Read My Hips; How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large
By Kimberly Brittingham
When I was a teenager, my mother took a picture of me standing in front of our house.
I stood unsmiling beside a flowering bush. I knew I was bigger and uglier than most girls, but maybe the camera would strike a deceptive angle and make me look pretty.
When the picture came back from the developer, I was mortified.
I was going to make sure no one ever saw this awful image of me. I stole it from its paper envelope and scurried away to my room.
I sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the semigloss print in my hands. I had no idea I was so misshapen! I knew I was pear-shaped; all the women in our family were. But genetics had hung themselves on my frame with an unnecessary flourish of cruelty. My hips ballooned out from my body, in freakish contrast to my trim waist. I was an extreme, like those apes with shockingly bulbous red bottoms.
I began to cry. My God, I thought. I'm deformed!
Clearly, I'd have to cover this up. Never again would I wear a shirt or sweater under thirty-two inches long - or at least not until I fixed this problem. I'd wear tunics and dumpy cardigans, and men's button-down shirts three sizes too big, just because they covered my hips.
I took the photo to my desk and with a fine-tipped black marker, oh-so-carefully, I shaved several inches off my hips, applying the ink in parentheses-like strokes until I'd blacked out the swells of excess flesh. I sat up straight and regarded the image of myself with a "normal" body, and felt overcome by a surge of shimmering hope.
Pure possibility. It coursed through my veins like warm, flowery bathwater. The promise of improvement, of being better than this flabby, self-conscious, blemished sack of flesh I dragged between home and school every day. The suggestion that I might actually become the heroine of my daydreams. It was irresistible.
I could make it happen.
I'd just go on a diet.
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 day-time 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 around the country a lot, every couple of years or so. And everywhere we went, my mother carefully folded and stowed away her Richard Simmons diet tips, only to unfold and retape 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 stationery 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.