One night my family was standing around the kitchen island talking, and my 15-year-old daughter casually said, “I know: Mom basically has an eating disorder.”
Excuse me? I do not have an eating disorder. I am an extremely healthy 49 year-old. I have done CrossFit-style workouts for the last 10 years, and as a result I’m in good shape. I went on a rigorous diet five years ago that I’ve never really stopped, and as part of that I weigh my portions, eat lots of protein and vegetables, eat very little fat and allow myself a “treat” of some sort of moderate portion of a carbohydrate at dinnertime. I never snack, I never let myself eat things that I want to eat, I never let myself eat as much as I’d like to eat, and I never eat when I’m hungry.
Does that behavior constitute an eating disorder? The answer to that question doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I thought I was setting an excellent example of healthy eating, and my daughter thinks I have an eating disorder. This is not the first time as a parent that I thought I was setting a shining example but found out I was setting a sh*tty one, instead.
[Related: Moms, you're the key to your daughters' positive body images]
I talk a lot about “healthy eating habits” in my house, like eating lots of fruits and vegetables, eating balanced portions, and not eating too many sweets. But when I asked my daughter more about her comment, she said, “I think that all of this 'healthy food talk' is more about how you look than actually being healthy.”
As I thought about what she said, I became confused. Isn’t monitoring and limiting my food intake what I’m supposed to be doing? Doesn’t healthy behavior involve controlling your portions and limiting the amount of unhealthy food that you eat? Isn’t it our society that has a disordered relationship with food by making large portions and salty, sugary food so readily available? It’s not me; it’s society! I’m the one who’s normal! Right?
[Related: The social media mom: How social media can influence the way we feel]
When I took a hard look at my relationship with food, I saw what my daughter saw, which is that my approach isn’t all that “healthy.” I am obsessed with weight. I think about it — the weight I’ve gained, the weight I’d like to lose, how every morsel of food I put into my mouth will affect that battle — all the time. I thought this was just a running dialogue I was having internally, but apparently it wasn’t. It was obvious for the world to see, and especially for my four daughters — the people I wanted to see it the least. I preach body positivity in my house and I talk to them about it for their own bodies all the time. But when it comes to my own body, none of that applies.
I thought I was setting an example of how to maintain a healthy weight and body image into middle age. Instead, I've been setting an example of ordering my life around looking a certain way and constantly denying myself pleasure to maintain it. That example sucks.
Many times as a member of Gen X, I thought that just by telling my children a different message than the one I got growing up, that things would be different for them. I wanted to have my cake and eat it too: impose on myself all of the obsessions about weight that I’d grown up with while telling them to be different. But they see that as the hypocritical position it is.
I don’t want to be a hypocrite, but letting go of my obsession with my weight? Not so fast. I’ve been in an ongoing conversation with myself about my weight for at least 30 years. Would I be able to love myself, or even like myself, if I gained weight? Not without a lot of hard work. Frankly, it’s a lot easier and very tempting to stay a hypocrite.
But I don’t want to set that example for my daughters. I want to have a healthy body image and a healthy relationship with food. I don’t want them to obsess about their weight, and I don’t want them to waste the monumental time and effort that I have obsessing over staying thin. I’ve got to do better.
So how will I unpack and unlearn 30 years of internalized beauty standards? I haven’t a clue. That’s a topic for another essay.