Have you ever offered a reward to your child to encourage him/her to attain a goal?
My kids wanted new computers. So I made a deal with them: I agreed to buy the new computers when the school year ended — they wanted them for their summer vacation when they could play a certain game — if they achieved an agreed-upon grade point average.
All that semester, they asked me repeatedly, as they proudly showed me their graded tests and papers, “Mom, if we keep this up, we’re going to get our computers, right?”
“Absolutely,” I would tell them as I posted more “A” papers on the refrigerator.
“You would be so pretty if only you would lose weight.”
I remember how their eyes lit up when the UPS truck stopped in front of the house and the driver rang the doorbell with a big smile on his face.
“Did somebody here get good grades?” he asked as he brought in the boxes.
But have you ever bribed your child to lose weight?
The Denim Pantsuit
In the 1970’s, we all wore pantsuits. I found one I really wanted that was made of denim and had flowers embroidered on it.
Unfortunately, it was not available in my size.
My mother bought it for me even though it was at least two sizes too small. I recall that I could not zip the pants and the arms of the jacket were way too tight.
She bought it “with the understanding that” I was going to lose weight so that I would be able to wear it.
You know how this story ends, don’t you?
The pantsuit hung on the outside of my closet as inspiration. Every time my mother came into my room and saw it, she would nag me about the fact that I was not losing weight, reminding me that she had spent “good, hard-earned money” on that outfit.
Every time I looked at those beautiful pants and the matching denim jacket with the colorful and delicate flowers embroidered on the collar and cuffs, I was reminded that I was a big, fat failure who would never been seen in public wearing that lovely ensemble. The combination of staring at that pantsuit every day and listening to my mother drone on about the fact that my goal was becoming increasingly unattainable, made me eat more and gain weight.
Then I would look at it again and hate myself for having no self-control. And for not wanting to wear it badly enough to exercise self-control. And wonder why I could not seem to conquer my self-destructive tendencies. And I was disgusted with myself for wasting my parent’s money because it truly was hard-earned, which she reminded me about daily, as she told me, yet again:
“You would be so pretty if only you would lose weight.”
There were other bribes, too. When I was a freshman in high school, I was supposed to lose 30 or so pounds in order to get a 10-speed Schwinn bicycle. Eventually, my father took pity on me and bought me the bike because all of my friends had 10-speeds and I was still riding my old 3-speed that he had purchased for me at Sears several years earlier.
You guessed it. I gained weight that time, too.
The pantsuit remained in the closet for many years, never worn. Long after I became an adult, moved out and established my own home — and the pantsuits with bell-bottom legs had gone out of fashion — I came over to help my mother. She pulled it out of the closet and held it up.
“Remember this?” she said, waving the hanger in my face as the price tag still dangled from the arm of the jacket.
I hadn’t thought about that pantsuit in many years and certainly had no clue that she had kept it. The moment I saw it, though, all the feelings of failure and self-revulsion associated with it came flooding back.
“Oh, jeez, Mother. That thing is still here?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes,” she said in a disgusted tone. “We might as well give it to the Good Will. You’re never going to be able to wear it. You’re much bigger now that you were when I bought it for you. You never lost the weight you said you were going to. You just wasted my good, hard-earned money.”
I offered to pay for the pantsuit, but she waved her hand and went into the other room as I packed it into the box.
Forgiving is Easy; Forgetting is Not
My parents did the best they could. In writing these articles, my goal is not to criticize or dishonor them in any way. I forgave them many years ago for any parenting mistakes they made.
But forgiveness is only the first step in fully assessing and analyzing messages received as a child. Next comes the process of recovering from the resultant emotional damage.
As with weight loss, I’ve been down this road before, but never completed the process.
I saw a counselor many years ago who explained that until I dealt with the emotional aspects of overeating fully and fearlessly, the same old “tapes” would continue playing in my head repeatedly and the behavioral patterns would manifest themselves over and over, too. She warned me that I would lose weight, but resume emotional eating and regain it. She was, of course, absolutely correct.
This is the time to confront the emotional issues, work through them, and break the patterns once and for all.
Why now? The answer to that question is deceptively simple. My life depends upon it. Literally.
As I explained when I founded this site, my health and well-being were in jeopardy when I determined to make permanent changes to my lifestyle. I was at my heaviest, had developed allergies and my asthma was completely out of control. Two things that many people take for granted, I was increasingly having trouble doing without great effort: Breathing and sleeping. I was miserable. That unhappiness motivated me in ways that nothing else had or could.
A Mother Does Her Best
My mother thought that she doing what was best for me. She thought that her behavior and comments would help me, inspire me, convince me . . . She loved her children and she demonstrated that love using the life skills she possessed. I know those things to be true because, as a mother, I did my very best for my kids, but my efforts sometimes came up short. I told them, “Just remember the five most important words when you are on the psychiatrist’s couch working through your issues: ‘It’s all my mother’s fault.'” They just looked at each other, rolled their eyes, groaned “Oh, Mooooooom,” and went back to their rooms.
My mother never had any idea that, by telling me that I would become pretty if I lost weight, she was tacitly telling me that I was decidedly not pretty just as I was. The message she communicated was that I was not “good enough” and would not become “good enough” until I altered my physical appearance. She did not understand that she was judging and branding me, or cementing for me a self-image that was completely at odds with reality.
I understand that my mother did the best she could with the skills and limited knowledge of the world she possessed. She was a modest woman who grew up during the Great Depression in a farmhouse on the Prairie that had neither electricity nor plumbing. She went to a little country school via a horse-drawn bus. And she graduated from high school in 1934 only to find that her dream of attending college was unattainable. So she ended up working as a combination cook, housekeeper and babysitter. She used to tell us how her parents sent her off to work for some neighbors from sunrise to sunset. Her wages? “Two dollars per week.”
Sounds primitive, doesn’t it? It was.
It was that primitive upbringing that made her who she was and fueled her to instill great ambition in her children.
Her upbringing in that stark, harsh environment formed her outlook on life — always practical. She was adamant that we should finish college and get good jobs. The idea of bypassing college to get married, have children and become a stay-at-home mother was always foreign to me because her mantra was “Never be dependent upon a man.” That was not a put-down of my father in any way, but, rather, my mother’s declaration about her lack of self-actualization and achievement. She used to tell us that we should finish our education and be able to support ourselves so that we would always have options.
She was a feminist long before the Women’s Movement was born.
“Pretty” became a concept reserved for other girls who were thin. “Pretty” became a state I could never achieve because I could not get and keep the extra weight off.
The irony is, of course, that self-loathing just leads to more destructive behavior. The cycle repeats itself day after day.