When your mother says she’s fat

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Photo: Getty

Dear Mum,

I was seven when I discovered that you were fat, ugly and horrible. Up until that point I had believed that you were beautiful – in every sense of the word. I remember flicking through old photo albums and staring at pictures of you standing on the deck of a boat. Your white strapless bathing suit looked so glamorous, just like a movie star. Whenever I had the chance I’d pull out that wondrous white bathing suit hidden in your bottom drawer and imagine a time when I’d be big enough to wear it; when I’d be like you.

But all of that changed when, one night, we were dressed up for a party and you said to me, ‘‘Look at you, so thin, beautiful and lovely. And look at me, fat, ugly and horrible.’’
At first I didn’t understand what you meant.

‘‘You’re not fat,’’ I said earnestly and innocently, and you replied, ‘‘Yes I am, darling. I’ve always been fat; even as a child.’’

In the days that followed I had some painful revelations that have shaped my whole life. I learned that:
1. You must be fat because mothers don’t lie.
2. Fat is ugly and horrible.
3. When I grow up I’ll look like you and therefore I will be fat, ugly and horrible too.

Years later, I looked back on this conversation and the hundreds that followed and cursed you for feeling so unattractive, insecure and unworthy. Because, as my first and most influential role model, you taught me to believe the same thing about myself.

With every grimace at your reflection in the mirror, every new wonder diet that was going to change your life, and every guilty spoon of ‘‘Oh-I-really-shouldn’t’’, I learned that women must be thin to be valid and worthy. Girls must go without because their greatest contribution to the world is their physical beauty.
Just like you, I have spent my whole life feeling fat. When did fat become a feeling anyway? And because I believed I was fat, I knew I was no good.

But now that I am older, and a mother myself, I know that blaming you for my body hatred is unhelpful and unfair. I now understand that you too are a product of a long and rich lineage of women who were taught to loathe themselves.

Look at the example Nanna set for you. Despite being what could only be described as famine-victim chic, she dieted every day of her life until the day she died at 79 years of age. She used to put on make-up to walk to the letterbox for fear that somebody might see her unpainted face.

I remember her ‘‘compassionate’’ response when you announced that Dad had left you for another woman. Her first comment was, ‘‘I don’t understand why he’d leave you. You look after yourself, you wear lipstick. You’re overweight – but not that much.’’

Before Dad left, he provided no balm for your body-image torment either.

‘‘Jesus, Jan,’’ I overheard him say to you. ‘‘It’s not that hard. Energy in versus energy out. If you want to lose weight you just have to eat less.’’

That night at dinner I watched you implement Dad’s ‘‘Energy In, Energy Out: Jesus, Jan, Just Eat Less’’ weight-loss cure. You served up chow mein for dinner. (Remember how in 1980s Australian suburbia, a combination of mince, cabbage, and soy sauce was considered the height of exotic gourmet?) Everyone else’s food was on a dinner plate except yours. You served your chow mein on a tiny bread-and-butter plate.

As you sat in front of that pathetic scoop of mince, silent tears streamed down your face. I said nothing. Not even when your shoulders started heaving from your distress. We all ate our dinner in silence. Nobody comforted you. Nobody told you to stop being ridiculous and get a proper plate. Nobody told you that you were already loved and already good enough. Your achievements and your worth – as a teacher of children with special needs and a devoted mother of three of your own – paled into insignificance when compared with the centimetres you couldn’t lose from your waist.

It broke my heart to witness your despair and I’m sorry that I didn’t rush to your defence. I’d already learned that it was your fault that you were fat. I’d even heard Dad describe losing weight as a ‘‘simple’’ process – yet one that you still couldn’t come to grips with. The lesson: you didn’t deserve any food and you certainly didn’t deserve any sympathy.

But I was wrong, Mum. Now I understand what it’s like to grow up in a society that tells women that their beauty matters most, and at the same time defines a standard of beauty that is perpetually out of our reach. I also know the pain of internalising these messages. We have become our own jailors and we inflict our own punishments for failing to measure up. No one is crueller to us than we are to ourselves.

But this madness has to stop, Mum. It stops with you, it stops with me and it stops now. We deserve better – better than to have our days brought to ruin by bad body thoughts, wishing we were otherwise.
And it’s not just about you and me any more. It’s also about Violet. Your granddaughter is only 3 and I do not want body hatred to take root inside her and strangle her happiness, her confidence and her potential. I don’t want Violet to believe that her beauty is her most important asset; that it will define her worth in the world. When Violet looks to us to learn how to be a woman, we need to be the best role models we can. We need to show her with our words and our actions that women are good enough just the way they are. And for her to believe us, we need to believe it ourselves.

The older we get, the more loved ones we lose to accidents and illness. Their passing is always tragic and far too soon. I sometimes think about what these friends – and the people who love them – wouldn’t give for more time in a body that was healthy. A body that would allow them to live just a little longer. The size of that body’s thighs or the lines on its face wouldn’t matter. It would be alive and therefore it would be perfect.

Your body is perfect too. It allows you to disarm a room with your smile and infect everyone with your laugh. It gives you arms to wrap around Violet and squeeze her until she giggles. Every moment we spend worrying about our physical ‘‘flaws’’ is a moment wasted, a precious slice of life that we will never get back.
Let us honour and respect our bodies for what they do instead of despising them for how they appear. Focus on living healthy and active lives, let our weight fall where it may, and consign our body hatred in the past where it belongs. When I looked at that photo of you in the white bathing suit all those years ago, my innocent young eyes saw the truth. I saw unconditional love, beauty and wisdom. I saw my Mum.


Love, Kasey xx


This is an excerpt from Dear Mum: a collection of letters from Australian sporting stars, musicians, models, cooks and authors revealing what they would like to say to their mothers before it’s too late, or would have said if only they’d had the chance. All royalties go to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. (Published by Random House and available now.)

29 comments

  • We need to stop focusing on appeaance and focus on being healthy. Being overweight is unhealthy, being underweight is unhealthy, being tanned is unhealthy, worrying abuot your appearance constantly is unhealthy. NOT worrying about what you weigh and what you eat kills you......

    Commenter
    Sean
    Location
    Umina
    Date and time
    June 05, 2013, 10:43AM
    • I think you have entirely missed the point. In fact, I wonder if you read the full article? It's about body image and perception rather than weight and being healthy. It's also about your family and the people you love supporting you and loving you for the person you are.

      Commenter
      JB
      Date and time
      June 05, 2013, 11:01AM
    • If I missed the point I apologise. MY point though is that a lot of woman are very hard on themselves when they are very fit and live a healthy lifestyle and should be content with that. A lot of men are deluded and think we are fine when we are fat and unhealthy, which is why our average life span is less.

      Commenter
      Sean
      Location
      Newcombe
      Date and time
      June 05, 2013, 11:42AM
    • @Sean - Spot on I think. The focus of this article is all about appearance and body image but it should be about whether or not you are healthy. Not once was it mentioned in the article whether or not Kasey's mum is actually healthy, just that she felt fat.

      @JB - Surely your own attitude towards your body is the main determinant of your body image? As far as your family and friends loving and supporting you for being the person you are, as part of that shouldn't they want you to also be healthy?

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      June 05, 2013, 12:22PM
  • This article had me reading holding my breath! painful and unfair and beautiful and wise. I have felt like your mother and was made to feel worthless and unwanted because of how my body had changed.... reading this really affected me. Four years later after my husband left and a new awesome man later, I still fight that little black horrid thing in me that says Im still ugly because I have put on weight - everyday - .... sad but true.
    I now try very very hard to live by the adage, " No One Can Make Me Feel Inferior Without My Permission".

    Commenter
    BAB
    Date and time
    June 05, 2013, 10:56AM
    • Nothing unusual here - all mothers complain about how fat they are even when they're not.
      So what?

      Commenter
      gandalf
      Date and time
      June 05, 2013, 11:19AM
      • um well the excerpt acknowledges that this is indeed common and describes exactly why it is a problem...

        Commenter
        Mellah
        Date and time
        June 05, 2013, 2:25PM
      • So what kind of impact does that have on shaping the negative body image neuroses of their children? So what kind of person thinks that is a positive thing?

        Commenter
        Erikah
        Location
        Brisbane
        Date and time
        June 06, 2013, 11:30AM
      • It might not be unusual but it's very sad.

        I don't know if you have ever gone shopping with your Mum and watched her look at herself really sadly in a mirror when you think she is one of the most beautiful people in the world, but it makes you feel so sad.

        Commenter
        Em
        Date and time
        June 06, 2013, 3:43PM
    • So sad. Looks fade....good health is everything, and the only thing that we should be aiming for.

      Commenter
      Lynne
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      June 05, 2013, 11:35AM

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