Beloved.

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