Growing Up With A Fat Phobic Mother

mother holding child at beach

By Susan Colgan

I was nine-years-old when I first went to a Weight Watchers meeting with my mother. She had joined a local group and this was her third or fourth weigh in. I guess there was nobody to babysit me at home so she took me with her. I remember how terrified she was to weigh in. Her face was pale, her hands were shaky and while we were queueing up, she mumbled to herself about how she wished she had worn lighter clothes to be weighed in.

When it was her turn, I held her shoes, her bag and her coat as she tried to shed a few extra pounds before stepping up to the scale. I did this every time I attended a meeting with her. The idea of “weight loss” became a game in my baby brain. One time, I asked the meeting coordinator if I could weigh myself, it was kind of like play pretend. She played along and exclaimed that I was “down 2 pounds” and all the women around me clapped and congratulated me. I loved it, it was make believe. In the game of fighting fat, I had won. It’s only now, as a 21-year-old woman, I know how entirely f’d up the whole situation was.

My mam was never overweight. She was always around a UK size 12 and had what society would see as a fantastic figure for a 30 something-year-old mother. However, she was always dieting–Weight Watchers, The Atkins, Slimming World. I grew up in a household where food was always restricted. We always had the low fat version of everything from bread to milk to butter. I began to follow my mother’s own strict rules regarding food–never accept second helpings of anything, never finish more than half of each meal, avoid sauce where possible.

I get it, some of these tips are great in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. I learned some great healthy eating habits from my mother, I never remember ever stocking fizzy drinks in the house, there was never any chocolatey or sugary cereal, things like crisps and cakes were an absolute no show. But, it didn’t stop there. It became unhealthy. I thought of food as the enemy, always trying to tempt me. I wasn’t taught that I should eat well to stay healthy, but I was taught to avoid being fat (which ultimately meant ugly and unpopular.)

As a teenager, I wondered if my mother thought I was beautiful. I’ve always been heavier, curvier, rounder. I carry a lot of weight in my stomach and hips and I have size E boobs which always made me look bigger. I knew that my mam thought she was fat, and she was half my size. I knew she believed fat was unattractive, and I was fat. I began to notice that she would only ever compliment my looks when I was about to go on a night out, when I’d wear flattering outfits, makeup, Spanx and sucked in my gut for photographs. It was then that I understood that the me that existed at home, in sweatpants and bare faced, was not good enough.

None of this was really my mother’s fault. From reading this you might believe my mother is a bully, a fat-phobic bitch, but she isn’t. She’s my mammy. I know now that she thinks I am the most beautiful thing that God has ever put on this Earth. It’s herself that she thinks is ugly. She measures her self-worth by numbers on a scale, she equates her success to how many dress sizes she has dropped. She never meant to teach me any unhealthy habits, she just never thought I would pick up on them like I have.

It makes me sad to see her so self-conscious. When I see her all dressed up for a birthday or a wedding, I think she looks so beautiful, like a princess. But no matter what I tell her, she will always see herself as less-than. She awkwardly rubs her tummy and asks, “Sue, does this dress give me a belly?” I tell her no of course not, that she looks amazing, but in my mind all I can think is, “yes, you have a belly, we all have a belly, your belly is great, I should know, I lived in there.”  But to even acknowledge the fact that she has a stomach would send her into a tailspin of low self-esteem and restriction.

Therefore, the fault for my own previous negative body image does not lie with my mother, or her mother, or my grandmother’s mother. It lies with society. Society, that tells women they will not find a husband if they’re over 200 pounds. Society, that favours the “before and after” picture. Society, that deceived me into thinking that the models in Vogue were the only acceptable body role models to look up to. Society, that caused my best friend to cry herself to sleep at night for a year because she thought her boyfriend left her for being too fat. Society, that made me decide it was a clever idea to stop eating when I was 16, landing me unconscious in a hospital bed.

As I write this, my mother is downstairs counting up her calories for the day, optimistic due to her four pound weight loss this week. She’s met societal standards for beauty and therefore has never felt more beautiful. She will recommend to me for the third time this week that I should join her current weight loss plan, because she truly believes that I would be happier if I lost 50 pounds. She doesn’t know that her idea of encouragement is my idea of discrimination, but I will say nothing. I will politely tell her again that I don’t feel like joining and continue to praise her on her own success. I know how to speak her language, I have been doing it since I was nine.