Mothers & Daughters:
By Diane M. Ceja
From Radiance, Fall 1992 issue
Early one Sunday morning my four-year-old daughter, Veronica, was twirling around the bedroom, displaying her vibrant, plump body. Her face radiated total self-confidence. As Veronica finished dressing, she matter-of-factly queried, "Mommy, I’m cute, aren’t I?" I smiled and hugged her. As Veronica hugged me back, she said, "Mommy, you’re cute, too!"
I felt tears rushing to my eyes. They were tears of love, but also of remembered pain. I wished that my mother had accepted me as beautiful in my entirety, including my body. In Veronica’s mind, there was no question that her mommy was beautiful. In my mother’s mind, I would be beautiful only if I lost weight.
For the most part, my relationship with my mother has been loving. We have shared our interests in reading, sewing, cooking, and attending plays. I have been able to talk to her about almost anything, and she has understood. But my weight has always been an area of conflict.
Perhaps that is because my mother has struggled with her own issues about body size. While I was growing up, she vacillated between not caring about her weight and needing to just lose X number of pounds. I soon realized that being chunky wasn’t okay.
As I grew older, life’s increasing demands and stresses pounded on my self-confidence. I started using food as a pacifier of my anxieties. As my weight shot up, I started to hear fat clichés and pleas from my mother: "Boys will never look at you if you’re fat"; "You’d look better in black"; "You’d be so pretty if you’d only lose some weight"; "Don’t eat too much"; "You don’t need that ice cream"; "If you would lose some weight, then you could wear clothes like your sisters wear."
My mother tried to help me lose weight. She took me to the family doctor, who prescribed a diet. She encouraged and advised me in all my weight-loss endeavors. She even steered me into my career as a dietitian, hoping that I could change my eating habits and lose weight. At the time I did it to please her, but as I began to study I found nutrition quite interesting.
Although my knowledge about nutrition increased with each degree, I continued to yo-yo up and down in my weight.
After graduate school I moved from Minnesota to California, where there were more job opportunities for me. I enjoyed the challenge of starting a new life, but I really missed my family. Once again, I started to use food to quell my anxieties and loneliness.
This time, however, I fought back before my bingeing got totally out of control. I joined the local health club, which had weight-lifting machines as well as aerobic classes. I also worked on eating more nutritious foods and cutting down on sweets. Gradually, I felt less stressed out, had more energy, toned up my body, lost some weight, and improved my eating habits. I felt healthier than I had for a long time.
Despite that, I still didn’t have much self-confidence about my large body. Then I met Ignacio. Ignacio admired my round plumpness and viewed me as sexy and desirable. He helped me feel good about my body because he accepted and loved me as I was. When I felt depressed, sometimes I’d talk about diets and losing weight. He would tell me that I was fine just as I was. Other times, he would try to tease me out of my mood by calling me his gordita (little fat one) or another silly name. He attempted to make me feel better, but ultimately, I needed to accept myself.
A few years after Ignacio and I were married, I became pregnant and our daughter, Veronica, was born. She came screaming and kicking into this world with a beautiful, plump 9-pound, 6-ounce body. Throughout infancy, Veronica was larger and plumper than most babies. I didn’t worry about her body size until she became a toddler. That was when the specter of my old issues about fatness started to darken our mother-daughter relationship.
By the age of two, Veronica was a round-faced, plump Campbell kid. She was the mirror image of myself at that age, which created a sense of deja vu when I looked at her.
Around that time I read a research paper on the development of obesity in children. It said there was a strong relationship between the weights of mothers and daughters. If the mother was large, the child was more likely to be large. It also found that fat preschool children were at risk of becoming fat teenagers. I started to worry about Veronica’s future. Would it be similar to mine? The ugly clothes, the rejections, and the people who hurt me more than helped? To my horror, I caught myself admonishing her with my mother’s words.
I blamed myself for Veronica’s plumpness because I was plump. I thought that if I had control of my weight, then Veronica would be slim. A few months later, while visiting my parents in Minnesota, the crowning blow fell. My mother and I were discussing my weight loss, and she said, "I always wondered how you could be credible as a dietitian when you were so fat." I felt devastated. I didn’t confront her or stand up for myself. I just felt awful.
I went back home with my mother’s words ringing in my ears. I spent a lot of time thinking about how my weight was still controlling my sense of self-esteem. I didn’t want to spend my life living from diet to diet. I didn’t want to poison Veronica’s positive view of her body and herself. I especially didn’t want Veronica to waste time having self-doubts and continually dieting or thinking that she needed to. Finally, I didn’t want to continue depending on my mother’s or other people’s opinions to validate my own sense of self-worth.
I tried to figure out how to deal with my insecurities and to nurture my relationship with Veronica. I realized that first I needed to pay more attention to myself. I had to clean up my own excess baggage (past memories and fears) and work on accepting myself as I was. I read everything that I could on developing a positive self-image. I didn’t lose weight. Instead, I took every opportunity to nurture and feel good about me. I went for long walks and did special things for myself: I got facials and haircuts, bought clothes, and spent many quiet moments by myself.
I also worked to stretch my inner self. I actively pursued jobs and projects that interested me and explored new opportunities. As a dietitian, I have taught classes, published a newsletter, worked in research, written articles, and counseled clients. One of my most enjoyable experiences was teaching classes for a nearby health club. I loved teaching there because I was able to stress self-acceptance and making healthy food choices. As a large woman, I projected an exuberant, healthy image, and my students and I had a wonderful time. Right now I divide my time between my family, volunteer work as a nutrition consultant at a Head Start program, and writing.
Veronica is now four years old, and I have tried to build a strong relationship with her. I focus on loving her for who she is, and I encourage her to explore new interests and new possibilities.
I have set certain goals for myself in relation to her. I don’t expect to always succeed, but I am going to do my best. Here are some of my goals:
1. To give Veronica a strong self of herself. To help her identify and develop her strengths and learn to be patient with herself as she practices what is more difficult for her. To give her some space so that she can explore on her own, too.
A few weeks ago our family went to the park. Veronica was fearlessly climbing jungle gyms and swooshing down steep slides. She zoomed down a twelve-foot slide and landed hard on her rear at the bottom. Ignacio said, "Are you okay?" After determining that she was fine, he said, "You really came off that slide fast. Good thing that you have a little extra padding back there." Veronica giggled and then triumphantly marched over to the spiral slide and climbed up again. Ignacio’s example continues to encourage me in my parenting goals.
2. To help her feel emotionally strong. Crying and other expressions of all feelings are allowed and encouraged.
3. To help Veronica develop tenacity. I would like her to always try, even if others say that she won’t be able to do something. After a good try, however, she can reassess the situation, pat herself on the back for trying, and then move forward or go in another direction. My past tenacity has helped me to achieve many things that I value in life, and I want to pass this on to her.
4. To teach her that a person who is plump does not need to deny herself, nor does she need to feel unworthy in any way. I encourage her, instead, to live life to its fullest and to shoot for the sky in her dreams.
5. To expose Veronica to a wide variety of activities—in sports, literature, music, and other areas. Ignacio and I have very different tastes in music, so Veronica is exposed to a lot of different styles, including ranchera and salsa.
We all love baseball, so whenever possible, we participate in or watch games. And I’m encouraging Ignacio to teach Veronica his favorite sport—soccer. I think that she definitely displays the spunk and instincts to be a good player. Veronica and I do a lot of walking, an activity that we have both enjoyed since she was very young.
6. To assist her in putting food in its proper perspective. Food should nourish the body and please the palate. Veronica and I are working on being more open to trying new foods. Often she will come home from preschool and will amaze me by telling me what new food she tried that day. Her ending statement is usually, "And Mommy, it was really good!"
7. Finally, to learn from Veronica about how to be a mother who helps her daughter feel good about herself—a mother who supports rather than obstructs, who encourages rather than limits, and who loves her child for who she is rather than what she or others would like her to be.
As I go into the living room for a short writing break, I glance at Veronica, who is mimicking the gyrating movements of a dance troupe on TV. She stops gyrating to inquire, "Mommy, I really dance good, huh?" I reply, "Yes, Veronica, you really do!"
As for my relationship with my mother, it is still loving. I have always admired my mother’s independence and mental strength, and I hope to pass those qualities on to Veronica. But we haven’t totally resolved our differences about weight. In some ways, we’re like two boxers tensely circling each other before the start of a match. We’re both waiting to see who will be the first to shake hands.
I did detect a slight softening in my mother’s attitude when we last spoke long distance. I told her about RADIANCE and how the articles promoted a positive self-image and discussed the accomplishments of large women. She surprised me by saying that it sounded great. She also commented that she knew many successful people who were large. I replied that being large didn’t affect your knowledge or competence, even in health-related occupations. She agreed and mentioned a large nurse who was competent and had a wonderful rapport with her clients and their families.
After I hung up the phone, I found myself wishing that we could have settled our conflicts about weight once and for all. Unfortunately, a problem that spans more than thirty years can’t often be taken care of in one conversation.
I still intend to have a long talk with my mom about weight, my career as a dietitian, and our past weight conflicts. I want to resolve those issues so that we can enjoy and nurture our relationship. Perhaps sharing this article with her will be a step in the right direction. ©
DIANE M. CEJA lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband and four-year-old daughter (who, since the writing of this article, is now 10 years old). Diane is actively pursuing her interests in freelance writing and nutrition education.