When I was a kid, my family used to vacation at the same beach every summer. And, since several other families also vacationed there each year, we made some wonderful friends. But of course, there would always be a few new people mixed in with the familiar crowd, and for a couple of summers—when I was between the ages of eight and ten—the new person who caught everyone’s eye was a woman in her forties who looked great in a bikini.
Now this woman’s life was filled with true sadness and pain—some of the worst stuff imaginable—but for the sake of keeping this post on point, I won’t expound on that. Instead, I’ll focus on her body, which was toned, tanned, and the envy of pretty much every other adult woman on that beach. “How does she stay so trim?” I’d hear people saying. “She doesn’t even smoke.”
No, as far as I know, she didn’t smoke. Not even Virginia Slims, the cigarettes that always featured a lovely, thin woman in their ads. In fact, the woman and her husband were “health buffs.” They jogged on the beach, ate sandwiches made with natural peanut butter and rolled oats, and added Brewer’s yeast to their food.
But one day—I’m not exactly sure why—the woman disclosed to my father that her favorite food was ice cream. However, since her husband didn’t approve of anything so sugary and fattening, she’d lock herself in the bathroom every night and gobble it up in secret. My dad was fascinated. How could she eat so much ice cream and still be skinny?
Meanwhile, my family and our beach friends also ate ice cream every day; there was a stand nearby that sold amazing cones, frappes, sundaes and banana splits. However, none of the other adults wore bikinis. Instead, they spent many of their daytime hours lying in the sun in more modest bathing suits, discussing the various diets–there was always some crazy new diet–they were planning to start as soon as they returned home.
And that’s how I grew up thinking about food. It was delicious, and you ate it for happiness. What was dinner without dessert? A movie without soda, popcorn, and candy? Summer days were spent playing outside, but then heading to the corner store or a friend’s house for Devil Dogs, popsicles, cookies, Kool-Aid, and chips. Then, if you got too fat, you went on a diet. Diets were bad, dirty things, but they were a part of life. The way I understood it, you ate as much as you wanted, you put on weight, and then you suffered. Moderation? What was that?
Now I don’t blame my parents. I don’t blame anyone. But I think the seventies were a particularly unhealthy time to be a kid. The junk food movement was exploding, yet there were very few studies detailing how bad the stuff was for us. Blissfully unaware of the dangers of trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, animal fat, processed foods, white sugars, and fast food, we chowed that crap with abandon, knowing that the evil diet was always out there to save us if we needed it. We weren’t anorexic or bulimic (yet) but we may already have had eating disorders.
Then, we got to high school in the eighties and were sideswiped by images of supermodels like Christy Brinkley. We looked in our mirrors and saw that…well, it was time for that diet.
In my case, I became a lettuce aficionado. Grapefruit, carrots, and celery were good too. And running to the point of dizziness. Eventually, the exercise and starvation got too unpleasant, so I learned to make myself vomit. And guess what? I figured out how that woman at the beach managed to look so good in those bikinis, despite her nightly ice cream binges.
I was bulimic for over fifteen years. And obviously, during that time, I had an extremely unhealthy relationship with food. But even before that, it was pretty darn bad.
Fortunately, I got good help for my eating disorder. I married, had children, and vowed never to purge again on purpose. And I’ve kept that vow. I eat well now, and exercise moderately. But I often wonder if my current relationship with food is truly healthy, and if it’s even possible for women of my generation to enjoy such a relationship. Because we grew up with such confusion around eating, such mixed messages. Not to mention that there were almost no young female role models in the media with curves.
Things are better these days. Sometimes, I look at the celebrities the current generation regards as examples of healthy body image—Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, Pink—and literally shed tears of happiness. Are some teenagers still starving themselves? Sadly, yes. Do people still puke up their meals? Absolutely. But it seems to me that in general, kids are growing up with a better understanding of food and exercise. And even if they don’t always practice the safest behaviors, at least they know what’s good for them, and what’s not. I’m so grateful. We’ve come a long way, baby.
And yet, every time I hear a woman my age ordering a salad with dressing on the side—heck, every time I do that—a little voice inside me wonders if our generation is permanently scarred. The same thing happens when I see a family enjoying ice cream on a summer night while the mom sips a Diet Coke.
And here’s something else. In March, my appendix ruptured, and I had problems with digestion for almost a month after getting released from the hospital. During that time, I experienced temporary weight loss and terrible cramping in my pelvis. Friends told me I looked too thin. But I have to admit that the sudden weight loss made me sort of psyched. I could fit into clothes I hadn’t worn in years. Healthy? What do you think?
Remember the famous Erma Bombeck joke about all those women who passed up the dessert tray on the Titanic? You never know what life change might happen and you’ll wish you hadn’t insisted on living on celery sticks!
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Oh Jan, the world needs Erma Bombeck to somehow come back. She was the best. Thanks for reminding me of that joke.
I was more of a eighties child, but I think I can blame my unhealthy relationship with food from the “clean your plate” philosophy. Growing up we weren’t able to leave the table until we’d cleaned our plate and as an adult I have found that instilled in me. It’s often difficult to push the plate away even when I’m full because I feel I have to eat everything there. I don’t blame my parents, I was a picky eater who didn’t gain weight like I should have, so they did what they thought was right. But as an adult, it’s hard to change that thinking. I’ve struggled with my weight back and forth and while I never make my children “clean their plate,” I still find it hard to walk away at times. Great post, Mary. Women and their relationship with food and body image is a tough issue and I admire you for the ease in which you’re able to discuss it openly.
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Thanks, Dena! Yes, the “clean your plate” thing has caused so much damage. I believe its roots were in the Depression, when parents couldn’t afford to throw food away–especially if their kids were going to feel hungry a little while later. Then, in more recent times, as Americans became aware of people starving in other countries, they kept telling their kids to eat everything on their plates because they were lucky to have food. Which of course we are, but I think kids started feeling guilty about wasting food, and therefore, ate more than they wanted/needed.
Good for you for not making your children clean their plates. I never used to do that, but as my daughter is now underweight, the nutritionist we work with has asked her to just eat what she’s given and then go off and do something else. The idea is to take the drama out of eating. But sometimes, just the opposite happens, and we end up fighting over food. It’s really stressful. And although I know the number of eating disorders is growing within the make population, it is still so much more prevalent in women and girls.
I never thought of it as a generational thing, but I think you’re right. Everything you said really hit home. I remember eating nothing but carrots one summer – I literally turned orange – and still was never thin ‘enough’. One candy bar’s tag line was something like “all the ladies know you can never be too rich or too thin” What the WHAT?!?!?!?!? I think a defining moment for me was when a woman I was close to got cancer. She was in her sixties and lost so much weight and said that all her life she wanted to be thin and now she finally was. It’s really sick how a whole generation of us grew up thinking to be special we had to make ourselves as SMALL as possible. Thanks for writing this, Mary!!
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Thanks so much, Carrie. Yes! Carrots were such a big part of my eating disorder days. When I went abroad for a year and had to cook many meals for myself–on a hot plate–I’d often go to the grocery store and buy a giant can of precooked carrots and heat them up for dinner. I’d tell myself that if I ate enough of them, I’d be full and they’d help me to lose weight, but then I’d get really hungry later on and would eat “bad” stuff and purge. Why did we all want to be so skinny? And where DID we get that idea that smaller was better? I really hope that idea of an ideal body will continue to fade from our minds and the minds of our kids.
Your story of the woman with cancer is heartbreaking. The only silver lining is that it made an impression on you.
I was born in 1974, so I think I fit the “women raised in the 70s” bill. 🙂
Other than occasional visits to our local A&W outside cafe (Miami), I never had soda or junk food until I was probably 10 or 11. My mother was very good about keeping fruit & veggies for snacking & cooking healthy meals. We didn’t eat out a lot either. I never had problems with my weight, and I was never one of those girls who felt she was “too thin.” I was always tall & medium/large framed – 5’10” by the time I hit turned 16, and until then, I never weighed more than 125. Then I started filling out. My worry was that I wouldn’t have breasts, as I was still fairly flat-chested until I turned 14.
When I was growing up, one of my much older cousins was married to a woman who struggled with bulimia. I remember how sick she always looked – dark circles & bruises under her eyes, too-thin hands, legs & face – and that she wanted children so badly but couldn’t have any. I loved her, hurt for her, and never wanted to be her. (She eventually got help and was able to have a child.)
I struggle some with my weight now. There are heavy genes on both sides of my family, though both of my parents managed to remain trim until middle-age, and until I became pregnant with my one & only child 15 years ago, I never weighed more than 160 – my ideal weight for my height & frame, I’ve been told, is 170. Now, I’d LOVE to be 170. 🙂 But, even though I’m more than 200lbs (but you’d never know it, ’cause I’m 5’11” and carry it pretty well), I’ve learned to celebrate the body I have, and not stress about it, as long as I’m healthy. Still, I’m working to motivate myself into getting fitter & eating healthier. I’m a work in progress. 🙂
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Thanks, Wendy! It sounds like your relationship with food is really healthy, and I must say I envy you. Everyone is different and it’s impossible to compare people’s experiences, but I’d guess that the fact that you didn’t eat much junk food as a kid was a large factor in the way you view food. In my early life (at home, in school, and in the neighborhood) junk food was often used as a reward, and I don’t think using it that way is a very good idea. Also, I’ve got ten years on you (was born in 1964), and I wonder if those ten years might make a significant difference. For example, Karen Carpenter died of anorexia in 1983–sadly, an event that really brought the horror of the disease into the public spotlight–but by that time, I was already caught up in the mess of being bulimic. Perhaps you more able to learn from the media’s response to her death and others like it. Also, you had a bulimic cousin–and gosh, I’m so happy to hear that she recovered and was finally able to have a child–and it sounds like that may also have helped to steer you away from eating disorders.
In any case, good for you for celebrating your body! I’m trying to do the same, and will probably always be a work in progress 🙂
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Really interesting post, Mary! I try so hard to think of food as (a) fuel, something essential to health, and (b) one of life’s joys that should be *savored* rather than gobbled — but so often it represents so much more, right? Comfort, love, medication . . . crazytown. My mom was fat and now is thin, but she *obsesses* about food, still, and it is just ridiculous.
I’m with Erma — life is short, and if you want a celery stick, have a celery stick, and if you want a cookie, have a cookie, and let that be that. Don’t have 20 celery sticks while dreaming of a cookie, and don’t have 20 cookies when you can be satisfied with one or two.
(I am so smart and brilliant. So why am I fat?!)
Thanks for your comment, Jen! You are so beautiful, smart and brilliant. I don’t know (personally anyway) any woman who grew up in the 70s who doesn’t struggle with food/weight issues. Which is probably better than what some other generations dealt with, but still. I guess all we can do is try to make things better for our kids.
Oh, and can I just say that I adore your blog?