Child on diet: My father told me that no one would marry me if I was fat
This is a series of interviews with women who first encountered shame at their body size and diet attempts from a young age, and the impact it had on their self-esteem, happiness and life. All information is true, apart from where names are changed at the interviewee’s request.
Name: Kerry*, 50, unmarried
- What is your first memory of realizing that something is wrong with your body? How old were you? What did you feel and think?
I was at nursery school when I knew something was wrong. Kids would ask me why I was so fat. I felt ashamed and unhappy. There was discussion within my family about when I would lose my ‘puppy fat’. It clearly was something that just had to go.
- Did you feel your parents’ feelings about you were affected by your size/ eating?
Yes. I was born to two good looking, thin parents both with weight issues mostly in their heads. My dad managed his weight by working out six days a week. My mother managed hers as a ‘restricter’.
They moved in the ‘right circles’ and it was important that their kids fitted in and were acceptable to society. But there was me – the fat kid with the curly hair, who wasn’t pretty enough or good enough. My fat definitely was not required and it was made very clear to me in many ways that I would need to change. I was told at the age of around five years old by my father that ‘no one would marry me if I was fat.’ In addition, both my parents were un-affectionate to me and it led me to believe that I was hideous and deformed.
- Describe what happened next. When did your start dieting / restricting?
I was sent aged 6 or 7 to Weight Watchers with my friend. She lost the weight and it remained off and I did not succeed. It set me up for lifetime of failed diets. Even now I think of myself as the world’s worst dieter. I was then put on a doctor’s diet. I was sent to a dietician. My dad used to wake me early in the morning to take me running. A friend’s mother started taking me to aerobics. I was sent to a doctor who injected me to lose weight. The family went into therapy because I was fat and didn’t lose weight.
Endless incentives were offered: If you just lose weight we will buy a new wardrobe, we will send you on an overseas trip. I only ever failed. Whatever I ate was commented on – ‘do you really think you need that?’ I was constantly criticized for looking messy – particularly my curly hair and the way I dressed.
The dieting and restricting was put on me – not something I chose. It seemed the only way to live and survive in my home was to try to do something about my weight. The problem was that restrictions cause backlash and there was a secret eater in the home (me) who used to eat frozen biscuits out the freezer and who used to eat when no one was watching.
- How was your self-esteem impacted in this time? How much of your energy and thoughts were devoted to food, dieting, weight?
I became obsessed with food, restricting, dieting. I eventually diagnosed myself in my twenties as someone with a compulsive eating disorder. I would think constantly of food. I found it hard to live a normal life. I was set up never to marry – I never lost weight so I had no understanding of why any man would ever want me. I had little value because really all that was really needed was for me to be pretty, thin and to have straight hair and none of that looked possible. So I decided to become independent (no one was ever going to look after me or want me). I became a workaholic as I didn’t seem to have any other value. I was a workaholic with incredibly low self esteem who thought all the time about food. What a miserable existence!
- Describe any shame you experienced in the process. Did you turn to binging?
It was not so much shame as utter despair and hopelessness. I decided it would be best to die by 40 because I really could not see the point of my life. If I wasn’t thin, and I wasn’t pretty, and my hair was always a mess and no man wanted me, I would have no children and no love (I was truly undeserving of anything.)
I could see that I would be able to provide for myself financially and to achieve my non-weight related goals, but eventually even that didn’t seem to ‘feed me’ as much I would have liked. It all got quite meaningless. At a certain point I cracked at work and was sent to a self-esteem counselor. I landed up seeing her for around six years to try to fix the mess that has been created through constant dieting and failing.
I was more a chronic over eater than a binger. I thought I had a malfunctioning off button when it came to food, hunger and satiety. My button just didn’t function.
- What did you believe would happen if you lost weight?
My life would be perfect. Men would desire me. My parents would love and accept me (I never experienced unconditional love from them on account of my weight). I would be beautiful. I could get better clothes and look good. My life would be meaningful and worthwhile. G-d would bless me.
- When did you come across Intuitive Eating (IE), and how did it change your life?
IE has been a game changer. It’s so counter-intuitive. If you can eat everything, you may only want to eat certain things at certain times. You don’t want to eat so much that you will explode. That had always been a fear. It has been so very liberating. I feel happy and light inside my being every day. It’s like a dark, heaviness lifted from my life – I have been released from a cage.
- What changed in yourself, your life, your eating, your self-care once you started practicing IE?
I de-linked exercise and weight loss and now I have found the type of exercise I love. I go to gym around six times a week. My body has changed visually although I don’t think I have lost weight. Interestingly, I think putting on weight would be worthwhile for the mental freedom that I got in exchange.
I enjoy my food and I largely eat it in a mindful way with the intention of pleasure. I can discern hunger and fullness. I can even leave food on my plate – that is like a miracle for me.
- What do you wish parents knew when talking to their kids about their bodies, food, weight etc?
The damage you can do is immense. Beware! I am so angry about the diet, health and medical industry. How can an approach with a 95% failure rate (dieting) possibly be the solution to anything? You can virtually do no worse than a 95% failure rate. Leave your children’s bodies and food alone.
Just love them and support them and build them to believe in themselves. Your job is to raise children with high esteem, not thin children. Focus on their self esteem, not the size of their bodies. Share the utter joy of moving with them. Build family time into walking and talking or doing fun active things together. Don’t comment on their food and their weight. Don’t tell them when they are hungry or when they are full. How can you possible know the answer to that?!
As a parent you are largely in control of the food in front of them. Make the effort to feed them the best way you know how. Don’t deprive them of them treats. Make all foods neutral. Don’t demonise sugar, carbs etc.
If you have food issues, sort yourself out. Don’t infect your children with this.
- Describe your current relationship to food and your body.
My relationship to food has improved immeasurably since learning IE. It’s still not perfect but it probably will never be. I can discern hunger and levels of hunger. I can discern fullness and levels of fullness. I use food for emotional support much less than I used to. I have neutralized trigger foods eg Flings and Chuckles. I can eat a couple and leave the packet. That’s extraordinary! I am happy with my body. I am generally fit, strong and healthy. I am so grateful for it.