“Just leave me alone for a minute, okay!” My 11-year-old daughter is distressed as she holds back tears and slams her bedroom door. We’re getting ready to see the traveling production of Wicked. She’s been looking forward to it for weeks, and now she’s stifling tears of frustration and confusion alone in her room because she wants to dress up but none of the clothes she likes are fitting the way she wants.
“Ugghh! Nothing is right!” She groans after a handful of hopeful attempts just before she shuts herself in her room.
The familiarity of that feeling hits me like a gut punch. When your body has changed and nothing feels in your control and you think you’ll just give up and not go out even though this is something you really want to do and you know that once you’re there it will be so fun and worth it. But only if you can find something to wear.
Sometimes having a body feels like torture.
A few years ago I sat at a hotel pool with my mom and my sister-in-law as we watched our four small girls swim and play. My family had come to watch me defend my doctoral dissertation and we celebrated together by staying at the hotel near campus with the pool we liked. Over the 10 years it took me to finish my doctoral coursework, this hotel had become one of our sacred places, with rooms that opened right up to the indoor pool making it an easy place for me to work while the kids swam safely in close view. I had both my daughters while earning a PhD. I’d secured a coveted position as a teaching assistant in my department and managed to maintain an active research project and every single moment was full. I navigated complicated relationships during that time and parented on my own for parts of it. It was difficult, to say the least, but so worth the eventual payoff. Neither of my parents had gone to college but now, here we were, all of us gathered to celebrate an end goal I wasn’t always sure I’d achieve. It was surreal.
I was running on exhaustion and adrenaline as I jumped into the pool with my two daughters and my two nieces, all under the age of nine at the time. When my mom and sister-in-law found a table to relax at by the pool, I hurried out of the water to meet them. I climbed out and quickly grabbed a towel to wrap around my waist, leaving my hair to drip, using the towel to cover more than absorb as I pulled up a chair to join them. Before I’d even settled in, my sister-in-law began to speak.
“That’s something I’ve always admired about you!”
At first I was sure she couldn’t be talking to me. I’d known her for almost 10 years, almost exactly as long as I’d been in a doctoral program, and I could count on half a hand how many times she’s said something kind to me. It’s okay. Some of it I deserve and some of it I don’t, and all of it I have learned to accept. When I realized she was looking right at me, I lit up in anticipation of the praise she was about to shower on me. Even she’s proud of me? Again, surreal.
She continued, “The way you’ll just get in a swimsuit in public anytime. Like you don’t even care what you look like. No matter where we are, you’ll just put your swimsuit on and be comfortable. I couldn’t do it. I am not at all swimsuit ready!” Then she laughed.
It wasn’t a dig, but it certainly wasn’t the acclaim I was expecting. My mom looks at me too with a sweet, proud smile and suddenly I’m overwhelmed with frustration for both of them. This is what we’re celebrating today? A 40-year-old woman with two kids put on a swimsuit? In public? She’s not even bikini-ready! But she did it anyway and just got right out there. Look at how brave she is! She also just completed a 200-page manuscript of original research that took almost a decade to collect and analyze and then successfully defended it to become a “Dr.” But do you see her? She just doesn’t care at all what she looks like! What a hero.
“Wait, you guys.” I know I should ignore it. Just make a joke and move on, but there are things I’ve wanted to say to them for so long.
‘You think I’m in my swimsuit right now because I’m comfortable in it?” I’m not comfortable. I’m a little cold and honestly, I could use a nap. But my kids came here to swim and I love doing that with them. I’m not even sure if I shaved my legs well enough. Or at all. Of course, that’s not comfortable for me, but look at those kids. Do you see how much fun they’re having? I put on my swimsuit and get in the pool because I want them to know they should always have that much fun. I want them to know that their bodies aren’t for people to look at. Their bodies are for playing and experiencing joy and being strong and accomplishing their dreams! They aren’t just on display the minute they decide to put on a swimsuit, no matter how old they are. Also . . . it’s fun!”
I’m worked up, but also relieved. It feels good that such a genuine moment has led us here and maybe we can finally have a real conversation about our bodies and they will both finally open up about why they are so uncomfortable with theirs and then maybe they’ll both get in their swimsuits or shorts or whatever will put them at ease and they will get in the pool to play and celebrate.
“Right!” My mom chimes in with enthusiasm. “And there’s not even anyone here to see you, so it’s not like it matters.”
I realize just how ingrained body image is and that today is not the day we will make progress. I get back in the pool.
In my lifetime, my mom and I have been closer than any other mother-daughter duo I’ve known, with the kind of rare and deep connection that made my friends envious. Everybody wanted a mom like mine. She was sharp and fun and beautiful. She had strong, sometimes polarizing opinions, but she was generous with her love and resources. She was different from other moms. One time, in the ’70s, Kris Kristofferson rushed to get in an elevator with her in a hotel in Northern California, and staring, smiling he said, ‘Wow, what a look.” She told him thank you and got out on the next floor without looking back. My mom was cooler than almost anyone.
She also had a history of trauma and stress that she only really talked about with me. She was nearly incapable of experiencing vulnerability and somewhere along the way she learned to never ask for help. She built a life around avoiding both things. Among the highest ranks of risky vulnerabilities for my mom was her body. More specifically, the thinness of her body.
My entire life, I never saw her in a swimsuit without something covering her. I was the person who knew all her secrets and all her regrets, and I never once saw any of her body exposed from the knees up to the shoulders. Even in dressing rooms, she would make me turn away when she changed. When she got dressed at home she did it in complete privacy. So did I. Because I have such strikingly similar features to hers, I have both of our faces memorized. I know about the identical moles on our right shoulders, wrists, and forearms. I know the older I get the more I resemble her. But I’ve never known what her legs look like above the knee — if the dimply skin on my thighs, even when I’m as toned as I can get, is inherited from her. Hers was always hidden. I got the sense, my whole life, that there was something very different about me for not covering mine up, too. Looking back, I think she did consider it an act of bravery that I was willing to expose parts of myself. But what I’m beginning to realize is that it wasn’t done out of courage. It was an act of vulnerability. And for my mom, that was the hardest thing to do.
When we talked about our bodies it was primarily about keeping them thin. She wasn’t overly, outwardly focused on it, but I always understood that it was a priority. The message was internalized early on — some things are worth risking for the sake of thinness. She was always teaching me life lessons, her advice so often meaningful and important. One thing she’d remind me — “if you want to be skinny, you have to be hungry.” It echoed in my head, especially during the times in my life when I’d cycle into long periods of starving myself to stay in control of my thinness. It took years of learning to connect with my body in non-evaluative ways, like yoga and walking practice, to break those cycles. It took even longer to develop a relationship with food that wasn’t terrifying. I was only able to by noticing the way my healthier friends existed around food, and finally feeling safe enough with them to admit that I did not know how to eat, and ask if they could help me. It changed my life. Realizing I needed help and then asking the people around me for it was a radical act for a person who’d learned to avoid it at all costs.
In February 2020, just a couple of weeks before a global pandemic brought the world to a halt, our little world had already stopped. My mom died in her sleep on a Sunday night, just hours after we had all been gathered at her house for another kind of celebration. She was insistent that she would throw a Frozen 2 party for her granddaughters. We spent that day together, snuggled up in her living room, eating pizza and pie, watching the movie. She complained of a headache all day and when any of us would ask what we could do to help, she brushed us off and went back to hosting. She sent us all home that evening happy and full, the girls each with a new Elsa doll and the movie downloaded on their tablets. We lived just down the street and saw my mom and dad several times a week, but every time we pulled away, not even out of their driveway yet, my oldest daughter would say “I miss Gramma already.” Maybe she was preparing for the day she’d say it for good.
My mom threw us a party while she was privately dying, fed us and cared for us, and never asked for help. There is no way to untangle her need for thinness from her inability to let herself be vulnerable enough to ask for help. Growing up, she would tell me the story of how she gained about 15 pounds the summer after high school. People noticed and were unkind. When you are thin and beautiful you get attention for it. My mom hated attention. She would often say she wished she could walk around with a paper bag on her head. She didn’t want people to look at her. She hated being judged. She’d heard somewhere that smoking was a way to lose weight and so it became her weight-loss habit. Then her lifelong addiction. The times she tried to quit were painful because of the physical withdrawal, but also because the thought of gaining any weight at all made her panic. So did going to the doctor. So did admitting when she was struggling and asking for support. So did aging. She had us all prepared for the day when she would get “too old” and would “walk out to sea” so she didn’t have to face it anymore. She had a heart attack in her sleep when she was 71 without a single outward sign of disease. No bad cholesterol, no high blood pressure. Not even a sore back, but even if she did have any signs we wouldn’t have known. She wouldn’t have told us. All of these human moments in a life — the vulnerable ones that require us to reach beyond ourselves and allow others to guide and support us — were unendurable for a person like my mom. The most loving and strong-willed person, who couldn’t bear the vulnerability of her own body, forever putting it on the line to protect herself from her insecurities.
My daughter comes out of her room just a few minutes after she’s closed herself in. She’s a little puffy but I can see the light back in her eyes. I’ve laid a selection of outfits across my bed that I know will fit her well. She chooses one and, without hesitation, changes into it in the middle of my room with her little sister and me sitting in the bed reading a book together.
“Oh, that one is beautiful!” My youngest daughter shouts once the look is complete with a soft-pink floral sweater.
I ask her if she wants to borrow my white ankle boots and vintage pearl earrings and a smile stretches across her face.
“Hey, guys? I’m sorry about earlier. I just got really overwhelmed and didn’t like the way I felt in my clothes. My body feels weird today. I didn’t even mean to yell at you.” We watch her tenseness melt away completely.
I give her a hug and tell her I understand. I tell her that my body feels weird all the time and that it makes me emotional sometimes too, but allowing ourselves to feel it and say it seems to make it a little easier to cope. It takes away the power it might have over us if we hold it in and hide from it. I tell her that sometimes when our emotions take over like that it can be a good time to ask for help from someone you trust. She nods in agreement.
Before we leave she runs back into her room, this time re-emerging quickly and with excitement.
“One more thing!” She says as she turns to have me clasp the antique gold and ruby locket my mom had given her for her eighth birthday.
“Thanks, Mommy.” She leans into me for a quick embrace and we head out for our night together.
We’re still learning things from my mom, building on the things she did and didn’t know. The things she could and couldn’t do. Embracing her imperfections as we embrace our own, asking each other for help whenever we can.•