I don’t have any children, but I have two nieces who are the love of my life.
Bella is almost ten. She has the loveliest warm eyes, a smattering of freckles across her nose that she doesn’t like but I think is the cutest thing ever, a wickedly sardonic sense of humor even at her age, and an enthusiasm for life that bubbles right through her emails. (We have become pen pals since she got an email account.)
Maddie is almost seven. She has blonde hair like my brother did at her age, and is breathtakingly fearless – she will jump into any activity without a second (or even first) thought. She loves to make faces, scream, make noise, make herself heard. She has a fashion sense that has nothing to do with prescription and is pure self-expression.
My family, as many families are wont to do, makes comparisons between the generations. There is a picture of my brother Jeremy when he was young that Maddie used to think was a picture of her, they looked so much alike at the same ages. The family lore also says that they have the same personality – Jeremy was the daredevil while I was the bookworm, and Bella and Maddie are seen in the same way.
Bella looks a great deal like me, to the point where she has been mistaken for my daughter in public. She also has many of the characteristics that my family liked to note in me at her age: she’s clumsy in comparison to Maddie’s dexterity, she reads and writes beyond her age level, she can sometimes get caught up in her head and not notice what’s going on outside of it. Her parents even call her Mini Auntie Claudia, particularly when she’s just tripped over something.
It is an interesting experience watching my nieces grow up, one that is often poignant. At Bella’s age, she is already starting to show some signs of puberty – like me in childhood, she is not just above average in her intelligence and skills, but in height and weight for her age.
It is hard for me to remember when I was first scrutinized for eating, when I was first put on a diet, because I was so young that I can’t be sure. I have strong family memories that help me put it in some context: one of my first is of eating some Doritos at a party my parents threw and my father scolding me for not needing them in front of all his friends. I was about five, if I remember correctly.
When I was six, my grandmother bought me a shirt and told me I could have it only if I lost ten pounds. My mind boggles now at the sheer cognitive overload such a request was at that age, but then I really just wanted that shirt. It was navy blue with long sleeves, and had a Noah’s Arc scene embroidered on the chest and the arms, and I loved the animals. I also hadn’t the faintest idea how to lose ten pounds. She eventually got disgusted with my lack of willpower and gave me the shirt anyway. The animals had lost their charm at that point.
When I was eight, my mother gave me a diet book and told me to start following it. I don’t remember the name of it, but I can picture it vividly in my head. It was bright yellow, and had before and after pictures of kids from fat camp. I remember it had recipes requiring copious amounts of saccharine, exhortations to think of spaghetti as bloody worms so you wouldn’t want to eat it, and suggestions to tie bags of frozen peas to your ankles in lieu of weights for leg lifts (this particular technique was supposed to give me the shapely legs of an ice skater.)
(My mother still has that book on the bookshelf in her bedroom. I want to take it from the shelves and set that fucker on fire.)
Meanwhile, my mother still cooked the way she always did. I don’t blame her for that one bit; we had little money, my father is an incredibly fussy and inflexible eater, and feeding a family is hard. (Hell, I find it hard enough in my family of two.) But I was eight, and told to make that diet work for me, while nothing in my environment changed. At the same time, I remember coming home from the third grade one day after one of those dreaded public weigh-ins, and my parents demanded that I tell them how much I weighed. I laid face first on the kitchen floor with my head in my hands and wouldn’t say a word as my father shouted, “I bet you weigh as much as your mother!”
Writing about this, I notice an urge to downplay how much it hurt me. Other people have had it worse, right? My mother’s mother (of the shirt bribe) was an alcoholic, and I grew up hearing stories of how abusive and chaotic the household was. (My mother often couldn’t hear me when I talked about what was hurting me, because hey, at least I didn’t have to raise my siblings and clean up vomit from my drunken mother.) Even the body shaming could have been so much worse. I remember reading an account of a woman whose father would give her a lashing for every pound she didn’t lose toward her “goal” weight. So this makes me feel in some ways like a whiny little baby for even talking about it with any kind of gravity.
But then I look at Bella, living so happily in a body so much like mine at that age, and the idea of her undergoing any of that shame or self-hatred crushes me, in a way I couldn’t feel it for myself.
I look at Bella and Maddie, and I want a different life for them. They are so vibrant, so carefree and alive and at home in their bodies and their personalities and their right to exist and take up space and be noticed. I know this isn’t an easy world for girls, and that they will have darker things to deal with as they get older, pressures to hide their light lest they shine too brightly. But I want them to have a fighting chance.
I have never talked to my brother about weight or food, not really. He went through an anorexic phase in his teens so I know he didn’t get out unscathed either, but our family is good at avoiding talking seriously about, well, anything. The idea of talking to him scares me, feels like making myself vulnerable in a way I’m not used to showing him. But I think about saying to him, see what was done to me, and how long it has taken me to feel worthy or valuable, to eat and love and live without shame. Use my experiences to help your daughters avoid that same pain.
As for me, I’m just going to keep being fat Auntie Claudia, loving my nieces with everything I’ve got.