My Mother’s Gaze
| by Susie Bedsow Horgan |
It was the morning of New Year’s Eve 2014. I prayed that morning for what must have been the millionth time, to find some clarity about my obsession with my weight. I think I’d prayed for this in my journals for fifty some odd years and yet I felt no closer to understanding it that morning. I was in my usual hell of scared to be thin and hating myself fat. The only glimmer of relief was the wispy, thin-voiced thought that said, “So what if you’re chubby?” It was disapproved of when I was growing up. My mother was always trying to fix me. She’d regularly take me to Lane Bryant, the fat girls store. I remember the sales ladies used to say they didn’t think I was big enough for their clothes but my mother would have none of it. That was where I first learned how to hide my body in extra larges.
She always had me on a diet but then would help me break it with forbidden treats. She would cart me around to a myriad of hairdressers to find different styles but never seemed to find one that she liked. Was it the hairstyle or was it me? Once, when I was about twelve, she had them give me a Zizi Jeanmaire haircut. She was a French ballerina who was all the rage at the time. She had short hair with bangs inches above her eyebrows. For a few weeks, until my bangs grew, I dementedly ignored every mirror in the house, entering the bathroom with my eyes covered. I hated the way I looked. It’s not a good thing to hate the way you look when you’re an adolescent. It’s an image that haunts me in the mirror still. Especially if my hairdresser, whom I love, accidentally cuts my bangs too short. Of course what I realize now as I write this was that it was my mother’s own self-consciousness about her looks that she couldn’t tolerate. Which didn’t make a lot of sense since she was so pretty AND had a figure I’d have killed to have.
What I saw in her eyes I also saw in the mirror: ugliness and fat. I see that still. I saw hatred in her eyes in the form of criticism and humiliating scorn and that’s all I knew myself to be.
I am so sad to see myself as she saw me. And so sad that she saw me that way. But it’s all I knew. How do I learn something different? I’m so ashamed especially these days of my belly. It’s as if I’m pregnant with the shame of my badness, the shame of being me. I can call up the deep shame at being what her eyes told me I was as if it happened yesterday. Her eyes didn’t lie and sometimes the hot shame is unbearable. So I eat to keep it hidden and yet it is the badge I wear for all to see.
I’d obsess about food in order to not feel the stinging gaze of distaste and disdain I saw on her face when she looked at me. But it is what I must face now. I must remember her gaze so I can stop taking it as my own. I look everywhere, to everyone to show me something other than the truth I’ve run from my whole life. I’m not mad at her. I forgive and understand where it came from but that isn’t enough to dislodge it. And I so want to. I want to change my gaze to one of love and acceptance, to find it within and not be looking for it from every person, every job, every plate of food. “Please don’t hate the sight of me.” She couldn’t stand the sight of me because she couldn’t stand the sight of herself. Same was true of my Grandmother. A legacy of self-hate passed down to the daughters of the next generation. What a blessing that God gave me a son and not a daughter. I want to end it now. I want to see myself with love before I die.
Is this a plight many of us women suffer from? Generations of mothers and grandmothers all feeling they were less than in some way. My mother’s language was with weight because her gorgeous figure was the slim hold she had to escape the shame she felt at being her. And so it’s where my shame is located. And judging by the issues with food and body image so prevalent in our society, I’m guessing this is a major one for many women. Is this shame at being ourselves a gender phenomenon? I read on my Facebook pages, the pain of women feeling not enough in some way; not smart enough, pretty enough, successful enough, productive enough. At what point do we say ‘STOP?’ Can we join together and en masse address this gender ill? Could we find strength in numbers to begin to turn this ocean liner of self-hate around? Could we decide to take this on before we explore how it’s to be done? Maybe if enough of us write our stories here, that will be a start.