My mother couldn’t stop running.
Every morning at five a.m. I would wake up and look out my childhood bedroom window. There she would be, in our backyard, doing stretches, reaching up towards the sun but never quite touching it. I’d watch her for a bit, then snuggle back under my Little Mermaid covers and wait for her to return.
After every run my mother would come and check on me. I could smell her perspiration before I’d see her. She’d pull back the sheets; I’d pretend to wake up. I’d peer up at her large gypsy eyes and take in sweat glistening on her taught, tanned body. I’d reach up and finger the ever-protruding collar bone.
“Pretty,” I’d say.
And then she would start crying.
My mother was the first anorexic woman I ever met, and the first woman I ever loved.
It seems a day does not go by when body image issues aren’t discussed in some form or another– whether on Jezebel, Slate, The Hairpin, The New York Times or whatever morning show is en vogue. Recently, artist Colleen Clark produced a comicthat got some note and much praise for its truthful telling of body image issues. Fat or Skinny, Curvy or Straight, the consensus seems to be that every woman feels like shit.
I read these statistics daily. And I wonder, if such self-hatred is so widespread, why don’t we do anything about it?
This is not an article demanding women Stand Up and Speak Out. Plenty of women — and men — are doing just that. There are a multitude of blogs and columns devoted to discussing the pressures society puts on individuals. Dialogue is a great place to start.
The problem is, I fear, we’ve been in the starting position for a while now, and I wonder — I worry — we will never move onward. For every one shuffled step forward, we take two steps back.
My mother was my role model in life. She never wished for me to follow in her footsteps. She wanted me to be healthy and happy and love myself for myself. Every mother/child/friend wants that.
That didn’t stop her from accidentally passing down some bad habits. No matter how vigilante a mother she was, children are perceptive. And since I wanted to be like my mother, maybe that involved worrying constantly about my attractiveness, too. Maybe I shouldn’t eat carbs, I’d fret as early as ten years of age. A chubby middle schooler, I’d pull at the skin of my stomach and sob when looking in the mirror. Apparently I wasn’t the only pre-teen to experience this horrific anxiety and depression. But I didn’t know that. Everyone else was beautiful. I was ugly.
“But you’re beautiful,” my mother would say as I ran into her room sobbing and slapping myself. ”You’re being ridiculous. You’re beautiful and smart.”
I didn’t care that I was smart. I knew that. But I wanted to be beautiful. And I wasn’t– not when I compared myself to everyone else.
In an effort to help my self-esteem, my mom took me shopping for makeup. ”Maybe we’ll highlight your eyes,” she said as the ladies at the Macy’s counter taught me how to use eyeliner. Instead of my usual baggy jeans and X-Files t-shirt, she suggested we buy a hip new outfit from Limited Too. That morning as I dressed for school, I felt like a different girl. I was in costume, complete with makeup.
It was a moment out of “She’s All That.” People noticed me all right. Suddenly I was invited to sit at the popular-kids table. My best friends — all boys — stared at me open mouthed, unsure of what to say. Girls who had never dared–or bothered–to speak to me before asked me where I got my pants. An invitation to a pool-party was stuck in my locker.
The lesson I took home, however, wasn’t that I was beautiful or that kids were shallow. It was that I required makeup for people to think I was the least bit interesting.
Nonetheless, to celebrate my success at school, Mom took me out for Italian. We treated ourselves to Tiramisu. After completing homework and thanking my mother for the sweet new clothes, I went to bed. At two a.m., I woke up to my mother running on the treadmill in our garage.
The sweat dripping down her face didn’t stop her from noticing my look. ”I’m not like you,” my mother said. ”I can’t eat sugar without repercussions. I don’t have your young metabolism.”
That was honestly the last time I’ve eaten Tiramisu. It’s been almost twenty years.
My mother was a wonderful mom. She was so kind and loving and supportive to me. The problem was, she wasn’t loving to herself. And so, like mother like daughter, I wasn’t loving to myself.
By the time I hit 21, I was eating 700 calories a day at most and running on a treadmill for at least two hours– going so far as to skip class to do so. When I collapsed while running around the school campus, I was nearly hospitalized for anorexia-nervosa. Instead, I moved home where my parents could keep an eye on me. I was finally a legal adult with all the legal abilities, and I had to be watched like an infant. If it weren’t for the kindness of my professors, I would have had to drop out of college.
There are a lot of factors I can attribute to my recovery. The support of my loved ones was the biggest. My parents paid for my daily trips to therapy. My best friend Keagan, who was studying abroad in Italy, wrote me weekly emails and put up with my one-line suicidal confessions. I started taking an anti-anxiety/depression pill called Lexapro. But, most importantly, I became friends the awe-inspiring Stella, a fabulous fellow writer and classmate who didn’t give a shit what she ate or what people thought of her. She introduced me to a group of people who could have cared less if I weighed 85 or 145 pounds. All that mattered to them was that I was having a good time (and that I was healthy enough to do so). They made me happy, and for the first time I could eat a burrito without wanting to kill myself right after– the guilt would come a day or two later, and by then I was once again wrapped up in a cocoon of friendship and peace. To this day, I attribute Stella (and therapy) to my recovery, and the fact that I did not die.
Anorexia is like alcoholism. You never fully beat it. I still have those dark thoughts. The Santa Anas and PMS do not help. Just the other day I ate three slices of pizza and had to stop myself from immediately looking up the caloric information. I can’t join a gym because the likelihood that I’ll grow obsessive about the amount I run or eliptical is just too terrifying. My boyfriend, bless him, still has to tell me some days that I’m attractive– and then has to work hard to make me believe it.
I’m better, though. There are days I actually think he’s right. And the number of days is increasing.
Sometimes, when I’m out for a walk to clear my head, I see a mother running, a child trailing behind. The mom circles back, just like my own mother once did, to check on the child– then runs forward yet again. The child stares forlornly after their mom, then glances at me. I give them a quick smile they do not process. The kid is focused on their mother’s back, wishing they could catch up. And I don’t have the heart to tell them that they never will– and more importantly, if they’re healthy and happy, they’ll never want to.
Emily Ansara Baines is the author of The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook and The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook. She currently lives in her native Los Angeles with aspirations of moving to France. Her short stories have appeared in Narrative and she currently writes weekly columns for Peaceful Dumpling and ReadItForward. Visit Emily on Instagram and Twitter @LiteraryQueen.
Image via Halfpoint/Shutterstock.