Food, my mother, our bodies, and each other
My mother has asked me this question more times than I can count. What's for dinner? We love to eat in my family. Food is important to us. As a first generation American, my South African family is very concerned about feeding everyone in the nearest vicinity. We plan Sunday dinner like it is a Superbowl party. Exchanging recipes from family and friends alike. Food is essential. It brought my family around dinner tables hundreds of years ago and still does today, at least a few times a year for New Years, birthdays, or just because it is Sunday.
KwaZulu Natal Coast, South Africa circa 1984
My mother’s question would always come with a bit of dread — but also an expectation.
She was always on a diet, always counting calories, always checking the time for the next meal and insisting we finish what is on our plate. You know... because of those commercials showing how the kids in Africa not having food. Yeah even we got that, in Africa, go figure!
Food and weight was always in the back of the conversation. I picked up the habit of commenting on how guilty I felt whenever I’d treat myself to a pastry, or mac and cheese, or something that wasn’t just lean protein and veggies. The tug of war entering another generation. The problem with constantly being on a diet was we were focused on the food we felt guilty eating. We really wanted to change our bodies. We wanted to be slimmer, smaller, more fit. The truth is, not every body is meant to squeeze into a size naught. Whenever I watched Hollywood films, I mourned the fact that I would never look like the girls in bikinis.
My mother always loved to dance, she still does and that bit rubbed off. Movement and music brings such joy but I was not a very physically active child yet never overweight. Though always busy, my calories were used for studies, and the most sedentary sport of target-shooting. My couch would have us practice the perfect form, breathing and concentration for hours, 6 days a week. All worth it for my national colors five years straight but it did nothing for my girlish figure. I learned nothing about listening to my body to know the difference between hunger, thirst and boredom. Yet I constantly thought about my body.
I wonder if my mother, too, would sit in her classrooms, unable to pay attention to teachers because she was worried if stomach was protruding, wondering if she was sucking in hard enough, sitting tall enough, if the position she sat in made her thighs seem bulky. I often wonder if my mother, too, would nervously prepare for any moment when she would have to position herself in front of a camera. I wonder if she, too, found herself distracted from her work, her mind — instead focused on her body.
I was lucky to have a moment of clarity about my body, but the realization had come from within after years of fearing my body: not being beautiful or attractive enough for someone to like me. It took too long, but I gained a confidence in myself that I should have had all along.
I was always more than rolls and folds and skin. I was always muscle and brain and voice and laugh and tears.
Women are the most beautiful beings I know, and not simply because of their stunning looks. It is in the eyes, they shine brighter than stars in the desert, and they perceive and dissect the world more aptly than any philosopher or politician. She is beautiful for her arms, they are freckled, elegant, and reaches for new worlds. She is beautiful for her head,it holds her sharp, creative, boundlessly flowing mind.
But sometimes, all she can see are the rolls and the folds and the skin.
This is for you. What are you eating?
We allowed ourselves to be told we were not beautiful by those who wanted desperately to make us smaller and quieter, because they were too scared of what a powerful woman could do. We were anxious and self-conscious in romance, when it was our partners who were the luckiest to be graced by our bodies, our arms, our love.
All that matters is that you like yourself, treat yourself kindly, nourish you body and spirit with only that which creates more life for you. Whether it be food, friends, family, your job, how you spend your time. Know that beauty comes from the inside and every moment presents a choice of which road you want to be on. It is never too late, to this or to that. Stop making excuses for being you and live the life you dream of. Enjoy life, be conscious of what's fueling you.
Love to all the our mothers, and daughters.