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Me, Mom, and body image

Posted on Monday, March 14, 2011 in Me, Mom

I started this post before Mom died and found that I couldn’t write while her body, her heart, was failing her. So I’ll attempt it once more.

Mom was not athletic or particularly proud of her body. Not until she had dementia did I ever hear her refer to her body with pride. At age 88 she let it slip that she thought she looked better in her jeans than anyone else at “the home.” She was correct.

I feel lucky to have grown up in a home that really didn’t pay much attention to body image. Nor did anyone show any shame. I don’t recall Mom ever shutting a bathroom door. I find this hard to believe as an adult, imagining how the bathroom could be the one place you could be alone as a mother, but perhaps my sister and I were very independent kids.

Mom was never embarrassed when I asked her questions most kids probably have. I remember asking her, while we were bathing together, why people had hair on different parts of their body. She tried to explain pubic hair. I was curious about eyebrows. Around this time I really wanted a raccoon mask and a monkey tail and was probably hoping I could grow out my eyebrows until they covered my entire face. I think she told me that we had eyebrows to shade our eyes. How dull.

Later, in first or second grade there was a playground argument about where babies come out. Most kids thought that babies came out the mother’s butt like poop. I insisted that this was not the case, but I just wasn’t sure. So Mom showed me on my own body. That was the end of that issue ’cause it is absolutely impossible for a little girl to imagine pushing out a baby from that small little opening. It hardly gets any easier after you’re an adult.

I only remember being embarrassed once about my body or my attire. The girl next door liked to be outdoors without a shirt like her brother. And my cousins came over and the boys and younger girls were all topless so I decided to try it to. Not a problem. Until we all got into the pony cart and someone decided to take pictures. I’m not sure if I was embarrassed to have my photo taken because my nipples showed, or because I was doing something like a boy. My guess is that since I was about 5 it was probably the gender bending that bothered me.

It seems like most girls argue with their mothers about wanting to wear skimpy clothes. My mother made me mid-drift shirts, taught me how to make a halter top out of a scarf, and let me go to school in a smock top with hot pants shorter than the top. My high school home ec sewing project was a Daisy Mae tie front crop top. I never thought about any of this clothing as being sexy or revealing or anything. I don’t think my sister had any mini skirt arguments with Mom during the late 60s either.

I know that when I tell this story the listeners are a little horrified, but I wasn’t. When I was in sixth grade I had bites or a rash across my breasts that just wouldn’t go away. Mom wasn’t sure what caused this problem so while eating dinner with my grandparents she asked me to pull down my tube top so everyone could take a look. I did it and not until afterward did I think that was a little unusual.

I recall teasing Mom, telling her I didn’t want any fat mama, when I was young. But I don’t think she ever dieted or had any weight issues. My sister dieted in high school a bit, but in order to gain some weight. I was a size 5 in high school and ate whatever I wanted. I think weight wasn’t an issue because we had so much home grown foods,  no pop unless we were sick or Daddy wanted some, and I lived on peanut butter anyway. I didn’t have any weight issues until I started living with an obese person.

No one in the family was an athlete. Dad had muscles from working. I don’t think Mom had any. She claimed that she couldn’t reach down and touch her toes without bending her knees until after her first child was born. But after about age 70 she really started to limber up. You’d ask her how she was doing and she’d declare “I can still got my foot in the sink” meaning she could lift it up and into the sink. I’m not really sure why she did this, but it must have been a regular occurrence. Maybe that’s how she clipped her toenails.

Many girls have dramatic stories about their first menstruation. I knew exactly what was happening and told Mom. Her response was something like “I wonder if we have anything for that. I hope your sister left something.” She was already through menopause. That was pretty much our entire talk, beyond me asking if I could use tampons and her saying yes, but that she didn’t like them herself. I told Mom and Dad both if I needed any additional supplies. I was surprised to find out that my best friend had already started her period and hadn’t told me. Where I grew up everyone would know. I’d go back and visit with old friends and get the entire listing of girls who had crossed into that stage of growth. It really wasn’t much different than talking about which guys were shaving.

It’s too bad that there are so many messages out there about how sexual or flawed a woman’s body is because I did not learn any of that at home. I no longer feel so comfortable with my body. I look at wrinkles differently and no longer want them to become as deep as my grandfather’s were. I look at my stomach and feel fat. I wonder if I’m showing too much cleavage. I miss the innocence I was able to keep in early adulthood.

Mom never lost it, as far as I could tell. I once asked her about the very large varicose vein on her ankle and she told me that sometimes it scared her when she’d see it out of the side of her eye and think it was a snake. Otherwise it didn’t bother her. I pointed out that I bought her a shirt with 3/4 length sleeves so no one would notice her floppy arms. Her response was “I don’t care if anyone else sees that. I just don’t want to have to look at it.” She made Daddy show me the dimples that had developed near his hip bones after he turned 80 or so. She was curious about what happened to their bodies as they grew old. She came out of the shower once when I was in the bathroom with her and laughed at me when I turned away. She warned me that I was just seeing what was going to happen to me in the future. During her first visit to the nursing home she almost changed clothes in front of her grand-daughter’s husband. OK some of that lack of judgment could be attributed to delirium but she probably thought that since she was keeping on her underwear he could just politely look away as she changed.

I remember the time on our way to her eye doctor when she informed me that she had lost her belly button and we looked for it together while waiting for a light to turn. That misplacement can be attributed solely to her dementia. She didn’t normally lose track of her body parts, she just wasn’t worried about how they looked or what people thought of them.

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