“Well, you should be skin and bones at this point.”
My mother says this as she marvels at my activity around the house, in the yard, as she has many times since we moved her in with us last year. I am her child, but it’s only recently that she’s had the opportunity to actually know who I am.
“It’s hard to believe you’re not just bones, move, move, move. Run, run, run. You’re making me tired just watching you!”
Mom is ninety years old now. In the last few years, little things that we take for granted as younger folks had started to get a little more difficult for her to handle on her own, a blow for a woman who had been fiercely independent her whole life. As much as she could be, that is, with the expectations placed upon her by circumstance and the timeline she was born into. And especially independent out of necessity since my father had passed in 1981.
But she had begun to find some of the day-to-day tasks, tasks which used to come easy to her, nearly impossible complete unassisted, and her eyes, as she says, aren’t working so well anymore. Driving had become a challenge. Giving up some independence to move in with her daughter and son-in-law ultimately had to be her idea, and after a couple close calls – much too close for someone who lives a six hour drive away from us – she finally decided to take us up on our proposal that maybe she should be a little closer to us. Preferably under the same roof.
“You work so hard You’re always moving,” she exclaimed as I tried to fit what should have been three days of labor, household chores we had put off in the hectic past month or so, into the two hours I had before heading off to work.
“Yup, busy busy,” I chuckled, a bead of perspiration rolling down my right cheek, my sweaty shirt sticking to me.
“Well you SHOULD be skin and bones by now.”
She said this again…approvingly? She was praising me, the work I do around the home we now share, and the work I do once I leave the house for my job, which she also commented on regularly. She was proud of me.
Her voice also carried a tinge of disappointment; maybe she was disappointed FOR me, because obviously I should be much happier if I were, in fact, skin and bones. She would be happier for me.
“You work so hard, you both do,” she went on, shaking her head.
“Only when I have to,” I joked.
I did appreciate this unsolicited acknowledgment from my mother. I was never one to seek out approval from her, but her words felt good nonetheless. It was interesting for both of us to become acquainted with each other on a level that you don’t truly maintain with adult parents, or, later, your adult children when you live lives separated by geography and by never enough hours in each day.
“Oh I know it’s not just when you have to, but I guess you always have been a hard worker, haven’t you? That’s just how you’re built.”
I’ve always worked, even worked hard on occasion, sure. I’ve also always carried extra weight on my body. That is, in fact, just how I’m built. And my mother has oft reminded me of this fact, as if I might forget. It’s always been framed in a way that sounded like concern, though, never intentionally cruel. Concern for my weight. Concern for my appearance at whatever level of “too heavy” I was. And it was never concern for my health so much, just that my body always looked better to her, to everyone who would reflexively comment on a temporary weight loss of mine (keep it up!) when I was starving myself to a more acceptable size.
These comments about my body have been a constant in my life. “Oh, you must be off your diet,” would be the first words out of her mouth, for instance, when I’d fly home for a visit to my mother from where I had been living in California.
Off my diet. The diet I was on more often than not since junior high, long after the first time I actually felt fatter than acceptable; that would have been in the fourth grade.
The diet when I was nine years old and in ballet lessons to get rid of my “poochy belly,” that was directed by my dance instructor.
The diet that was always in the forefront of my mind every time I took a bite of absolutely anything that wasn’t lettuce, though I’d be thinking about “the diet” then as well. How could I not?
The diet my mom said the doctor put me on when I was nine months old. “You were such a chubby little baby! Beautiful but so chubby! The doctor made me feed you skim milk instead of whole milk to slim you down.”
The diet that it seems I’ve been on since my introduction to this planet where I was expected to take up less space than I did.
“Thanks, mom, nice to see you, too,” I’d say shaking my head and walking into the house past her to put my travel bag down on the floor.
“I can see it in your face,” she comments to the back of my head,”it just looks a little fuller. That’s where I always see it first when you gain the weight back.”
Yes, I can see it, too, mom. In my face and yours.
“Little broad in the butt,” she’d say playfully, slapping me on the rump as she’d follow me up a flight of stairs. I’d pretend it didn’t bother me.
My mother is a small woman. Not tiny, but naturally just smaller than me. Even at a point in my late teens and early twenties where I was “thin for me” and we wore essentially the same size clothing, due to our differing frames (I took more after my father’s side of the family), I would still weigh a cool twenty pounds more her. I’ve always been sturdy, muscled. She’s always been slighter, finding the muscle definition in my legs and arms to be somewhat alien. My mother was delicate where I was, as my brother had said once, built like a “brick shithouse.”
“Where did THAT come from,” she’d asked incredulously the summer before I started high school while reaching over and poking at a quadricep that revealed itself through my thick, tanned, fresh-from-cheerleading camp thigh. “I don’t have that,” she’d declare, raising an eyebrow as she shrugged at my body and turned back to filling out a crossword puzzle and snacking on her butterscotch candies. I’d grab a rice cake and a diet cola in my constant yet futile effort to shrink my 14 year old body to a more acceptable size.
She would poke the extra flesh on my midsection. “Can you pinch an inch?” She’d snicker, mimicking the cereal commercial’s newest slogan crafted to shame ladies into buying their lower calorie breakfast option.
I could and then some.
Funny enough, my mother never gave me a hard time about how much or even what foods I ate, because, while still at home, I generally dined from the same groceries as she did, though she’s always been more of a sweet tooth than I. To this day, the woman eats like a ravenous teenager, preferring processed foods and dessert over vegetables.
It’s pretty amusing, actually, when I do her shopping along with ours now that she resides with us. I keep all of her items separate for bagging because her kitchenette is in a separate part of the house, and I generally have the same lighthearted conversation with whoever is working the checkstand on any given day, in part because my mother’s choice of sustenance, when we’re not forcing her to eat broccoli or a salad now and again, consists of such delicacies as microwave corn dogs, vanilla sandwich cookies, gummy bears, and various full-sugar sodas.
And partly because, as a woman who, as I have for most of my adult life, weighs over 200 pounds, I am keenly aware of judgement from thinner folk policing on one level or another what fat bodies consume, while thin bodies can exist on a diet of nothing but canned nacho cheese sauce and cigarettes and no one will be “concerned for their health” due the size of their much smaller clothing.
“Yeah, see this? Not for me. It’s for my elderly mother if can you believe that. And she’s ninety, so, you know…she gets to eat whatever she wants. She’s earned it.”
I have not earned it, I imply, when I say that. I’m only really grasping that now as I write this. I have not “earned” the “right” to eat certain food items even though they may sound appetizing depending on my mood. I wonder number on the scale earns that right? What dress size precisely?
I can’t help but feel that if someone looks at me, a woman who is, according to every comment section on the internet, a “fatty”, and then looks at a shopping cart full of junk food, they will assume that I bring this fat body on myself and that I will probably soon die of some stigma-wrought disease that will be “my fault” like diabetes, when in reality, the mouth that will devour all of this shit is attached to a 120 pound nonagenarian that will probably still be diabetes-free and chowing down on processed crap until she’s well past a century old. She shows no signs of slowing down.
Meanwhile, my portion of the shopping cart is generally filled with organic or otherwise “healthy” food with no preservative-guaranteed shelf life and a metric ton of fresh produce. Because, honestly, what’s what my body requires as regular fuel to function. If I ate like my mother, I’d feel like absolute shit. I know this because sometimes, when I “treat myself” to shitty food, I feel like I was backed over by a truck. And, as my mother pointed out, I’m always doing something, I work hard, physically work hard, and I have to fuel myself, at least more often than not, with better fuel than gummy bears and high fructose corn syrup to function correctly.
I’m better these days about most of it, the self-loathing and frustration regarding the size of my body that is never quite thin enough for someone at any given moment, letting my mother’s well-intentioned but stinging comments roll off my back, the permission I give myself to leave behind the dieting, the fretting over calories, which has done nothing but fuck up my metabolism and make me fit into a slightly smaller size clothing for a month at a time, sometimes as many as three months on a good stretch. I’m better about not tumbling into a guilt-spiral if I eat something that might elicit side-eye from someone “concerned” about the breadth of my ass.
But I still find myself needing to make that disclaimer at the store more often than I don’t, to bring it up via witty banter with the checker who is always entertained and commiserates with me that, if they ate that way, their heart would probably stop, and what a marvel it is that my mother is ninety years old and so healthy. And, to be honest, “skin and bones.” It’s a habit that makes me feel I have at least a modicum of control, perhaps heading off judgment that should mean nothing to me.
I turn to my mother.
“Mom, maybe I should be skin and bones, but I’m not, you know? At this rate, it really doesn’t look like I’m ever going to be. That’s ok. Really.” At the moment, I mean it.
My mom pauses, and it’s clear that she’s a bit taken aback. She loves me, of that I have zero doubt. It isn’t her intention to fat-shame her adult child, the comments coming only as second nature to a woman who has always felt too fat herself most of her life, occasionally regaling me with stories of her one attempt at bulimia (“I got scrambled eggs stuck in my nose, it was terrible. Never again”), or how she was hooked on diet pills, which were basically just speed, in the 1960s (“Never was my house so clean! I never slept, but I had to give that up…that was tough”). A woman who has never been heavier than 140 pounds in her life, but, because of “how it is” never quite felt thin enough. And she just wanted that “enough” for me, no matter how unattainable it was due to my natural build, and not realizing how deflating her well-meaning encouragement to shrink could be.
“Oh, well…no, I guess not. And you’re a beautiful young woman.”
I start to say thank you.
“But of course my eyes aren’t working so well anymore, so who knows…”
“You’re just fine though.”