This is an excerpt from the essay I wrote and workshopped in my writing class this summer. It is the foundation essay to the essay collection I hope to finish and publish.
I didn’t know my mother kept a diary. I discovered it in a stack of books perched on the crowded nightstand in the upstairs bedroom of her house. A bedroom she had not been able to reach for months, her body unable to summit the staircase. She had been living entirely on the first floor the year before she died, and she had been dead for over a year when I found the diary. My siblings and I had finally started to clean out the house that she and my dad had built together; sorting 30 years of life into Dumpster, Donate, Sell, Keep.
My sister sat on the floor in front of a heap of wrinkled clothes she had pulled from mom’s dark brown carved-wood dresser. “I think this is mom’s diary. What should I do with it?” I handed my sister the purple hard-back, but she waved it away without looking up. “Don’t read that, Jill. It’s private.” I wordlessly tossed it onto the bed beside me and moved on to the rest of the stack. When my sister dragged a white garbage bag full of stained t-shirts and snagged hosiery to the dumpster, I lurched for the book and sat down on the floor with my back against her bed. The blood throbbed in my ears as I cracked open the spine and leafed through the entries. The daughter reading her mom’s diary, hands sweaty, expecting to find notes about her marriage or my dad’s illness and death, or my meddling grandparents, or me or my siblings. I expected her diary to look like mine – chronicles of heartbreaks and everything I couldn’t say out loud, with a few private joys woven in to hold it together. Waves of grief, guilt and curiosity trembled through me as I flipped through the pages. There were only twenty or so entries spanning over a decade. None were more than a paragraph long.
Please, God, help me lose some weight. I don’t want to be like this anymore.
Went to Weight Watchers tonight. It feels more doable this time. They’ve changed their program since the last time I tried.
Shortly after she completed her chemo she wrote:
Well, the Lord works in mysterious ways. All those years asking God to help me lose weight. Looks like the chemo has finally helped with that! Be careful what you wish for.
Nearly every entry was about her weight or her body shame or a new diet she was trying. Prayers scribbled in exhausted script. “Please, God, help me have some self-control. Please, God, help me lose some weight.” My dear mom had suffered so much, and the only griefs spilled into her diary were sorrows over her weight and failed diets. My heart tore wide open and I gulped back a sob. The sharp sting of this breach of her privacy compelled me to run the book out to the rust-orange dumpster and hurl her secrets over the container’s wall into the tangle of broken lawn chairs and mouse-chewed craft supplies. I never told either of my siblings what I had read.
I never thought of my mom as “fat” when I was growing up. She was soft and mom-sized. She shopped for clothes in the plus section but seemed to me to be similar in size to many of her peer moms. She was always on a diet. Weight Watchers, Slim Fast, Bible-based diets, soup and Special K diets. She never really lost any weight. My dad made relentless commentary about what she cooked and ate.
Do you really think you need seconds?
None of us really need dessert every night, you know.
Is that on your diet?
I saw the pain in her eyes even though she never retorted. “Probably not” she’d sigh.
My dad was dying, slowly, of Type 1 diabetes, which is the type that has nothing to do with how much you weigh or brought about by what you eat but is rather a ruthless genetic glitch. He had been managing the disease with a strictly sugar-free diet and daily insulin injections since he was five years old. He was also taking lithium for bi-polar disorder, which was still called Manic Depression in the 80s. His life depended upon careful label reading and strict sugar avoidance. He lived on meat, baked potatoes and Diet Coke. He occasionally indulged in strawberries or a swig of beer when his brothers were in town, but only if he was at home where he could check his blood sugar and stab another hit of insulin if needed.
When I was 14, he was let go from his job as a computer systems analyst because he couldn’t physically sit at a desk all day or type. Diabetic neuropathy in his fingers made it impossible to feel the keys of his keyboard. He was eventually granted permanent disability and stayed home all day for the next nine years, propped up in his brown faux leather recliner at first, and eventually a home hospital bed. By the time I was 18, he had only five modes: sleeping, yelling, laughing, crying, or watching M.A.S.H.
His comments to mom were, I believe, rooted in love and concern for her but mixed with vanity, jealousy over an abandon with food he had never experienced, and full buy-in to patriarchal, capitalist norms about what a woman’s body is allowed to look like. He was a good man, addled by disease and mental illness. He was a good man, who policed my mother’s food intake and bemoaned her inability to return to her svelte pre-baby body.
I’ve gained fifteen pounds since my daughter was born five years ago. Fifteen new pounds since the round-the-clock breastfeeding of a struggling newborn and the bleary nineteen months of sleeplessness that followed as my babe woke every two hours to eat. I had to oblige her. “She’s right at the edge of falling off the growth curve” her pediatrician told me. “You can switch to formula if it’s too much for your body”. I did supplement with formula, but kept drawing her to my breast, over and over, throughout the long nights. The lactation consultant didn’t find anything amiss with my breastmilk, or her latch. “She’s just tiny. She can only hold so much at a time in that tiny tummy”. She all but refused to eat solids, so I felt compelled to keep going despite the crushing exhaustion. She needs it. She’s so small. And also, feeding a hungry human from your body burns a shit ton of calories. I felt free to eat almost anything I wanted.
The medical establishment concludes that the “typical Western diet”, obesity, and low levels of exercise all increase your risk factor of developing colon cancer. I can’t “get” Type 1 diabetes, but because my dad had Type 1 and my grandmother had Type 2, I am at higher risk for Type 2, which is commonly believed to have a strong link to obesity and visceral fat that pads your organs around the waist. I’m predisposed to at least two lethal diseases whose trigger seems to have at least something to do with what you choose to eat. On the other hand, years of data shouted by the anti-diet, body positivity folks say that diets don’t work, almost always do more harm than good, and that weight has less of a correlation with health than the patriarchy wants you to believe. The conflicting science haunts every grocery list, every meal plan, every daily decision about what to put in my mouth.
My new fifteen pounds snuck up on me over the last three years because I kept eating whatever I wanted even after I stopped breastfeeding. My husband doesn’t comment on my weight or what I choose to eat, but despair over the soft cushion of my middle keeps me awake at night. I read anti-diet-culture manifestos and try to buy into intuitive eating and body positivity. Every day, I hold up the genuine urgency of accepting my body and setting a better example for my daughter and weigh it against the deep, deep fear of succumbing to the colon cancer that took my 59 year old mother while I still desperately needed her, or the diabetes complications that ultimately took my dad at 51. I want to confidently stake my tent in the anti-diet and body positivity camp, but I never get there. The tangle of fear at my feet trips me. What if the medical establishment is right? What if the unbridled bloom of my belly triggers a deadly disease? What if my lack of self-control leaves my young daughter motherless? What if there is a limit to my husband’s solidarity with my self-acceptance? What if I, like my mother, just don’t want to look like this anymore? If I get a terrible disease that I could have prevented, all eyes will be on my waistline. I want to love my body, but I also want to control it.
I am the unbeliever who lies awake at night, worried that she might be wrong about hell.