My mother starved to death.
It was the side effect of a spreading abdominal cancer that closed her digestive tract, but, still, she starved to death.
Her 60th birthday would have been two days ago.
When she was diagnosed with cancer, she weighed about 230 pounds. For years I had listened to people say negative things about her body to her and I had listened to her say negative things about her own self.
She was beautiful. Everyone thinks their mother is beautiful, but mine really was. And she was strong.
She lost weight steadily throughout her treatments. Chemotherapy never made her violently sick, but she lived mostly on fruit and salads for her last two years.
The same people who had criticized her for gaining weight now praised her for losing it. Her doctors told her she “looked great,” even having seen the not-great scans of her abdomen. I was so incredibly angry. People were praising my mother for how wonderful she looked because she was dying.
Even she was happy about it, for a while–she called her weight loss the “silver lining” of her cancer diagnosis.
And then she kept drifting, smaller and smaller. 160 pounds made her happy, 140 terrified her and concerned her medical team. And then it was 130, and then it was less.
The last time she stepped on the scale, it registered 100 pounds, and I lied to her that it didn’t take.
After I came home from being her caretaker for that last six weeks, I casually stepped on my own scale, and it congratulated me for “my lowest weight ever.” I came very close to having a panic attack.
As a feminist, and as someone who has very little patience with what other people “expect” of me, (and, to be honest, as someone who is the kind of below-average weight that most people assume is average) I was never much for negative body talk, but these days it is an exposed nerve.
I try my best to opt out of diet talk and body talk whenever I can. I even find myself drifting toward the kind of clothes that de-emphasize the body, away from my ever-present “tailored basics” style. (This look of Elizabeth Suzann’s, for instance, or this one from State.) Not that women are ever allowed the kind of invisible body that men are, but I am not interested in clothes that I have to fill, or not-fill, in exactly the right way.
But I know so well that opting out and de-emphasizing isn’t enough. If my mother had been able to see her 230 pound body as something other than an encumbrance, would she have sought medical treatment sooner? At a “medically approved” size, would she have been given adequate care earlier?
The war with the aesthetics of our flesh has, as its very real casualties, our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. I don’t want to step out of that war only on my own behalf–I want to bring everyone along.