My former mother-in-law died yesterday. She was 90 and widowed just 6 weeks ago. Hers was a long life lived quite well She and I were not fond of one another. We thought the one thing we shared was love for her son and our children. But there is something else we shared -- a long history of being at odds with our bodies.
She was tiny -- barely 5 feet tall and her weight hovered around 100 pounds. But she was always anxious about food and eating and her body. I used to joke that she would have a psychotic episode if her weight went above 105 pounds but in hindsight I can see and feel how much that was not a joke. She was afraid to have ice cream in the house for fear she would eat it all. She never let herself really enjoy a meal in a restaurant -- her fears led her to always order dry broiled fish, salad with no dressing and vegetables with no sauce or butter. Food was her enemy and she dared no allow herself to enjoy it much for fear it would overwhelm her. Her appearance was everything to her. She could not even come down to breakfast without her full makeup and complement of jewelry on. She would not go out of the house in anything other than high heels. This necessitated surgery on her feet more than once because she would not give up the heels.
She found my weight problematic. She sent me a subscription to Weight Watchers Magazine. She regularly expressed her disapproval of my size disguised as concerns about my health. In those days I was still lacking body acceptance myself so I fumed inwardly at her remarks but never confronted her about them nor tried to talk about the issue with her.
She was a smart woman with a lively intelligence. She had a good sense of humor. She doted on her son and her husband and daughter. But her anxiety about herself, about her attractiveness and worthiness made it often difficult to see those good qualities about her as it made her critical and judgmental of others as she was of herself.
As I thought about her yesterday after learning of her death, I felt sad for her. And for the younger me and for all of us women -- and men too though this falls harder on women -- who swallow the stigma about weight and our bodies and deny ourselves the pleasure of being who we are in service of a standard for attractiveness which consumes us. I am grateful to have largely escaped that. And sad that she didn't. I hope if there is an afterlife, she is finally able to allow herself to indulge in all the pleasures she denied herself in this life and that she has butter and ice cream and all manner of goodies to her heart's content.