Read My Hips
This is an excerpt from WATRD Contributor Kim Brittingham’s book Read My Hips. See accolades at the bottom of the page!
I don’t ever remember my mother being fat, and yet I clearly remember her dieting. When I was
growing up, she read many women’s magazines — Redbook, Family Circle, Woman’s Day. As
a stay-at-home mom, she watched daytime talk shows like Donahue. She was immersed in the popular culture of the day and so, like millions of other American women, she was exposed to the media onslaught of “thinner is better” messaging, both overt and covert.
There was this glossy two-page spread of diet tips by Richard Simmons that she’d cut from one of her magazines and taped to her bedroom door. One of his suggestions was to use tiny children’s utensils for eating, because it would help one ingest less food. Above the type was a photo of a hammy
Richard in a red polo shirt with white collar, holding a goofy oversized knife and fork, one in each hand, his mouth and eyes agape in comic exaggeration.
We moved round the country a lot, every couple of years or so. And everywhere we went, my mother carefully folded and stowed away her Richard Simmons diets tips, only to unfold and re-tape them to the bedroom door at our new address. The old tape grew brittle beneath the new, deepening to an unhealthy-looking jaundice color and flaking away.
My mother started her diets — and eventually, our shared family diets — very gung ho. There were inaugural trips to the supermarket, during which she stocked up on foods we usually never saw in our house. Like cottage cheese. She made lots of sweeping “from now on” statements: “We won’t be eating this anymore.”
“We’re going to start taking walks every night after dinner.” “Things are going to change around here!”
She made charts for each member of the family on which we could track our exercise, and in the case of my brother and sister and me, our chores and our homework, too (because sweeping dietary change was usually concurrent with recommitments to pitching in around the house and getting straight A’s).
At the stationary store, Mom bought multicolored, star-shaped metallic stickers we could lick-and-stick to mark our daily victories. She experimented with her blender and we swallowed things made from powders. She made me get up an hour early and go jogging with my father before school. Jogging made me feel like I couldn’t breathe, and I hated being forced into his company. The mood inside my Mork and Mindy lunchbox was dismal. Snack cakes and aluminum peel-top cans of pudding were gone. Sandwiches became wretchedly thin. We were eating special bread now — diet bread, from the pink bag, sliced super-thin, “…so you can have two slices for the same number of calories as a single slice of regular bread!” my mother enthused. “It saves a whole bread exchange on Weight Watchers.” Fortunately, the upheavals never lasted more than a week.
I’m not sure if my mother tired of all the extra effort it took to prepare these “diet” meals, or if she tired of the bland foods themselves, or
of my ceaseless complaining because I’d been coerced into doing leg lifts with her on her bedroom floor. I just know that seven days later, the mashed potatoes and meatloaf would be back on the menu, the Ring Dings would return to the pantry, and no one talked about the cottage cheese going rancid in the back of the fridge. We were relieved. We knew Mom would get inspired again, eventually, but until that happened, we were keeping our traps shut.
It was only a few short years, though, before I’d become a teenager, and then I’d be the one initiating the diets, requesting them, asking for Jane Fonda’s Workout Album for Christmas, and doing leg lifts by myself on my own bedroom floor. I didn’t want to be fat anymore. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be immune to the kind of disapproval I read in the eyes of every thin person who ever looked at me.
I can’t blame my mother for imbuing me with the “diet mentality”, because we coexisted in the same ugly culture. There was already something wicked at work that was far bigger than either one of us — a rapidly burgeoning, manipulative, and self-serving diet industry working from behind a mask of false benevolence.
Throughout my teens and adulthood, I enjoyed many moments of triumph on the scale — at home, at the weight loss center, on the big pay-scale in the drugstore. But there were just as many moments of frustration, desperation, and deprivation as I undid all the dieting I’d done. Dieting was the express train to “let’s see just how fat this girl can get.” It sped me through all the “weigh” stations along the route, rarely stopping to rest long at any one victorious weight loss. In between, it delivered heartbreaking telegrams via scale that revealed ever-increasing
I dieted my way down to a gaunt size.
I reveled in [that size] for five minutes before the weight began to creep back up, and just two months later I found myself [back up again].
The pattern continued, down and up ever higher, until one day, I peaked.
Multiple go-rounds with Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, Richard Simmons’ Deal-a-Meal and daily home deliveries of “Zone” diet meals made those companies richer. Sure, they brag they can “fix” you, but they never tell you up front about that one percent success rate. And when you fail, it’s never their fault. You’ve got something wrong with you.
I used to beat myself up for being such a failure, a repeat failure, unable to control myself. But in recent years I’ve read about what dieting does to our minds and bodies, and there’s evidence that once we start consciously tinkering with our food intake in an effort to reduce our body size, our bodies pull out every weapon in their arsenals to prevent us from succeeding. It seems no amount of “willpower” can overcome the body’s need to protect us from external threats to the food intake we’re used to. Reducing our caloric intake can actually trigger a narrowing of focus in our minds, too, a survival mechanism that makes sure we obsess about food until we get enough of it. Unfortunately, the whole act of self-deprivation — even mild self-deprivation — is so unnatural that we respond by eaing more than we really needed in the first place.
All those years of trying to lose weight exacerbated my already-unhealthy relationship with food. I was an emotional eater from a young age.
Dieting casts an even bigger spotlight on food and all the accompanying rigidity; all those “forbidden” foods only made me want them more.
Once upon a time, food was fuel for my body and a pleasure to my senses. But it became so much more. Now it’s supercharged with meaning and burdened with responsibilities it never signed up for.
Besides, the widely swallowed message that no pursuit is holier, more righteous or valiant, than the pursuit of lost pounds fostered unnecessary self-hatred in me that took years to undo. Every weight loss program, not matter how positively it’s packaged, whispers to you that you’re not right. You’re not good enough. You’re unacceptable and you need to be fixed.
I officially reject that message. I reject it for myself, and I reject it on your behalf, too.
I wish I could go back in time and convince the adolescent girl I was to accept herself just the way she was. I’d tell her she was “ready” already, and she’d know what that meant. I’d tell her that every second she spent thinking about weight loss was shaving a minute off her life. I’d warn her that the bigger the deal she made out of eating less, the more she’d want to eat. I’d beg her, from the floor if necessary, to cry more — cry as hard as her belly ache was deep.