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How I'm Breaking Free of My Family's Vicious Cycle of Diet Culture

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

My mom is constantly on a diet. Currently, she is doing a “cleanse.” Nearing the summer, the negative self-talk starts. During the summer, she punishes her body for “eating like sh*t since Christmas.”

“Fat” is a word I have heard uttered through gritted teeth with disgust growing up. “Look at how fat that woman is. Shoot me if I ever get that big,” was a common line thrown around at the grocery store while I shopped with my mom. I’ve lived on my own for the past six years, so I very rarely hear the intense body shaming my mom does in public — only now when we go shopping together.  A few months ago my grandfather died and grandmother has dementia, so my boyfriend and I moved in to help take care of her. And once again, I’m hearing body shaming again. I’m realizing it’s a cycle.

“Look at this pudge,” my grandma said the other day as I was coming upstairs. She clutched her waist in her hands. “I used to be so thin, now I’m gaining all of this weight back again. Ugh. Ew.” Since living with her, I’m noticing some of grandma’s behaviors are almost identical to the ones my mom did when I was growing up.

The other night I was watching America’s Got Talent with my grandma. She commented on a few audience members who were cheering in the crowd.”There sure are a lot of fat girls that like to go to shows like this,” she said.

The week before she said: “That girl sings really well. She would be really pretty if she wasn’t fat.”

Please do not get me wrong. I adore my grandma. She is one of the strongest women I know. She’s also one of the most intelligent and driven. But moving in with her has got me thinking. Family diet culture is a cycle — and it can be a very toxic cycle.

My mom would make similar comments while watching TV. I don’t think I thought much about these comments as a kid. But then part of me wonders if I just internalized everything, which set me up to be more vulnerable to an eating disorder. That’s when I start overanalyzing everything and decide to stop, as it usually leads to me feeling too much guilt and shame.

Family diet culture is real and it’s harmful. Some moms criticize their children’s bodies, others make negative comments towards others and themselves, like my mom did/does. My grandma and my mom are beautiful. When they speak negatively towards themselves, I’m left feeling lost.

“Mom, you look great!” I said. I remember my mom staring at herself in the mirror when I was maybe 11 or 12. She was holding her stomach and frowning.

“I’ve got to lose this weight,” she said. “I haven’t lost anything. I look disgusting.” My mom continued.

“Mom, what are you talking about?” I said, as I worried that one day I would be standing in front of the mirror, clenching my stomach, living on a diet and feeling unable to shed unwanted pounds. “You aren’t fat at all.” We talked about the word “fat” as if it were a bad, unspeakable trait. She sighed.

There are a lot of memories like this one I keep. Sometimes late at night, I replay them over and over in my head. Is there something I could have said to make her feel beautiful? Now, after living with my grandma, I see where the thoughts and behaviors come from.

When I was at the worst of the anorexia, I would stand in front of the mirror. I would clench my waist and pinch my thighs. I would stare and sigh, thinking I needed to lose more weight. That I needed to lose all the weight and I wouldn’t be able to be happy until I did. I never connected the dots of the cycle of our family dieting until recently.

I am not a parent. To be honest, I am terrified of uttering similar sentences in front of my children at the grocery store. I am terrified they might pick up on my weird eating habits. Moms, I urge you to speak kindly to your body in front of your children. Children idolize their parents. My heart broke every time my beautiful mother spoke poorly about her body. I thought, I am an extension of her. Am I going to be this unhappy with myself when I grow up?

Dads, I urge you to compliment the mothers in your life. Not just about their looks, but about how strong their personality is. Not about their body, but about how radiantly beautiful they are on the inside.

I plan on ending the vicious family diet cycle. I do not think my family realizes the impact their words have. I do not want to guilt, shame or blame them for anything. I want the women in my family to realize their worth and their beauty.

Follow this journey on Resilience & Recovery.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Thinkstock photo via kevinhillillustration.

Originally published: August 8, 2017
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