Mothers, Daughters, and Toxic Diet Culture


dietI watched my mom diet most of her life. She did the two shakes a day, the grapefruit diet, and some weird cabbage soup diet too. However, she was an avid fan of weight watchers and would come home rejoicing when she lost a pound or bummed out when she didn’t. She shared how other members celebrated her weight loss milestones or getting to her goal weight. She also kept tons of diet food in the house and would remark on foods being “fattening” or “bad foods.” She was highly critical of herself in a way I didn’t understand at the time, often remarking how big her thighs looked in an outfit or that she was “too fat” to wear something. To me, she was always just “mom,” and I couldn’t tell if she was 40 pounds lighter or heavier. But watching my mom’s relationship wither body, her weight, and her food left me with lasting scars.

I was in 6th grade when my mom told me she thought it would be fun to count food “points” with her. Interestingly enough, this was right after I hit puberty, and my mom couldn’t believe that I was 100lbs at a doctor’s appointment. (Not that it matters, but I was completely healthy and active at the time) She didn’t want my sister and me to have a scale in the house so we wouldn’t be obsessed with our weight, but yet she took us weekly to the doctor’s office where she worked to use the scale there. My mom started doing weekly weigh-ins with my sister and me “just to check” our weight. When I lost weight, she rewarded me with time spent together and when I didn’t… I could tell she was disappointed. I felt so uncomfortable with my new pre-adolescent curvy body, and this reinforced to me that my new body was unacceptable. What I needed more than anything was acceptance and reassurance but what I got was support to change it into something else. From this point on, I spent most of my life fighting my body.

In high school, many of my friends were experimenting with diet pills. While taking the diet pills, I developed a full-blown eating disorder. I wouldn’t eat more than 200 calories a day, and I dropped weight really fast. My jeans were falling off me, and my mom complimented me and took me on shopping sprees for smaller sizes. I eventually got so tired of feeling deprived that I began to eat one big meal and purge it afterward. Once again, my mom knew what was happening and said nothing. I learned a sick, skinny body is always more acceptable than a larger healthy body.

I spent the early portion of my 20’s still battling over-exercising, under-eating, and obsessing over not being thin enough. When I came home from college, she wanted to know all about how I lost weight or what I was doing to stay thin. We bonded over dieting even though I resented her deep down for introducing me to the hamster wheel of dieting. I soon went to therapy, and I unlearned so many toxic lessons and learned how to have a new relationship with food. My mom projected her own body insecurities onto me. Believe it or not, my mom is a lovely woman who I believe did all these things with good intentions. She wanted to help “save me” from being fat because being fat would make me sad and miserable. She wanted me to be skinny so that I could be happy. But what she did was make me unhappy in my body, no matter what size it was.

I have a daughter now, and I feel immense pressure to do things differently. I look at her and watch her so comfortable in her body without any judgment on its size or shape. I want her to keep that feeling forever but realize someday the world will show her glimmers of diet culture. And yet, I realize that as her mother, I hold tremendous power in this situation. I can be her biggest cheerleader and hype woman. I can help her learn a lesson that bodies change over time, and that is ok. Bodies can be healthy in different sizes, and all bodies are beautiful bodies. I will never criticize my body because in doing so, I criticize her and other women. I won’t assign a moral value to my food because that, in turn, assigns value to hers.

I don’t believe my story is actually that unique. There are so many women that were raised by a mother who was immersed in toxic diet culture. Let’s do better-not just for ourselves but for our daughters.