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'I was body-shamed by my mum at 12 years old. It changed my relationship with my self-image forever.'

This post deals with eating disorders and might be triggering for some readers. 

I don’t remember what was said before or after, but I remember my mother saying this: “That’s why you’re so f*cking fat.”

We were at a campground, on a family vacation. I had been taking too long in the shower, according to her, and she’d come to get me so that we could go do whatever excursion she’d scheduled for that day.

The topic of my body had no place in the conversation that I can recall. But, still, there it was. (There it always is, really.) I vaguely remember her commenting on my food choices from the previous evening, but 24 years later I’ve no idea what I ate that night or how much.

What I remember very clearly is my mother telling 12-year-old me I was fat.

That one sentence confirmed all of the fundamental fears I had about myself.

I was fat. Fat was bad. Therefore, I was bad.

Ugly. Undesirable.

Unlovable.

Watch: How you can improve your daughter’s body image. Post continues after video.

Video by Mamamia

I wanted to be a big kid.

When I was about four or five, I heard that someone I knew was a “big kid” because they weighed 60 lbs (27kgs). It became my mission, then, to reach 60 lbs, too.

Who knows why. I always wanted to be older than I was. Maybe I thought if I weighed as much as a “big kid,” I’d be seen somehow as older and more legitimate.

I didn’t know what “fat” was at the time, or that, in general, girls didn’t usually set out to gain weight in order to be accepted and loved.

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It only took until kindergarten for me to achieve the 60-lb mark. Maybe it was because of something I did, or maybe it was destined to be that way from the start.

Either way, I remember the day I stepped on the scale and the first digit was a six. I was elated.

Soon afterwards, though, my babysitter told me — somewhat gleefully — that I was too heavy to use the swing set because the posts would lift off the ground and it would create a dangerous situation for the other, smaller children. I couldn’t use the glider either, because the weight limit was 50 lbs, not 60.

By the time I entered first grade, I had become ultra-conscious of my weight. I remember having a nightmare before school started that year, where an older kid made fun of me for the size of my butt.

Call it déjà vu, but that very situation actually occurred at recess on the first day of school. I can still remember climbing on the domed jungle gym, wearing shorts and a t-shirt over my sun-kissed, completely and totally average first-grade-girl body, and hearing the second-grade boy laugh with his friend about my chub.

My cheeks flushed as I jumped down from the apparatus and ran to another area of the playground; tears streaked down my cheeks as I stutter-slid down the slide, my bare legs catching on the metal surface.

Having relatively little capacity for forethought, while I often considered the softness of my body, I did very little to counteract its growth during elementary school. But, in fifth grade, I entered a new world — a world where it mattered what I looked like, and how much body fat I had, and how many boys liked me.

And, also, I had a mum who was telling me how fat I was.

eating disorder cause
Me, age 17. Image: Supplied
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Spoiler: I wasn’t fat. I didn’t get fat until much, much later in my life. But I sure as sh*t thought I was, even when I was so skinny that, in retrospect, I wonder why no one ever sat me down and asked what the hell was going on.

My mother has likely forgotten her words, but the consequences linger.

I didn’t turn to anorexia or bulimia during this period in my life; we had learned extensively about those in school, and, while this may have been the only thing I took away from health class, I knew firmly that I wanted nothing to do with an eating disorder.

I developed one, anyway — one we’d never talked about in school.

I did stimulants when I could get my hands on them. I relished in the hollow feeling I got after not eating for 24 or 48 hours, and also in the relatively small quantities of food I was able to consume after such spells.

I binged whenever I felt like it. I’d scour the cabinets for the most highly-processed food out there, eating three or four Hostess cupcakes followed by a box of bacon-flavoured crackers and a handful of Hershey’s mini candy bars (one or two — okay, four — of each kind, of course). When one of my parents would ask what happened to the crackers, I’d just stare at them and shrug.

Finally, there was the never-ending search for the person who would tell me that I was beautiful and perfect, just as I was — a search which brought me to many dark places, alienating friends along the way.

The best way to summarize the impact of my mother’s words is to repeat the refrain I’ve thought hundreds of times since that day at the showers: “I’m already fat, so what’s the point?”

If the person who was charged with taking care of me — with making me feel safe and loved in the world — could judge me so harshly when I hadn’t even been aware of doing anything wrong, then what was the use of even trying to take care of myself?

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No, it was much easier to self-destruct and pretend it had been the plan all along.

Handle words carefully.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from growing up the way I did, it’s that the words of a parent — even those words she doesn’t remember speaking — can have a lasting impact on her child. And from interrogating my past, I know that it’s impossible to predict which words a child will latch onto and incorporate into her identity.

For this reason, I try to be thoughtful about what I say and how I say it, and how I demonstrate love and value for my children. And body image is one place where our messages get tricky.

Obsess too much, and I risk my child going off the deep end when the reins are released. Give too little guidance, and my child might make unhealthy choices. Talk about it too much, and they might assume I’m making a judgment. Talk about it too little, and I might miss an opportunity to answer questions or clear up misconceptions.

It’s complicated, and I don’t have it all figured out.

One of my daughters is a tall, lean athlete who subsists on fruits and vegetables. The other is thicker, and she would rather have a slice of pizza and an ice cream sundae than be in the same room with a broccoli floret.

Yet, different as they are, and despite the fact that the world insists on screaming contradictions at every turn, I try to send them both a consistent message.

Through education and example, they both learn that all different body types are beautiful and valuable, and they understand that a balanced diet keeps a body healthy. I also try to be matter-of-fact about my own body as I struggle with my own weight and health issues, stemming from my long history of self-sabotage.

I don’t comment on my children’s bodies.

If they do happen to comment on their bodies, though, I am the first to tell them that those 60-lb bodies are perfect just as they are.

For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email [email protected]. You can also visit their website, here.  

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission. 

Nikki is a career educator from Massachusetts, USA. She's passionate about social and educational equity as well as children's rights and mental health empowerment. When she's not writing at the local independent coffee house, she can be found lifting weights, playing fetch with her pup, or trying her wits at an escape room. She lives with her partner and children just outside Boston. You can follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook: @NikkiKayAuthor.

Feature Image: Supplied.