Updated: Apr 20, 2022
This week I am sharing the story of when my low self-esteem first intersected with toxic diet culture and started a chain reaction that would keep me on the diet roller coaster for decades.
But first, a little background. I grew up in a nice house in a good neighbourhood, but there weren’t a lot of hugs or I love you’s in that house. There were two cars in the driveway and regular family vacations to Florida, but those photos on the beach didn't tell the full story. From the outside, we looked like a typical family. However, things are not always as they seem.
As a child, I didn’t know what manic depression (aka bi-polar disorder) was and I certainly didn’t know that my mom was afflicted with it. In fact, my mom didn’t know either as she wasn’t officially diagnosed until she was in her late 40’s. What I did know is that my mom was not like other moms. She could be really happy one day and then very sad the next. Sometimes her sadness would last for days or even weeks at a time and I didn’t understand why. When you’re a kid the simplest explanation is that you are the problem. You think, “I must have done something wrong to make mom sad. I need to be good to make her happy again.” Little did I know I would spend years trying to make my mom happy. Somewhere along the way, my theory that being a good daughter would make my mom happy, morphed into the idea that I had to be perfect to be worthy of love. And I desperately wanted to feel loved.
Not surprisingly, my teenage years were filled with self doubt and low self-esteem. I tried to be a perfect daughter but I always fell short. I didn't excel at anything. I was not popular. I was a good student, not a great one. I was average looking, not beautiful. I could have chosen to study harder to become a better student, but instead I decided that being beautiful would make me a better daughter and bring me closer to perfection. Once I was beautiful, my mom would be happy, and I would finally be worthy of the love I craved.
I came of age in the 1980’s. At that time “beauty” was constantly on display in the form of glossy fashion magazines on the newsstand. Before the internet and social media, we looked to the printed pictures in those magazines to tell us how we should look, and I went all in. I couldn’t get enough of them. Cosmo and Glamour and Vogue, oh my!! I loved the smell, the feel of the pages between my fingertips and the beautiful faces looking back at me. Along with those mesmerizing (photoshopped!) photos, these magazines also included the diet de jour. Wow, I thought, all I have to do is follow these diets, lose weight and I will look as beautiful as the models in those magazines. I had arrived at the intersection of low self-esteem and toxic diet culture and my life was about to change irreparably.
I never had a weight problem growing up. At the age of 13, I stood 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed about 140 pounds. However, when I looked in the mirror, all I could do was compare myself to the airbrushed models in those magazines. My legs were too thick. My stomach wasn't flat enough. I didn't have a thigh gap. I needed to lose weight. I needed to wear a smaller size. I needed to be skinnier. I needed to be perfect.
Well, I'm sure most of you can guess how things turned out. None of those diets worked or if they did, the changes were only temporary. My once normal and stable weight became a thing of the past and my pursuit of perfection failed every time. I tried over and over and over again to no avail and with each attempt, the false beliefs associated with toxic diet culture became further engrained in my brain. If you can't stick to your diet, you're a loser. You have to deprive yourself to lose weight. If you don't have the willpower to stop eating junk food, you're weak. If you're fat you're lazy. If you're not skinny then you can't be beautiful. If you're not beautiful, no one will love you.
My quest to be "beautiful" continued for years. It lead me to Weight Watchers and Atkins and too many other diets to list here. As I got heavier my mom took notice. The innocent question, "do you really think you should eat that?" lead me to start eating in secret in my bedroom, a habit that still haunts me to this day. There have even been times that I have struggled with bulimia, something I will write about in a separate post. Through it all, I never became that perfect daughter and even though I lost my mom almost 25 years ago, I kept searching for that perfection through diets and depravation. I never found it.
So now I am on a different path. The path of contentment, purpose and imperfection. It has taken a lot of therapy and support of loved ones to get here. I left a relationship that wasn't working for me to build a life of my own, a life I am content with. I have a family who loves me and a son I adore and I want to be here for all of them for many years to come, they are my purpose. I am making my physical and mental health a priority for myself and for them. Last, but certainly not least, I am also trying to embrace my imperfections and remind myself everyday that I am worthy of love just as I am. Do I wish that I had never crossed that intersection way back then? Sure I do. It would be so easy to get lost in the what if's and wish away my past mistakes, but I don't regret my past mistakes because they have made me the person I am today. Wiser. Stronger. Worthy.