Trigger Warning: Discussion of physical and emotional fallout from being starved as a child.
By now, we’ve all heard, and dissected, the story of the Vogue mom, Dara-Lynn Weiss, who put her 7-year-old daughter, Bea, on a diet because the daughter was “too fat.” Quite a few of us responded with outrage that this woman received a book contract about her ordeal of putting her daughter on a year-long diet.
When the story came out, I wanted to write this post, but I couldn’t. This is a very difficult post to write, but one I need to write, and I think some people may need to read. See, I was that daughter. Oh, I am not a 7-year-old girl whose mother writes for Vogue magazine, but I was put on a diet from the time I was 8 until I was 14.
For Bea, the achievement is bittersweet. When I ask her if she likes how she looks now, if she’s proud of what she’s accomplished, she says yes…Even so, the person she used to be still weighs on her. Tears of pain fill her eyes as she reflects on her yearlong journey. “That’s still me,” she says of her former self. “I’m not a different person just because I lost sixteen pounds.” I protest that, indeed, she is different. At this moment, that fat girl is a thing of the past. A tear rolls down her beautiful cheek, past the glued-in feather. “Just because it’s in the past,” she says, “doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
The summer before I turned 8, my mother married her second husband. Until that time, she and I lived with my maternal grandparents. I spent my years as a very active child. Sometimes my weight would go up (right before a growth spurt), sometimes it would go down (right after a growth spurt). A lot of times it would remained unchanged.
When I was six, I wore size 6 clothes. In the US in the early 70s, children’s clothing sizes were supposed to match up to a child’s age in years, so a size 2T (2 toddler) is for a two year old, a size 4 is for a four year old, a size 6 is for a six year old, and so on. At six, children’s clothing manufacturers created an extra size, a 6x that was bigger than a 6, but not as big as a 7.
When my grandmother and mother were looking for First Communion dresses for me (one month before my First Communion, which would be celebrated on my 7th birthday) I was in a size 6x. So, absolutely within normal parameters.
At the end of the summer my mother and step-father married. When we all moved in together, things changed. All of the sudden, I was “fat” and needed to be on a diet (I was wearing a size 7 at the time). That started years of regimens similar to what Weiss put her daughter through.
Every ounce I gained was cause for punishment and ridicule, every morsel of food scrutinized to make sure it had the least amount of calories. They didn’t worry about nutrition much, since they gave me a huge handful of vitamins every morning with breakfast to make sure I got the “recommended daily dose” of vitamins and minerals.
I was always hungry — ALWAYS. There wasn’t a minute that I wasn’t thinking about food, wondering how I could sneak some food without the parents knowing. I had to sneak food because my mother counted everything that could be counted. If she baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies, she’d count how many were in the bag before going to work and then when she got home, to make sure I didn’t eat any during the day. I was limited to three very small meals each day, no matter what my activity level was, with no hope for any kind of snack.
If I was at a party and I had cake or ice cream, I was in trouble when I went home because of course it’s reasonable to expect a child at a birthday party to say “no thank you” when offered cake and ice cream.
I had, and still have, many physical issues from this type of starvation.
The worst of the continuing negative consequences, though, is my relationship with food.
If I eat more than one meal a day, I’m upset with myself. You know, because I “ate so much, no wonder I’m such a cow.” It’s very hard for me to eat out at restaurants, since that was where the parents liked to humiliate me. “If you eat all that’s on your plate, other people are going to notice what a pig you are!” It doesn’t help that as a fat woman eating in a restaurant, many people think it’s their right to tell me how I’m eating wrong. That only reinforces what I’d been taught, that other people, upon seeing me eat, notice what a pig I am!
Half the time, I can’t tell when I’m hungry. As a defense mechanism, I learned to dissociate from hunger cues. It was the only way I could sleep or focus on anything. As an adult, I am trying to reconnect with those cues, but it only happens some of the time. There have been many times when I’ll proclaim I’m not hungry to my husband, who insists I eat something because “it’s been four days since you’ve eaten anything!” Then I inhale whatever he puts in front of me since, really, I didn’t know I was hungry until I started eating.
On the other hand, when I do feel those hunger cues, most of the times I won’t eat because that’s just my body lying to me. If I wait 30 minutes or if I drink enough water or if I read a book to distract myself the hunger will go away. Eventually, the coping mechanism kicks in and I don’t feel the hunger, which then results in four days of not eating.
It’s not that I’m trying not to eat. It’s that at 45, I’m still reacting with my childhood programming.
My comfort foods are saltine crackers with a very small amount of butter smeared on them. I found that, while she counted nearly everything, my mother never counted the saltines, so I could sneak a few (maybe 4) on occasion. But even then, I couldn’t do that very often, because any amount of added weight was suspect.
When I was 12 years old, my mother had me try on my First Communion dress, the 6x dress I mentioned above. There’s no way I should have fit into it. Other than the length, it fit me perfectly. In fact, it was a little loose on me. When I was 14, before I moved back in with my grandparents, I was 5’2″ and weighed 90 pounds. When I gained 5 pounds that year because I was starting to go through puberty, I got in trouble for being such a pig. Because I was so fat to begin with.
The message they gave me, and I internalized, was that I don’t deserve to take up any space in this world. I need to be cadaver thin if I’m going to be here at all. Any act of eating is wrong, especially for me, because I’m always so fat, even when I’m not fat. The humiliation they subjected me to constantly is still something I struggle with every single time I put any food into my mouth. It’s even worse when what I’m eating is what society has deemed morally lacking.
There’s still not a day that goes by when I don’t wonder if the parents were right and that I just need to starve myself, and stop taking up so much space in this world.
The physical consequences of my childhood diet remind me almost daily of what starvation during the formative years can do to a person. I have had dentists ask me if I was ever bulimic because the pattern of deterioration in my teeth is indicative of either bulimia or starvation. Those same dentists refused to believe the truth is starvation. My bones are more brittle because of the lack of calcium as a kid (milk was full of fat and therefore not something I could have a lot of), and I have a chronic vitamin D deficiency that was so bad at one point it almost caused me to commit suicide. I am also severely, chronically deficient in other minerals (potassium to name one). These all have had a negative physical and psychological impact in my life.
But the fear of eating in a restaurant, the feelings of humiliation when I look in the mirror sometimes, the emotions that I feel when I have to buy a size 24… these are the long-term effects of being told for years that I was too fat for the world, that I shouldn’t eat in front of others, that I shouldn’t even eat.
Like Dara-Lynn Weiss, my parents said they did it for my health and well being.
Like Bea, the consequences were not what my parents had hoped for.