Guest Post: The Language of Love

by Sarah S.

“MOMMY’S HOME!” I cried, as I bounded down the stairs to the front door, while my parents quickly shuffled into the house from a date night. “Hi Sweetie!” she cried, scooping me up into her arms. Her dark coat smelled like deep autumn in New York, and her red lipstick left a faint mark on my cheek. In that moment, I remember thinking that my mother was the most beautiful mother in the world. I envied that her skin was so much darker than mine and that her freckled face was a sky of constellations waiting to be plotted. She was passionate, vivacious, and every smile was warm and authentic. Her figure was pleasingly plump, and fit her Caribbean upbringing – full hips, full bust, full lips.

But as I became older, it became apparent to me that my beautiful mother sometimes didn’t think that she was beautiful, and this had an effect on how I grew to see my own body – a body that grew to look just like hers. I remember once, I overheard her comments as she chatted with a group of women at a local mommy meet-up. While talking, my mom mentioned a suggestion about a dieting tip, and then quickly retracted it and declared, “But I’m fat, so what do I know.” The women laughed, and one of them slapped her arm playfully and said, ‘Oh Beth*, stop it!” while they continued to giggle. Even though it was said in passing, she’d said it: FAT. My mom was fat. And as an insecure 10-year old, I wondered if my developing body would also receive the “FAT” title one day. With time, I became afraid of my growing chest and felt ashamed of each new development of what I believed to be an increasingly ‘fat’ body.

My mom worked hard to stay involved in the local farmers’ markets (something she never had access to while growing up in low-income housing). One time at the market, Mom left our puppy in the car with the AC on while she picked up vegetables. She chatted with other growers about the brussel sprout crop and her favorite new string bean recipe. While this was happening, an older gentleman noticed our puppy in the car, and publicly yelled at my mom for being so stupid as to leave a dog in a car that he believed to be deathly hot. My mom, mortified, snatched her veggies and rushed us into the gray minivan. Before we could leave the dusty lot, her tears started to flow, and her internal monologue was thrust into the physical world: “They probably think I hate animals. I can’t believe it… AND I’M THE FATTEST ONE HERE!” After she said that, the tears didn’t stop until we got home. The car, full of her daughters, was silent except for the sound of her sniffles. We never went back.

These comments affected me greatly. In photos of my childhood, I see a very healthy, very nervous young woman, holding her arm across her stomach to cover any potential imperfections – the ones mom would comment on when I wore my Sunday dress. Or if I ran to meet her and my bosom bounced. Or if I wanted more pizza. I feared being considered ‘fat’ – as if being fat meant life would be somehow worse, and that my quality of life would be lowered, as my mother so thoroughly believed hers was.

As I entered BYU, I wore slim-fitting outfits so that no one would mistake baggy shirts for any additional weight. I’d constantly fidget with my clothes and suck in my gut when I walked. With time, however, I realized that my body fit me. This body reflected my heritage, and when I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw not just my mother, but my grandmother and my great-grandmother; I saw myself as the latest edition in a line of beautiful, full-bodied, strong women. I began to highlight my curves with cinched-waist dresses and full skirts, and I learned to accept compliments and create a positive internal dialogue. While there were still daily struggles and multiple outfit changes each morning, I began to feel genuinely comfortable in the shapely, freckle-y body I owned. Yet, when I returned home for Christmas, my eating habits were questioned, and my thighs were analyzed and put on display for public debate.

I tried hard to brush off my mom’s comments and to be the healthier, happier self that I was growing to love. One morning during my sophomore year, I Skyped my mom to show her my new apartment. As soon as the camera turned on, I heard, “Wow, you’ve really filled out!” Something in me cracked. I launched into a tirade of comments on how she should have kept her thoughts to herself…  I know I’m getting fat…  I don’t need you to point it out… I think I look fine. My face turned bright red and felt hot with anger. My mom took a moment to compose herself before she spoke, and we glared at each other, through tears, 2,500 miles apart. She carefully explained that she started getting fat when she was my age, and no one in her family ‘loved her’ enough to tell her to watch herself and take control of her body. And now here she was: 55, ‘fat’ for her entire adult life, and trying to ‘help’ me avoid her fate. I told her that I was aware of myself and that I didn’t want to ever hear her discussing my body again. I hung up.

The next day, she called to apologize. We talked it through. I told her that her comments about my body affect me and that I’m painfully aware of every pound I gain. My mom was trying to show me love by protecting me, but the way in which she did it was one that I perceived as judgmental and critical, and it hurt me more than it helped. We agreed that I’d be in charge of commentary on my body from now on, and she hasn’t commented on my thighs ever since.

 Today, we talk about New Year’s resolutions. We help each other with our websites and resumes. We spend hours on the phone talking about current events and amazing baking recipes. She was proud of me when I made a perfect Texas Sheet Cake, and I was proud of her when she stopped dying her hair and let it turn an ethereal shade of silver. We talk about the life we live in our bodies, not about our bodies themselves. Through this, we’ve learned to show love through language, but this time, that language is healthy and helpful to both of us.

*Names have been changed

Sarah S. is a senior at BYU studying design. She is passionate about mentoring the rising generation of women in tech and overcoming gender discrimination in technology.

You may also like...

17 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    This is such a great post. I’m only just now coming to understand the power a parent has when it comes to shaping the way a child feels about her body. I can see some of my own mom’s focuses on body come out in my own internal dialogue, and I’m resolved to try to not ever mention my body negatively around my daughter. I think it’s fantastic that you were open with your mom about what you needed in your relationship — an absence of discussion about your body — and that she was so respectful of that and listened to you. This is a great model to me.

    • Sarah S. says:

      Thank you for the kind words, Caroline! I hope you and your daughter can continue to have healthy and positive discussions, and I’m really grateful that this piece resonated with you. A parent’s words can have a really lasting impact on their children’s self image, and it’s beautiful that you’re recognizing this with your own children and striving for healthy boundaries.

  2. Heather says:

    This is such a beautiful story about the power of words and our warped perceptions of our bodies. The way our mothers discuss their bodies has such impact on us as daughters. And because they birthed us, they often see our bodies as extensions of theirs. As a mom w 3 girls of my own I’m trying to respect their boundaries. I love your willingness to get past anger and, instead of pushing your mom away, you seemed to have set very clear and healthy limits on certain topics. Love this.

    • Sarah S. says:

      So glad you loved it, Heather! I love that you’re working to respect healthy boundaries with your daughters. I definitely didn’t have a very ‘graceful’ approach to the anger I felt, but I found that confronting my mom and meeting with counselors really helped me. My mom is very dear to me, and I’m grateful that I can still consider us to be close.

  3. Anon says:

    I actually don’t have body image issues, and my mom doesn’t either, thankfully. However, it’s only as an adult that I’ve been able to see how she has terrible self-esteem and a bad case of fixed mindset, and passed that on to me as a result. In her eyes, she is dumb and clumsy and not as good as anyone else, and I spent most of my adolescence also convinced that I was a total weirdo and everyone knew it. I was afraid to try anything new. She’s also big into labeling us kids–I’m the smart one, my sister is the pretty one (and still not ‘the smart one’ after completing a PhD), one brother is ‘good’, the other ‘bad’. I’ve tried sometimes pushing back a little on my mom, like when she says “I could never do …. my brain doesn’t work that way” by encouraging her to try. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. She really can’t see why her feelings about herself are harmful, because she’s convinced they are the truth. So, I mostly work on myself and being a good example, and I’m trying so hard not to pass on this legacy to my kids. My kids have never heard me say “I’m not a math person” or “I’m not able to fix things–I’ll let your dad handle it”. It can be, however, so hard to change our inner voice when it’s been ingrained since birth.

    • Andrew says:

      Some people are better than others at doing things. It’s a fact. Of course, that doesn’t mean that only the best person can, or should, do it. And it certainly doesn’t mean that the one with the lower ability shouldn’t push to increase their ability.

      But sometimes it is important that the better person does a job, because it has to be done right.

    • Sarah S. says:

      Anon, it’s so great that you’re working on creating a healthy environment for your children. They will benefit immensely. Your experiences sound very difficult, and I wish you and your mother all the best as you continue to find ways to embrace your limitless potential.

    • Jess R says:

      My mom does the same thing…”I could never do X, my brain is too simple.” She always says she regrets not going to college. Now she has the time and the money to back but she won’t because of her insecurities. It breaks my heart.

  4. Violadiva says:

    Thank you, Sarah S. for your articulation of a very real dynamic in Mother/Daughter relationships.
    When I was a teen, it was the comments my mom made about my makeup that really cut deep. I was insecure about my face breaking out, and had no older sister nor youtube videos to help me learn how to put on makeup. Rather than teach me how to use concealer and wash my face to prevent acne, mom criticized that I was wearing “too much makeup. You’re supposed to make it look like you don’t have any on.” I felt so crippled — I wanted to look my best, which included covering my acne, and didn’t know how, and the one woman who might have been able to help me just made it worse. Those were really difficult comments to get past.

    • Sarah S. says:

      Violadiva, thanks so much for sharing. I feel like I really resonate with your story. My parents would often critique our outfits my body or presentation (Why don’t you have socks? Your bra doesn’t fit right. Your hair is messy. etc.), without ever providing me with the resources to solve what they were critiquing (How can a 13-year-old buy her own well-fitting bra with no money?). These comments made me feel very embarrassed and clumsy in my appearance, and very helpless as well. I really love this quote by Brigham Young: “Never chasten beyond the balm you have within you to bind up.” I hope that I can provide my future children with the physical and emotional resources they need. Again, thank you for sharing your story.

  5. Nancy Ross says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post for the last day. The mother-daughter relationship is so fraught. My mom, who bounced between anorexia and bulimia, started making comments about my body when I was about 12. The comments were an extension of her hatred of her own body. I experienced my own disordered eating and have lingering body image problems in my 30s. I’ve tried to love my body and not express negative comments about my body or my girls’ bodies, but I feel like this body image thing will haunt me for the rest of my life.

    • Sarah S. says:

      Nancy, I’m really touched by your experience. I share similar feelings: even on good days, I wonder if I will ever be 100% comfortable in my body. I have found a counselor to be helpful, but I still have a long way to go, and I expect it to take quite some time. Again, thank you for sharing. I wish for peace, unconditional love, and acceptance for yourself and your family.

  6. c7oscuro says:

    Beautiful post. Mother-Daughter relationships are so complicated. Body image issues are so difficult. thank you for sharing your experience

  7. Spunky says:

    Thank you for this Sarah S. I know I need to do better with my daughters– they already echo me, and sometimes, I am not happy with what they echo. Your post is a timely reminder of being more positive about myself– for me and my daughters.

  8. Moss says:

    This was wonderful. It never occurred to me that I was fat until my mother told me when I was 14. I was a dancer and very active but I didn’t match what my mom thought was thin. I’m very careful about the messages I send my kids, but I still watch my mom struggle with self acceptance. Your post gave me more charity towards her. Thank you.

  9. Ben says:

    Excellent post.
    I never quite realized until I was in my mid-20’s how healthy my parents were; that is, whatever insecurities they had (and I believe everyone has some), they didn’t pass them down to their kids. I only realized this through observing friends interactions with their own parents and children, and hearing their own stories about growing up, and realizing I had nothing comparable. It’s made me very conscious about what I say to kids, and how to cultivate good body image along with mental and physical health.

Leave a Reply