A Tale of Two Grandmothers; the legacy of body image and eating disorders

The one year anniversary of my grandmother’s death is fast approaching. At this time I’m reflecting on her life. All my dear grandparents have departed this world now. I miss them. Neither of my grandmothers was famous. But they both left an amazing legacy of family, love, honor, tradition, and skill in home crafts.

My mother’s mother, Granny left us 13 years ago. She came from a fairly affluent family by frontier Oklahoma standards. They were largely self-sufficient and weathered the great depression and dust bowl just fine. Granny was what can only be described as “stout” for as long as I can remember. I have seen pictures of her as a young woman and she was not as round as I remember her. Yet, I never once remember my Granny saying anything disparaging about her body. Truly her body did amazing things like bear 5 children, “Doctor” countless little bodies with her knowledge of folk and herbal remedies, sew too many little dresses to count, grow thousands of pounds of food in her lifetime. Quite the contrary, I remember her having a good sense of humor about her roundness and complimenting all of us once we finally “fleshened out.” Having lived through troubled times I can understand how, for her, skinny = unhealthy and “fleshy” = affluence. One time in particular I can remember her sitting at the table, still with her apron on. She pulled up her shirt, for whatever reason, and laughed at the “inner-tube” around her middle created by the band from her bra and the top of her apron. It wasn’t looked at as something to be despised or changed. It just was.

Her relationship with food was one of waste not. The specifically odd things I remember her eating were chicken feet, lungs, and homemade head cheese or as she called it “souse.” Her cooking was hearty and simple. She was one of those cooks I’ve worked hard to become, one that can make soup from air.

My father’s mother did not have the same relationship with her body or with food. Her family was not as affluent. They were tenant farmers for the most part. That coupled with a family dynamic that I don’t care to disclose on a blog led to her complicated relationship with food and body image (in my analysis).

When I look at pictures of Grandma as a girl and as a young woman I see such a glamorous beauty! Seriously, she rivaled any movie star of the day. She too, worked hard. She raised four children and in her later years cared for my Grandpa who became more and more frail. She was an amazing and adventurous cook. Fried catfish, biscuits, black-eyed peas and all manner of cookies are what I remember most fondly but really, it was all delicious. She canned, crocheted and baked. She cared for grandchildren and volunteered at her church. But her struggles with eating were always there; binging, purging, and refusing to eat. She seemed to bounce between anorexia and bulimia and her health suffered for it. As much as I love my Grandfather, and I know he loved her, I do believe he exacerbated the problem. I say this because I can remember comments he made to her and to my two sisters who inherited her body type and struggled with disordered eating. I was spared these comments because I inherited my mother’s body type. Quite the contrary, I was complimented for my “skinniness.” This skinniness despite the fact that I ate more than both my sisters put together. I don’t think, had he known how harmful these comments were, he would’ve said them. He really was a kind person and I think he thought it was helpful, or at the very least benign. But there is no way (short of surgical measures) one can alter the body through sheer will. Not through exercise, not through dieting.

So now, with two daughters of my own, I’d like to be able to just make body talk off limits. Many experts recommend it and I agree in theory. But given my family history, and the world we live in, I don’t think that’s possible. Instead we try to frame body talk not as how our bodies look but how they function. Your fingers are so long, you might like playing the piano like Grandma Betty. Or, your legs are so strong, see how fast you run.

Food tastes good. It doesn’t all have to be “good for us.” It’s a challenge, when classmates were “dieting” as young as 6 years old. We talk about how to be nonjudgmental and helpful given that my children do have a deeper understanding of nutrition than many children their age. I try to shift the focus away from bodies and food to things that matter like their favorite school subject and their interests outside of school. Those things that, unlike weight, actually matter!