Before I get into why I’m writing you this letter, I want to make sure you know that I’m definitely gonna grow up to still love you and forgive you for all the stuff I’m about to talk about. It’s not about being right or proving a point or making you feel bad…and probably you’ll never see this letter. This is about me and the person I’m going to become, in spite of and because of how you’re setting me up to see the world and myself.
I also want you to know that I think you are one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. I notice how much time you put into how you dress and do your makeup, securing those little individual eyelashes with tweezers and glue every few days so you always look like a fluttery-lashed Disney princess. I see how you make time for exercise to stay in shape and how you never go out without curling your hair.
I also see how you skip breakfast and sometimes lunch, how you drink five or six cups of coffee a day to stave off hunger pangs, and the pained look you give me when I can’t fit into the cute girls’ clothes when we go shopping. I feel the shame stinging hotly in my cheeks when you trudge me over to the women’s section.
I hear the way you talk about your body as if it’s a beast you have to control and restrain.
“I need to get my fat ass to the gym.”
“I’m so mad at myself for eating so much.”
“I’ve gotten so fat, I’m disgusting, I hate myself.”
I’ve known since I was four years old that being fat was bad and something to be ashamed of, because you and Dad and Stevie all made sure I knew.
I remember when Stevie slapped a piece of bologna (which I would call “baloney”) out of my hand as I plucked it from the refrigerator. He said, “If you eat that, you’ll be fat.” You and Dad heard him and backed him up. I was confused. I just wanted a snack. I was five.
I remember when you put a dress that looked like a loose black sack on me and claimed it was so slimming. I looked in the mirror and couldn’t see myself. I looked like I was wearing a garbage bag. I felt like garbage.
I remember Dad getting angry at me for being excited about the lunch I was about to assemble at a buffet restaurant. I was chattering happily about cheesecake and corndogs, and out of nowhere, he said, “For God’s sake, Samia, your thighs touch between your legs.” His voice rang with disgust. Scorn. Contempt. I’ll never forget that.
I spent years wondering how it was possible for a person’s thighs to not touch. I mean, they’re right next to each other. Were “normal” people really so thin that their thighs didn’t touch?
I can’t look at other girls without noticing how thin (or not thin) they are. If another girl is thin, I’m jealous and I imagine that she’s just naturally like that without even trying. It makes me feel cheated by life and so frustrated that I wasn’t born naturally lithe. But mostly, it makes me feel ugly and worthless.
And maybe even worse than that, when I see a girl who’s fatter than me, I think, “At least I’m not like her.”
I think those are the moments I hate myself the most.
I try to prove that I have value in other arenas — I’m smart and I’m talented. I can ace a test without studying and I can sing showtunes like nobody’s business.
But trying so hard backfires. I have a reputation as an attention-seeking know-it-all at school. I’m constantly trying to prove that I have something to offer, in spite of my soft, round body, which is the first thing anyone sees. I feel like I’m constantly swimming against the current of others’ expectations, never moving forward, no matter how hard I thrash.
Fat people are lazy, after all. Lazy and unable to control themselves around food. Being fat is the worst thing you can be. That’s what I’ve learned.
And because food is so forbidden, I actually do have problems controlling myself around it, and that makes all of this so much worse. I hate eating in public. I feel more self-conscious and ashamed with every bite I take.
I think and feel this way because I’ve watched you since babyhood beating up on yourself for gaining five pounds. The number of times you’ve called yourself fat in front of me is scary, because you’re not fat.
I clearly am, and that’s why you’re constantly starting me on new diets and trying to get me to play sports, which I hate because I suck at them and the other kids make fun of me. Let’s go, Big Girl, let’s go!
You try hitting a ball with a bat with that chant echoing from the dug-out.
I see how you hate yourself, and you’re not even fat — so how must you actually feel about me?
My shameful, ugly, chubby body is a problem, a bad reflection of how you’re doing as a mother. I can tell that’s how you feel every time you look at me.
You tell me you love me, and I believe you. You tell me I’m beautiful, though, and I don’t believe you. I know from watching you what you consider beautiful: thinness, above all else.
I don’t want to value thinness over kindness or loyalty or being a good friend. But I do, and I learned that from you. I know in my mind that can’t be true, but my body believes a different story.
I don’t want to hate my body.
If I could have one wish granted for you, I would wish for you to love your body the way I one day will. To value its strength and fortitude more than its ability to look good in a very tight dress. To stop calling yourself names, to stop berating yourself for enjoying a yummy meal or a night out. I would wish for you to love your body and yourself as much as you say you love me.
And for myself, I wish to one day look in the mirror and admire the person I see there, whether she’s carrying a few extra pounds or not.
I wish to be able to enjoy food with no guilt or shame whatsoever, and to be free from the uncontrollable cravings that endless dieting has instilled in me.
I wish to feel strong and beautiful, but not beautiful as defined by movies or TV— beautiful as defined by me.
I know that there are more important things in life than my waist measurement — but watching you obsess over yours has set me up for years of tedious, hard-won reprogramming.
I’m going to do it, though, and if I ever have a daughter, I will make sure she never suffers from an addiction to thinness the way you or I did. And I bet you’ll be really proud of me, and her.
I love you, Mom. I know you did your best, and I’m so grateful to you for trying to prepare me for the world. I will heal from this, and I hope you do, too.
And I want you to know that there are so many things about me that have real value, so many things that I care about that are actually important. I care about making other people feel loved and accepted no matter what. I care about being a good person and not judging others. I care about making people feel included. I care about the beauty in a person’s soul, about kindness, about love and honesty and careful consideration of others’ feelings. I care about music and theater and books and singing.
And yes, I care about food, and I love it and I love enjoying it. I learned that from you, too, you know. You’re the most amazing home chef, better than any restaurant, and you taught me to love fantastic food just as much as you taught me to hate a few extra pounds of fat.
So don’t worry about me, and don’t feel bad. I understand, I think, where it’s all coming from. Our world tells us that a woman’s worth lies mostly in her beauty, and you have suffered under that lie just as much as I have.
I just want you to feel beautiful. And I believe that one day, I will get there myself.