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The Day My Daughter Started Worrying About Food

I took my 9-year-old daughter, Aria, to the pediatrician for her mandatory pre-school health check up, just a quickie of formalities to clear her for school. We hadn't been in a year and I was excited to see how she'd grown. Her height was up three and half inches! When she stepped on the scale though, I felt myself getting anxious.

The scale and I have been in a lifelong psychological and physical apocalypse. I was perversely curious about her weight but tried not to let it show. Was she the right weight? How much did she gain? If only she knew about me and the scale, and our S&M relationship.

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Of course I kept this deep inside the dark corners of my mind, the torturous chambers of pain that have given shelter to the disordered body image I've harbored since I was 6. Yes, 6. I had a self-hating, self-flagellating mother who made her personal battle with weight a public family project. All I ever knew was that a woman standing in the mirror, pulling and cursing at her own flesh, was the norm. I watched her daily, picking her body apart in state of perpetual self-disgust, a Sisyphean cycle of shame. This was my modeling. This was what I grew to believe about myself.

My body was the enemy, and food were the IEDs.

At 83, this war still rages feverishly within my mother. I have to warn her before she see my kids to "please don't discuss how fat you think you are, what you can and can't eat, the diet you are on and how you were 'so bad yesterday.'" My war, though still present, has greatly subsided, and I have kept whatever detritus of ammunition remains emphatically silent. I vowed to myself to never, ever let my children get a glimpse, even for a moment, of this hideous underbelly of my psyche. My mission has been to teach them self love and to nurture this in every way possible.

The body is a temple and food is a gift.

The self-punishing, self-mutilating fat kid inside took over. She was ready to restrict, deny and refine ... to keep my thin, perfect daughter ... perfect.

When the issue of "too much sugary foods" comes up, it's because it's not great for our bodies, and we want to treat our bodies with respect. We choose the best foods to give our body the love and nurturing it deserves. I'm a hardcore daily exerciser and go bananas if I don't get a workout in. It's my Prozac and a consistent part of my lifestyle; it has been since I was 15. My kids know this, and I am careful that this translates to my kids in a healthy, non-punishing, non-obsessive way. I explain I exercise because it makes me feel amazing, keeps my body strong and healthy and most of all it's fun.

But at the pediatrician check up? The nurse noted her weight, she had gained 13 pounds in a year. "Wowww!" An exaggerated look of surprise came over me "You're really growing, baby!" But inside my mind, the old circuitry went haywire. The cruel calculators that tallied every calorie, every mile logged, every morsel that went into my anorexic/bulimic body for so many years lit up like Wall Street at opening bell. My mind was reeling ... 13 pounds, three and a half inches, OK, that's 10 pounds per inch, well it's really three and a half inches, so thirteen divided by ... is that normal, is she gaining too much?

On and on, the voice went.

"Aria, that's around 10 pounds per inch!" I blurted. She shrugged.

It slipped out. I swiftly buried it with "It's so amazing to watch you get bigger!" Self-hatred about what was happening started to kick in. I was weakening. The poker face that I've kept on like a superhero cape of protection against distorted body image, weight and food issues was peeling off.

We were escorted into the office for blood tests, while her pediatrician, a 1950s type of character rallied off things like wear sunscreen, don't talk to strangers and eat your fruits and vegetables! He pointed out how her height and weight measured up on the chart, an S-curve of her growth since birth. "Shes completely normal," the doctor said.

"Normal!" She's normal?" I perked.

"She's perfect," he said.

The words melted over me. Perfect. I took a deep breath. What every mother wants to hear. Perfect. My daughter was perfect. Unlike me. I was never perfect. I was always high on the charts, forever shopping in the Husky department. Wearing clothes for kids two years older. I took a breath. I could hear a little voice deep, deep inside me, the masochistic demon wanting to push the doctor for more, "Are you sure? She's perfect? ARE YOU SURE?" I kept this monster silent.

"We just need the blood work." The nurse scurried in with it.

"Hmm," he looked at the numbers, "Her cholesterol is high. "Do you eat a lot of McDonalds, sweetie? French fries and junk food? Pizza? Do you like pizza? Do you eat that stuff" Aria look terrified, shaking her head as he gently barked at her.

"I like pizza?" Aria meekly offered.

I was in a silent state of shock and confusion myself, watching my daughter for the first time, pondering food like this.

He went, addressing me now. "It's 201. Above normal. High. Two hundred is the highest it should be for her age. Last time it was 159. Do you have high cholesterol? Could be hereditary."

I stammered. "No, um, no, I don't."

"What's chol-strl?" Aria asked, unable to pronounce it and scared for her life.

"She likes croissants ... ?" I offered. But it was too late, my wall had broken, I was off to the races and I fell into deep collusion with the doctor. "We should probably cut out the croissants right?"

Aria sat there on the examining table, looking down, ashamed about something she barely understood, swinging her lanky, tan legs as they dangled off the table. The doctor went on and on, sputtering words like "watch the butter" and "only low-fat." I nodded my head "Yes, yes, we need to do that. We will do that!"

The self-punishing, self-mutilating fat kid inside took over. She was ready to restrict, deny and refine. She was armed and ready to kick into high gear and right this ship, to keep my thin, perfect daughter ... perfect.

Just like that, out popped the crazy 15-year-old who lived on Tab, Trident and cantaloupe rinds, the one I've kept locked in the closet all of Aria's nine years.

"Do we need to cut out croissants? They're her favorite. I've told her we need to put better foods in our bodies. Butter? She loves butter. More exercise, right? She doesn't do much. She doesn't like sports."

Just like that, out popped the crazy 15-year-old who lived on Tab, Trident and cantaloupe rinds, the one I've kept locked in the closet all of Aria's nine years. The one who lived in a constant state of guilt and shame. The one who tortured herself with five-hour exercise marathons and made herself throw up 20 times a day or until blood poured from her nose, whichever came first. The one who writhed on her parents floor in the middle of the night, begging them to take her to the hospital when she overdosed on her father's laxatives, only to be met with her mother's stern, exasperated voice, even more punishing than her own, "You idiot! Go back to bed!"

"We were inside all day yesterday," I continued to the doctor. "That's my fault. I should have taken her out. But I had to work." I wanted to blame this on myself, to alleviate Aria's obvious sense of confused guilt. I can handle this shame, I thought. This is my wheelhouse. Let me feel bad about. Feeling bad is who I am, but somehow I was still shaming her, like I had shamed myself when I was young.

He talked to both of us about cutting croissants down to once a month, no, once every two months, OK, once a month.

It then dawned upon me, this isn't right. This is very, very wrong.

In this moment, innocence was lost for Aria. She was now "aware" about food in a way that I had never wanted. Restriction. Denial. These are words I have spared her. I've been adamant that some choices are simply better for our bodies than others. But never is food an enemy. I worked all these years to frame unhealthy foods not as evil empires, but rather, something we might choose not to put in our bodies on a regular basis because there are options that make us feel better. And while the doctor was talking about cholesterol and a very valid health issue, something in me wished he had discussed this with me in private, allowing me the opportunity to frame it to Aria within my personal family paradigm.

I fully believe that it's imperative for kids to understand that what they put in their body has meaning. Nevertheless, the way it was presented to Aria had her terrified and I could see her metabolizing a new perception of food, where some foods are "bad."

"What's this mean, mom? No more croissants?"

As we left the office, I desperately tried to re-position the information for her but I was panicked. What just happened?

The next day we were at an event that included pizza and cookie-making stations.

"Aria, do you want to make a pizza?"

She paused, looked at the kids making pizza and shook her head, no.

My heart broke. "Baby, make a pizza!"

"I'm not hungry."

We went over to the cookie making station and Aria's eyes lit up. She made a cookie piled high with pounds of icing, sprinkles and gummy bears. Phew, I thought. OK, she's not ruined by this.

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And while I'd love this story to end with her chowing down the cookie and us giggling into the sunset with sprinkle-filled smiles, it didn't. I don't want my shame around the cholesterol issue to temper my parameters around sugar. I still need to help navigate this for my kids. Healthier choices vs. not as healthy, daily foods vs. those that are more managed, like high sugar foods. I now have to be careful not to allow the shame around her loss of innocence at the doctor's to invalidate the work I've done creating healthy food perceptions.

"Wow, that's some cookie, Aria. It's amazing!"

"I know. And I'm not going to save it for later. I can't NOT eat it now, it's too good," she posited.

"I totally agree. Go for it. You know that's a ton of sugar and that's your sweets for the day. OK sweetie?"

"Yah, I know."

And then came the sprinkle-filled grin.

Photographs by Emily Wagner

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