There was rain today. Intermittent cloudbursts mingled with the deep, languid steam of saturated air. Late in the afternoon, I had a conversation with my father, who is full of helpful ideas about where to look for jobs, advice about interview tactics, and many other practical aspects of building my career now that I have returned to Georgia. Seemingly out of nowhere–though, to be fair, I may have said something that gave him the impression his comment was an acceptable part of the conversation–he tells me I have put on a few pounds since I came home. I’ve been here less than a month. Those “few pounds” might have something to do with the fact that I now have others in the household to remind me to eat, something that, living alone, I routinely forgot about. Or perhaps it’s the fact that they eat fast food once or twice a week for dinner and are kind enough to think of me when ordering. Before I came home, I hadn’t eaten fast food for more than two years.
I said nothing. My silence was a tacit acceptance of his critique.
Please don’t think I don’t love my Dad or that he isn’t actually one of the best and most generous men I know. I knew then, just as I know now, that his comment was not intended to wound me. I don’t think he would ever intentionally say such things to hurt anyone. But, as I walked angrily down to the river and back shortly thereafter–an additional six miles on top of the four I’d walked this morning–I had several extraordinarily uncomfortable epiphanies.
For as long as I can remember, all our family friends and close relatives were wont to remark how extremely alike the two of us are. I am my father’s daughter, in behavior and appearance. Never did they say I was like my mother–beautiful, gentle, kind, thoughtful, and gracious. No. I was Corry’s Copy. True, that meant they thought I was the life of the party, vivacious, forceful, assertive, strong, brilliant, and funny, but somehow all those adjectives were masculine in my ears. It was and is an injustice to my sex, but I cannot undo all my adolescent years of wishing I’d been born the copy of my mother instead.
Recalling those years that were full of strife and tension between us, two dominant personalities in an inherently and unalterably unequal power dynamic, I cringed again. I remembered all the self-abusive behaviors, the secretive eating, the drug abuse, the uncharitable thoughts about myself. And it led me further back, too.
My father is the source of my lack of self esteem, my negative body image, and yes, even that perverse attitude that my self worth is somehow inversely proportionate to the number on the scale or the size of my clothing. While it’s tempting to call this a form of passive misogyny, I am unsure whether that is the most accurate term to describe the behavior or the situation as a whole. My dad didn’t cause me to be neurotic about my weight, my appearance, or my sexuality because he “hated” me. I don’t think that for a moment. I do think his critical commentary and obsessive fixation on my physicality has a great deal to do with the fixation he has on his, and his displeasure with what he sees in himself.
This connection may seem odd to you, but it fits in well with what I know about Dad. He’s a fixer. If you’ve got a problem, he’s got eighteen different plans on how you can solve it, and will be happy to tell you about each one in detail. I have always known that about him. I’ve also always known that whenever there was a seemingly unsolvable issue in his life, when things were going wrong for him and he was powerless to fix them, he would turn his focus and his aggravation on me. He needed to fix me, because my grades were bad, or my job wasn’t good enough, or I was overweight, or I didn’t have a boyfriend he could intimidate.
This was especially true when his health was poor and his weight was increasing rapidly. This was a pattern that had been going on since I was a toddler, and likely why I topped out at 265 lbs and a size 26 during high school. I’m not saying that I lay all the blame for my heavy weight, my lack of ambition, or my poor body image on his shoulders. What I am saying is that he started the ball rolling and was, at times, the one who pushed it along. I was a little blonde brick of a child–head and shoulders above the rest of my class in elementary field day pictures, and twice as broad. But I wasn’t fat. That didn’t start until we moved to Roswell when I was nine. I didn’t know anyone, had no real friends, and things between the two of us started going south shortly thereafter.
I realized as I walked along that I could easily trace my own neurotic obsession with weight and appearance to him, for as long as I could remember. And he apparently felt that there was nothing wrong with exposing me to that form of twisted self-loathing. I wasn’t growing into the little girl he thought I should. Rather than understand that my overeating habit and my lethargy were probably tied to a budding neurosis, a sense of shame and a feeling that I was unworthy of love because I was fat, my parents put me on diet after restrictive diet. Food became a contest, and the kitchen was a battle ground.
This continued for years. While, in some ways, there was a cessation of hostilities in my mid-20s, the damage had been done. I was overweight. I was diabetic. I knew I was hideous, and my behavioral patterns reinforced this state of being. I don’t think I really began to truly heal until I moved to Albuquerque. While there were a great many emotionally negative or stressful events for me in that city, I also began to realign my body image. Suddenly, I dropped 50 pounds, and then more. My diet consisted almost entirely of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and some lean meat. I found the strength to stop saying negative things about myself all the time–well, almost all the time.
What had changed? My father was 2,000 miles away, and if I didn’t want to talk to him, I didn’t answer the phone when he called. Now, I’m back in the house where I grew up, in the room where I grew up. And I can feel the urge to respond to his unconsciously harmful words in the same way. So I walk. A lot. And try to think of how to put distance between myself and that pattern. I need a job. A good one. Soon.