This Is How My Family Screwed Up My Self-Esteem

In a family full of large women, I was the smallest. I was the pixie child, all legs and eyes. I remember my mother lamenting her weight — a number, now, that makes me shudder with its normalcy — and stocking the pantry with nothing but Weight Watchers meals. I remember my aunt urging me to eat more before I blew away in the breeze. They really had me convinced a stiff wind might take me to heaven, or maybe even Oz.

But she was (mostly) teasing. I was constantly praised for my tininess. Constantly petted. The thinness of my wrists was cooed over. My long thin legs were gently, lovingly teased. My butt, my ribs, my shoulder blades, all the them were noted. In a family where teasing meant love (itself its own problem), I was loved for my smallness.

And this is where my family messed up.

Oh, I wish I was as small as you,” my mother and my aunts would say, grabbing their bellies, their arms, their thighs. Then they’d have another round of dessert, lamenting themselves, while their husbands made jokes behind their backs about how big they’d become, how far from the dainty girls they’d married.

I’d leaf through their wedding albums, confused, wondering how the girls there had turned into the women I knew. How the girls dressed up in confections rivaling their tiered cakes had changed so dramatically somehow. They would see me looking and sigh.

“I was so pretty back then,” they’d say. “Look what happened to me.” They’d grab my small arm. “Don’t let that happen to you, skinny-minnie!”

But how could I stop it if I didn’t know what had happened in the first place?

Then puberty hit. Suddenly, I had breasts. Hips. I wasn’t quite so small (I was still small). I wasn’t quite so adorable (I was still adorable). And I was terrified. Because my family’s love for me, all their teasing and their petting and their approval, had come from my size. And now I wasn’t so small and so cute.

So I did what every other woman in my family did. I went on a diet. Except I was not any other woman in my family. I had seen their lack of willpower, their failures, their just-one-mores. I joined the cross-country team and stopped eating. If I did eat, I made myself throw up. I knew there was a name for this — what girl, by the late ’90s, did not? — but I didn’t care. I was desperate.

I have struggled with body image since. My weight and size have waxed and waned. I lifted myself up from an actual eating disorder to disordered eating with the help of therapy. I have, at times, lifted myself from disordered into an attempt at body acceptance.

But it’s always there. Those voices. Those hands encircling my wrists. I remember my uncle, the way he picked up all us younger cousins: one, two, three, then me, and he almost threw me into the ceiling because I was so much smaller. I have reconciled myself to never being the fairy princess in my wedding gown again, but I still hope that I can be, at least, the lovely queen, second-fairest of them all, with the help of Spanx and weight-loss meds. ( And yes, I know how problematic this is.)

I have to be careful, now, when I diet. I can’t just diet, the way other women do. I remember my mothers and aunts and their just-one-more’s, and I steel myself. I will not be one of them, I tell myself. I will not be one of them who laments my fatness and tells myself how ugly I am.

I rocket between radical self-acceptance and horrible self-loathing, and with the self-loathing comes severe food restrictions. Others diet; I forego food entirely. Others restrict calories; I skip whole meals. Others ask their doctor for help to lose weight; I seek appetite suppressants that leave me hungry only at dinnertime, and only for something small. I have long banished scales from my house because I would live and die by their numbers.

This is how my family messed up. They fucked up passively, quietly, gently, teasingly. They didn’t mean to make a monster. But this is what happens when you praise a child, over and over, for her thinness. This is what happens when your tiny dancer learns to base her self-esteem on that thinness.

One day, she will wake up and find she’s not so tiny anymore, she’s just like the rest of you. Genetics have caught her in their clutches. And you have taught her, by telling her that her beauty is in her smallness, all sorts of terrible, damaging lies: that size matters, that fatness should be hidden, that it should be equated with a lack of willpower. This is bad enough when it’s piled on your own shoulders. But it’s a monster when it’s piled onto others.

You have to fight out from under this monster. It’s not easy. And I still find myself asking my jean size if I can possibly be the fairest one of all when they’re a size 14 (normal, I know). I still find myself asking if I can be pretty, after kids and a marriage. I still find myself basing some kind of self-worth on it, asking myself if I can possibly deserve to be loved at this size.

This is some fucked up shit. I can realize that objectively. But I can’t weasel out from under it. Because I was a beautiful fairy princess once: tiny, perfect, adorable, loved without question. We all yearn for the love of our childhood. But when it’s tied to a physical form, we’re left constantly chasing an unattainable body.

My parents didn’t mean to mess up. But my family messed up all the same.

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