Not too long ago one of my lovers tried to break things off with me. I use the word “tried” because what occurred was a series of reactions on my behalf to emotional triggers that had little to do with him or his attempt at communicating. He indeed was trying to have a discussion, but I was in a different reality – one that was filled with despair and a rhetoric of shame. At one point, after giving him what I would later realize was a farewell blow job, I pleaded with him through tear-filled eyes, “Is this because I’m old and fat?” In retrospect I understand that I’m simultaneously neither and both of those things, depending on what I’m telling myself at the moment.
Growing up my mother and her side of the family put a lot of value on physical form. In my memory there always seemed to be an elephant in the room, and that elephant was usually my weight or the weight of another female family member. It was ironically the first thing brought up at every family function, all of which revolved around food. My mother was the master of fat-shaming me while making me an oversized plate. I don’t know which line she used more frequently “no man wants a fat girl” or “there are starving children in Africa.” But both had the immediate effect of making me feel terribly sad and wrong.
I recently asked my cousin if she remembered the onslaught of criticism we would hear from our mothers and other female relatives. We formulated a short list: no one is going to love a woman with cellulite; no one is going to love or respect a fat woman; if a man loves a fat woman there must be something wrong with him; sit up straight, you look fat; you can’t wear that, you look fat; have you looked in a mirror today; you inherited our family arms, so no matter what you do they’ll always be flabby and disgusting; if you don’t stop eating ___, you’re going to be fat; if you let your ass get fat you’ll end up unmarried or divorced; you need to control your appetite; aren’t you embarrassed of the way you look; I’m embarrassed of how you look. I’m sure there are more, but these were a sample of what we heard on a daily basis.
I don’t remember the first time I was meant to think there was something wrong with my body because I feel like I’ve always felt that way. I can’t remember a single time in my life when I’ve looked in the mirror and loved everything that I’ve seen. I don’t think that my mother had any idea that the things she started telling me when I was very young would continue to be the things that I tell myself decades later. I can’t imagine any parent wanting to punish their child that way.
My mother grew up in a poor Catholic family with five siblings. She was the oldest girl and dropped out of high school to join the workforce early to help provide for her family. Her first job was in a dental office where she made decent money but felt completely out of her element. The office was located in uptown New Orleans, and being a poor, uneducated girl from a working class parish, she was constantly reminded of how she didn’t fit in. Not much later a friend told her about The Playboy Club on Iberville Street in the French Quarter. She applied for the job of cocktail server and was hired immediately. Her thin frame, delicate features and hair down to her waist made her a popular employee. She was well-liked by her peers and quickly became a billard bunny, who made an enormous amount of tips at the time for playing pool with men who visited the club. There was no doubt that her physical appearance was what had afforded her this opportunity. She went from feeling like the uneducated outcast of uptown to the social butterfly of the French Quarter.
My mother was never much a drinker and was quite the hustler. She took her hard-earned money and used it to support her youngest sibling who was facing the hardships of growing up in a poor, dysfunctional family. Because of her experience, my mother wasn’t quick to value educational achievements and thoroughly believed that men would always choose looks over brains. My father would openly admit that my mother’s beauty was the first thing that drew him to her. “She was absolutely breathtaking. If you walked into a room with her on your arm, everyone would turn and stare. She was absolutely insane too, which kept things interesting.”
The other women in my mother’s family followed a similar path. None of them achieving any academic glory and all becoming heavily dependent on men to support and take care of them. I believe that if my mother had not been a lesbian, she too would have easily become dependent on my father for her whole life. Instead she divorced him and left us in New Mexico to return to her family in the South. It was during these pre-pubescent times which were split between my two parents that I remember my mother becoming extremely harsh in her judgement of me. I don’t ever remember her commenting on my brother, even when his weight and length of his hair fluctuated to unkempt degrees.
Over the years my mother criticized and embarrassed me about my size more times than I can count. These encounters had an incredible impact on the relationship I formed with my body. The majority of my life I’ve viewed my body as something that needs to be controlled and punished. I’ve flirted with exercise addiction, eating disorders, fad diets, prescribed medicines and even cosmetic surgery. I’ve been on a never-ending quest to attain the perfect form, which has drastically changed culturally over the course of my lifetime. I have been severely overweight and severely underweight. I have maintained a “healthy” body and still completely hated myself. I have worked very hard to make the world love this body because I am terrified that I will never be able to.
Through my experiences with psychedelic therapy, I have been able to attain a level of self-empathy that had escaped me for a lifetime before. With this empathy I have been able to approach myself with less frustration and more curiosity. I am not always able to stop the train once it leaves the station but there have been times when I’ve felt triggered and taken a breath and asked silently, “what are you telling yourself?” If I had been able to ask myself that question the night my lover tried to talk with me the answer would have probably been: “You are terrified that this person is abandoning you, and that his decision to do so is because he has discovered how imperfect you are. You will always be abandoned because you are unworthy of love. There will always be someone younger, thinner and less flawed than you are. You deserve this pain.” I understand how ludicrous this may sound to some, but I also think that for others this may resonate. How often do we react to the voice of our inner saboteur and not to reality? How many of us have to let the story be told all the way to the end, even if it’s not the truth? How many of us are simply reacting to each other’s triggers without even realizing it?
Now that I am aware of these insidious beliefs, I wonder how much they have steered the direction of my life. If I didn’t have a compulsion to attain physical approval, would I be so driven? Would I have more self-confidence in my other abilities if I wasn’t quietly defeating myself so often? Do I chose to have extremely physical affairs that value my body and sexuality more than my brain and kindness because this is what my mother taught me is true success? I am openly curious about how my trauma continues to affect my daily decision making process.
I still weigh myself every morning and the number that appears still has the power to affect my disposition. I am currently 39 years old and as of 7:49 this morning I weighed 173.5 pounds. I still go to the gym seven days a week. I still struggle with being critical of my physical form. I am admitting that I’m not always kind to myself, but I am trying to change that. I want you all to understand that some people may need to be told repeatedly that they are beautiful, not necessarily because they are shallow but because it’s ammunition against the battle going on inside of them.