When my mother first started making me feel bad about my body, her actions had nothing to do with me at all. It was her extreme dieting that I noticed as an elementary school student. Her daily tally of calories on the refrigerator's whiteboard made me wonder if I was eating too many calories myself. And what were calories, anyway? She weighed her food and weighed herself and marked her new low weights on a calendar that hung above the scale in the bathroom. She marked her goal weights on that calendar too, and when she didn't reach them, she always needed to "take a nap."
Eventually, she taught me and my friends to count our calories as well.
"Just add a zero on the end of your weight to figure out how many calories you should have in a day," she would tell us. When I started gaining weight in middle school, as middle schoolers typically do, that was when she told me I could add a zero on the end of the weight I wanted to be to figure out how many calories I should have in a day. And it was around this time that the body-shaming became direct and personal.
I liked bands and baggy band T-shirts and baggy jeans. (It was the '90s.) When she saw me wearing these clothes, she told me on a regular basis that I would never be able to "get a boyfriend" as long as I dressed like that. Conversely, when I did wear tighter clothing, she shamed me for my overt sexuality, which was barely even budding. "Cross your legs" became a mantra in our household. She used my father as a pawn against me, telling me that he felt uncomfortable with the length of my dress, that it was inappropriate for me to wear a tank top around my father. On the days I dressed more casually, she accused me of being a lesbian.
She made constant remarks about the bodies and clothing of my peers too.
She said it all—my friends were "too chubby," my friends had mothers who were "clearly anorexic" and encouraging them to follow suit. She even called some of my choir outfits "slutty." As the years came and went, so did 5 or 10 pounds here and there for me. If I gained them, she talked to me about "my big butt," and if I lost them, she talked to me about how "sick" I looked.
If you're wondering if this contributed to me developing an eating disorder that was incredibly difficult to kick and still haunts my daily decisions surrounding food and exercise, it did. If you're wondering if this contributed to me always second-guessing my clothing, stuck between thinking I was dressing in a way that was "asking for it" and a way that made me look like I "just rolled out of bed," it did. And if you're wondering if I have spent years with therapists working through these issues, I have.
My mother's tortured ideas of beauty and self-image stem from what her mother taught her, what society taught her, what her negative sexual experiences ingrained in her, and what she gathered from an extremely conservative evangelical faith about female modesty, virginal virtue, and a woman's place.
It's all in there—tangled, misconstrued, and terrorizing her from the inside out even today. I've accepted that her demons are her own, but figuring out how near me I will allow those demons to get is an ongoing struggle. Less than three months after giving birth, she invited me to join a weight-loss challenge alongside her and her equally non-nursing friends. For what it's worth, I was average weight, even after giving birth.
When I look down at my own daughter, there's a part of me that wants to believe that my mom was always doing her best, but I'm really not sure that's true. Whatever the case may be, I'm determined to give my daughter the gifts of self-love and body-confidence. I know better than most how demoralizing it is to try to keep your chin up in this world without them.
The author wrote this piece under a pseudonym.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.