My Childhood and My Body Image – On Family, Quiet Struggles, and Mousercise

When referring to my weight, it’s easiest to say I’ve been overweight all my life. But that’s not necessarily true. I “turned fat” one day. It’s one of those memories that defines me to myself. For so long it brought me pain and shame. Now I’m deciding to wear it like a war badge.

Me at 7 years, with me younger brothers

Me at 7 years old. My love of v-necks started early, obviously!

I was what I’d call a “normal-sized” child until sometime between 2nd and 3rd grade (whatever “normal sized” means). In 2nd grade, the boys in class used to leave love letters in my desk. I played hide and seek at dusk with all the neighbor kids and had a best friend named Christina who lived across the street. I was invited to birthday parties and sleepovers. I felt smart, pretty, and liked.

In 3rd grade, I started feeling marginalized. Like I was somehow different, not well-liked. I agonized when my best friend started hanging out with a different girl. I started worrying that I wasn’t wearing the right kind of clothes, or had the right hair cut. What changed? Why did I go from being relatively carefree to being wrapped up in my own self-esteem issues?

It’s tricky, because a lot went on around that time. My parents fought all the time and briefly separated. And I shouldn’t sweep the fact that I had been molested by older children under the rug. That happened. It left an indelible mark to be sure and likely tainted my life in ways I still don’t have a healthy respect for, but when I reflect back on everything one event stands out in stark contrast to the rest.

A family member had come to visit. This wasn’t a relative who visited often, but that didn’t change the impact of what he said to me. It’s a hazy memory, and I don’t remember the context, but I remember the location, the lighting, and the embarrassment and shame it immediately held:

He called me “chubs”.

It felt like he had punched me, it hurt that much. I don’t remember if I was already feeling self-conscious about the pre-pubescent weight I was putting on and this just legitimized my concerns, or if I was completely oblivious and this was the painful realization. At this point it doesn’t matter. This is the memory from where all my weight and body image issues started, as I remember it.

Who would call this smiley kid "Chubs"?!?

Who would call this smiley kid “Chubs”?!?

I hate to admit it, but my family kinda sucked. I know this now, but as a child I didn’t understand. I was never hugged or shown affection by any of them (they fed me love through meals, it’s all clear now why I’m an overeater). My parents had their own issues: depression, alcoholism, their own weight and identity issues, dissatisfaction with their relationships, anger they couldn’t hide from their children. And I was regularly verbally and physically abused by other family members. So to be sure there wasn’t a lot of safety or trust, but after this particular family member’s comment, ALL trust of any of the few positive remarks or reinforcement failed. When my grandpa called me “beautiful”, I thought he was lying – trying to make me feel better about being the fat monstrosity I now knew myself to be.

Before this time period, I reflect on my youthful playtime spent running around the cul-de-sac with the neighbor kids, dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” or The Go-Go’s “Vacation” with my best friend in her room, or running through Slip-n-Slides during the summer. After, I remember not wanting to swim with the neighbors because I felt fat in my bathing suit. And constantly wondering what negative things others might be thinking about me. I felt loneliness, isolation, and feeling I needed to keep my drama a secret, because I felt shame.

I remember being alone in my bedroom, at night, at about 8 years old, setting up my portable record player to spin my new favorite album. It wasn’t the Go-Go’s or Michael Jackson albums that my neighbor had. No, it was Disney’s Mousercise album.

 

Throughout the day I watch my appetite.
When I go to lunch, I eat so right.
Aerobic dancing keeps me fit and trim.
I feel so good about the shape I’m in.
But every night after I exercise,
My mouth starts yawning and I rub my eyes.
I think of food as I crawl into bed.
As I lay here sleeping, visions dance in my head.

– from “Pig Out”, Mousercise, Disneyland Records

This is NOT the album you wanted to leave your emotionally-fragile child to spend a lot of alone-time with!

I kept this album on repeat for too long. When I looked it up to research for this post, the liner notes and the orange-purple album label brought back visceral memories. I remember pedaling my feet in the air like on a bicycle while lying down, and dancing a ridiculous jig during “Step In Time” (my favorite track), all in the privacy of my bedroom, at night, usually with the lights out. I think most kids of the time interacted with this album in some sort of group setting – in class, or with friends. But for me, no way! I could never exercise in front of others. That meant I’d be admitting, in some way, that I was fat… broken… less than normal. I remember the feeling like this album could unlock the keys to happiness for me: being fit, no longer being “fat” – if only I could exercise forever. Which obviously, I couldn’t.

The track “Pig Out”, mentioned above, isn’t the pinnacle of a positive message for kids who primarily derive their sense of comfort and feelings of love through food, but, what did they know? This was over 30 years ago! This is when the 80’s fitness craze was really firing up so obviously extending that to the youth of tomorrow was a smart business move (though an emotional minefield, to be sure).

To this day I have issues sharing my struggles with friends and family. This feeling like being overweight is a personal failure on my part that I need to work alone to overcome is still deep-seated. Few of my family members know about this website, and I don’t share my successes with anyone outside of an occasional Facebook post (and I have a strict “no older relatives” Facebook rule – I don’t friend my aunts, uncles, or mother on it). There’s still part of me that craves their love and affection, and part of me that thinks maybe they’ll treat me better – or love me more – if only I can be thin. Owning this reality is important for moving beyond.

I now know that nothing I do will make my family give me the love that I crave. And I now know that food isn’t the answer, either. It really was, for so long. Coming home from school alone, with no one home, I always had cookies, pudding pops, and microwavable snack foods available to me. As an adult, after a particularly taxing day at work with no friends or family around, my friends at my favorite burrito joint could always hook me up with some comfort. I could gorge on burritos and Ben & Jerry’s and Mountain Dew until I literally fell asleep feeling drugged. That was my life. Food was love.

But now I know that the love has to start with me. I have to be my own biggest fan, and the success (whatever that means for me) will come. I don’t exercise in hopes that it will make someone give me attention. I exercise because I feel like a frickin’ superhero afterwards. I feel strong, powerful, and I feel love FROM MYSELF. I don’t worry about what I’m eating because I think someone will judge me for the choices I’m making. I primarily make my food decisions with the question: “How will this food fuel me?”, not “Will this food make me feel better?”

And I have to say, even though I’m still pretty heavy as of this writing, my body image is stronger than it ever has been. Heck, my boyfriend is kinda sick of me talking about these new muscles all the time, and how often I “can’t believe how cute I look”.


Understanding how I obtained my food and body image issues has been one of the key elements to my ability to lose the weight. Mostly because it allows me to move PAST all of the wallowing in it I’ve done for so long. I’ve accepted that I didn’t have the ideal childhood, and that my experiences contributed to my weight gain and low self-esteem. But now I’m an adult – responsible for my own actions – and I can move beyond and create the life that I want for myself. And each day is a step in that direction!