I was raised by extremely critical parents. My stepmother resented having to raise me. I can only speculate, but I suspect that her resentment was borne of the struggles my parents had with limited resources. She had two “of her own” and two of my dad’s kids from his prior marriage to raise, and time and money was spread extremely thin. She couldn’t give her kids what she wanted to give them because she had to spend some of that time and money on my dad’s kids. So, she justified her resentment and her unequal allocation of resources by constantly judging me and my sister and finding us lacking. My dad, sadly, is (and was) an extremely weak-willed person, and whatever my stepmother decided was truth, he went along with, because he was not interested in fighting with her or even disagreeing with her. He never rocked the boat.
I have a story to tell, and I can’t really tell it without the bragging part, but I think its highly illustrative of
how ludicrous their attitudes about me were– they criticized nearly everything about me, not just about my weight. I was always cut down for being fat, lazy, and clumsy. I was told I was humorless and dull because I didn’t laugh along with the rest of the family when she said something hurtful disguised as “only teasing.” My stepmother was a much smaller-framed woman than I am, and she used to marvel at my disgusting tree stump ankles and thick-boned wrists: things I couldn’t change no matter how much weight I lost.
And yet, sadly, I always hoped that someday I could convince her and my father to accept me and love me. Well, they always told me that they “loved” but didn’t “like” me, since in their screwed up minds, loving a child meant providing the things that would keep the Department of Child and Family Services from opening a case file: feeding, clothing, housing, and refraining from beating me. I continually fantasized about ways in which I could impress them and change their minds about me.
I was always a bright kid, even though I didn’t realize it and didn’t receive a lot of parental encouragement. I brought home mostly A’s and test scores in the 99th percentiles. When I was in the 11th grade, it came time to take the SAT, so I did, and brought home a 1590. For those who didn’t take it, that is 10 points lower than the highest possible SAT score, which is 1600, and is extremely high. That is a score that anyone could be proud of. I remember my heart fluttering in my chest as I feigned nonchalance when handing the score to my dad.
He looked at it, and said, “1590? Which problems did you miss?”
“Two analogies and one reading comprehension question.”
“Well, what’s your problem with analogies? You should work on those, take it again and get a perfect score.”
I was devastated. I knew that if I took the test again, it was more likely that I would get a lower score than a higher one. I also knew that, in the eyes of college admissions counselors, the 1590 would reflect just as favorably upon me as would the 1600. I so badly had wanted that number to mean that I was good in some way. I figured, the number couldn’t lie. My parents couldn’t deny that at least I was smart and that was something to be proud of.
Additionally, amusingly, I got grounded a week or two later for having the audacity to ask my stepmother’s daughter (older than I am by three years) what she got on her SATs when she took them– knowing/hoping I could then say mine was higher, admittedly, because I so desperately wanted to prove to myself and my parents that I was worthwhile– which my stepmother decided was “deliberately hurtful” behavior.
My parents are not in my life right now. I have been out of their household for 11 years now, and in that time, we have have gone our separate ways, reunited, and gone our separate ways again. I can’t get over the fact that my interactions with them have a huge net negative effect on me, because I am not strong enough to withstand the hurricane of their constant criticisms. So, right now, I get to enjoy a mental space that is not constantly bombarded with their negative judgments.
Sometimes I think maybe I became so accustomed to their criticisms that that became the “normal” state of mental being for me. I was never very good at dieting, but I was spectacular at the self-flagellation when the first dieting rule– no fat, no carbs, no dessert, no sugar, no meat– was broken and everything was ruined and I’d thrown away any chance at the life of slender perfection I’d always dreamed of. In fact, I’d developed a routine of getting on the scale every morning and running through a mental script of, “You are fat, lazy, and disgusting. What is wrong with you? You have no discipline. You don’t even really want to be thin. You are some kind of extremely sick-in-the-head if you want to be so fat and disgusting your whole life. And its obvious you want to be because you obstinately refuse to do what you know you are supposed to do to make those numbers on the scale go down.”
Writing that down, I realize who the original author of that script is, and here’s a hint: it wasn’t me.
Part of giving up dieting for me is giving up the negative mental self-beatings. I know some people can– and do– accomplish a lot with a diet without hating on themselves, but for me, the self-hate and the dieting mindset are (probably inextricably) linked, because of my childhood. Every time I get on a scale and tell myself I am a bad person because of those numbers, I am performing a practiced little skit that I have done hundreds or maybe thousands of times since I was eight years old. I cannot imagine dieting without the internal punishments– what would keep me from breaking the rules all the time, if not the fear of one more piece of evidence on the staggering pile of evidence showing that I am fat, lazy, disgusting, undisciplined, and sick in the head? I had a lightning-bolt to the head moment the other day when I realized that part of the appeal of dieting for me was the excuse to engage in near-constant self-flagellation, because hating on myself is something that seems like the normal state of being for me.
This morning my husband I am are going to go rent some bikes, fly down a flat, beautiful trail, and have a picnic lunch. I will be good to my body and my mind today. I hope these days of no weigh-ins are allowing those memories of scale-torture to be covered up with a thin layer of dust. I hope soon those memories will be shoved into a back corner, bricked in with storage boxes, and allowed to atrophy. I hope my new memories of saying, “Mae, you did a good job today. Awesome work on that bike,” and “Wow, what a fabulously nutritional meal. Good job for eating what makes your body run well,” will become the practiced skits, the normal state of mental being for me.