Forgiving Generations of Body Shamers
I was an emotional wreck 15 minutes into my first ever therapy session at 28. The conversation had turned into a discussion about the primary cause of my anxiety — my mother, and I didn’t expect that at all.
I had planned to talk to my therapist about my strong reaction to one scene from Leaving Neverland, an HBO documentary that centers around Wade Robson’s and James Safechuck’s allegations of sexual abuse against Michael Jackson.
I wanted to know why I unexpectedly cried like a baby at the scene where Wade’s and James’ parents described the moment they finally believed their son.
I thought that it had something to do with the emotional abuse I experienced in my early 20s, but my therapist quickly ruled that out. She then asked about my relationship with my family.
That’s when I started to bawl.
My mother was my biggest critic
For the longest time, my mother was my number one critic. She would criticize my face, my body, my skin, and the way I breathe (one of these is false). But the weird thing was, she never criticized me when it came to academic performance.
I’ve always been thin my whole life. No matter how much I eat, my weight stays more or less the same. Well, except for when I was 17 and I stayed in the US for a year. I gained weight so easily, it was borderline scary.
Anyway, back to my mother. My younger years were horrible thanks to her constant body shaming. It was as if the shape of my body personally offended her. I would get “you look so thin” comments from her constantly for almost two decades. She made me feel like there was something legitimately wrong with me.
To illustrate how much of a body shamer she was, let me tell you the one time she hurt me the most.
As I briefly mentioned above, I gained weight during my one-year stay in the US. I went from around 43 kg (95 lbs) to 48 kg (105 lbs), and I was 156 cm (5'1) tall. I was perfectly happy with the weight gain. In fact, it was like a dream come true.
I had harbored a tiny hope that maybe she’d be happy about my new weight before I went back home. She didn’t like my thin body, right? So she must be happy to see my “new” one. Boy was I wrong.
“Why are you so fat?” My mother asked me when she saw me at the airport after a year of not seeing each other. No “hello”, no “how are you?”
Just an inquiry as to why her 18-year-old daughter was “fat.”
The culture of body shaming was alive and well
“Maybe your mother was treated the same way by her mother.”
That was my therapist’s response to my stories about my mother. As gentle and kind as she could be in her delivery, I was hurt by that statement.
I must have looked so shocked because she quickly added that it didn’t excuse my mother’s behavior. My therapist’s intention was to give me a little bit of perspective that my mother’s body-shaming was maybe not about me.
The way my mother was brought up had shaped her into the kind of mother that she was. It didn’t excuse her behavior but it explained a lot.
When she grew up, a girl’s education was not as important as a boy’s. Appearance, however, was. So just like my mother, my grandmother was very critical and a perfectionist when it came to appearance but not education.
So I decided to hate my grandmother. I needed a scapegoat. Plus she had a habit of reminding me to “eat more” during her visits.
It didn’t take me long before I realized that my grandmother probably experienced the same thing with her mother, only it was 10x worse for her in the middle of the 20th century.
Like everywhere else, women in my country at the time (and the time before that and so on) pretty much existed to serve men. Looking beautiful was essential to finding a husband quickly. Thankfully, we have had a lot of positive changes since then, especially when it comes to education for women and girls.
However, one thing persists. The sexist pressure on women to look a certain way sticks like glue. That’s why decades later, I have the right to education but I am still shamed for something I can’t control.
We can be the agents of change
Knowing that my ancestors had it worse didn’t excuse my mother’s treatment of me. However, it did make it easier to forgive her. And in a weird way, it also created some sort of bond between us because we went through similar things.
It’s sad to be so sure that I am not the only one who has had this experience with their mother. If you are one of them, I’m sorry. I know how much it hurts.
Whether or not you forgive your mother is completely up to you. But maybe, just maybe, your mother was treated the same way by her mother.
So I would like to remind you of the power we have to break the toxic body-shaming cycle. Realize that even though it’s a symptom of deeply rooted sexism, we can still make a difference.
This change starts at home with your children. And if you’re like me, single, childless, and fabulous, you can help educate your younger siblings, cousins, nieces, or any other relatives, instead.
Help them love their body by loving them just the way they are. It’s also very important to encourage them to just ‘let people be’ — no matter what they look like.
“Intimacy. You cried because you saw intimacy between a parent and their child.”
That’s my therapist’s observation as to why I cried to a simple scene where the parents of Wade and James admitted their mistakes and finally believed their sons. It made perfect sense.
Even though my mother stopped body shaming me a while ago, we both still pay the price. There is no intimacy or trust between us, and the scene reminded me of that.