I went to visit my grandmother recently, and while I was with her, I thought a good deal about what she has taught me about loving my body.
And to be honest, my first, overwhelming thought was: not much.
My grandmother has dementia, and it’s rare that she can remember what we just talked about half a minute ago, much less what I’m doing with my life these days.
What she remembers in fairly vivid detail, though, is her high school and college days — when she was a young woman who enjoyed hanging out with her friends and dating, when she wasn’t going to school, working several jobs, and taking care of her younger sister.
You see, my grandmother had to grow up early. Really early.
She saw a life around her of poverty, and she knew she wanted something different. So she started working — at multiple jobs, but also on reinventing herself. Both were partially because she wanted to and partially due to sheer necessity; she contributed to the family’s bills from a very early age and often helped keep the lights on and food on the table.
She came from “the wrong side of the tracks” in many ways, but she wanted a different life. She wanted a life of good manners, church, sobriety, a nice house and, of course, the ideal female body.
And she would stop at almost nothing to get all of them.
As I sat looking at a photo album from my grandmother’s youth, I noticed the commentary she’d written on each photo — who was who, where they had been. It was full of comments like “nice boy” beside an old beau – sweet stuff that made me smile, imagining her back then.
But then I increasingly noticed the comments she’d scratched in fiercely with a pen (so it couldn’t be taken back) — NO BEAUTY.
She’d written that on a photo of herself.
A gorgeous photo of herself.
My grandmother is, without a doubt, a beauty. She always has been and is no less so at 82.
But what she isn’t is sure of it — at least without forcing it to happen with every iota of her control. Because in the midst of the NO BEAUTY written comments was her live narration about how much she weighed during the various times of her life that were showcased in the album.
Her weight at different times in her life came up, I’d say, no less than 10 times in the span of that short weekend visit. Both her weight now, as she turned to the side and proudly told us how small she is (because her Alzheimer’s causes her to forget to eat), and her weight in high school, college and during her pregnancies.
And her recollection was very precise – down to the exact pound. No guessing or struggling to remember necessary.
Out of the few things my grandmother remembers with consistency and reliability these days, the one that is unfailing is her weight.
And she is a very, very thin woman; she always has been, though I hardly think this is by default. Her weight has been a driving obsession her whole life, as it has been for every woman in our family.
In fact, weigh-ins at family gatherings to see who’s thinnest are not uncommon in my family (obviously, I need never participate in those).
Talking with her made it abundantly clear to me how our body insecurities are passed from generation to generation. Because, at least in my family, it wouldn’t be difficult at all to make a family tree of disordered eating and negative body image.
Even though my initial reaction to my time with my grandmother was heartache (despite the fact that it’s a conversation I’ve had so many times), I began to look through the pain for the gems.
Because although I’m part of a matrilineal lineage of body loathing, that has been both explicitly and implicitly encouraged, I’m also part of a matrilineal lineage of power. And my grandmother claimed hers by reinventing herself and becoming the woman she wanted to be.
She was born in 1931, just 11 years after women got the vote in the US. It never fails to boggle my mind how short of time (white) women in this country have had that.
The opportunity to remake herself in the way she did wasn’t available to many women in generations previous to my grandmother’s, and it often wasn’t available to hers. So there’s quite a bit I admire about my grandmother stepping out and going for the (albeit limited) power that was so newly available to (white) women when she was a young woman in the late 40s and early 50s.
And, sadly, I don’t find it too surprising that one of the sacrifices she made to do that was in how she viewed and disciplined her own body. Because back then, power conferred to women who conformed to cultural expectations of beauty.
And more often than not, that’s still true today.
As with most family relationships and conversations, I now find myself with a mixed-bag of emotions. And I also see how this story is much bigger than my family, involving the complex systems of oppression that affect all of us in varying ways.
So, for now, I’m left wondering: how, as women, can we separate ambition, success and body loathing/controlling? In what ways is that legacy still present for us, in what ways has it shifted, and in what ways can we take it in our own hands and make it what we want it to be?
Because even though glass ceilings have been raised in some ways, in some arenas, for some women, we’re still expected to do it all with effortless perfection — first and foremost in our own bodies.
I admire my grandmother and have learned so much from her – some things I’m glad to have learned, and others that I wish I hadn’t. But when it comes down to it, I’d like to think I make her proud by claiming my own power in my own way – by never writing down that I’m NO BEAUTY, and by thinking it less and less with each passing year.
This post is part of Tara Mohr’s Grandmother Power blogging campaign. Inspiration for this piece also comes from a wonderful one from Molly Langmuir in Salon. “Her Obsession with Weight” got me thinking about this in the first place.