Dave and I went to dinner tonight with my mother and her sister. The two of them are very close even though they are thirteen years apart in age and don’t initially appear to look much alike. But when you really study them, it eventually becomes clear that they share many of the same features—they both have small brown eyes, a tiny upturned nose, and a thin, delicate mouth.
One of the reasons that it’s hard to see these similarities is because my mother and aunt have completely different body shapes—my mother is short and squat, and her sister is long and lean. My aunt also wears her hair in a trendy hairstyle and dons age-appropriate but hip clothing. From a distance, she could easily pass for someone in her thirties and forties even though she’s in her mid-fifties, and she is—by anyone’s definition—very attractive.
As a child, my aunt was a bit of a nerd—wearing cat’s eye glasses and looking awkward in her own skin. On the other hand, my mother, a former cheerleader and homecoming attendant, was a head-turning carbon copy of Jackie O in her day. Though she still retains some of that beauty, my mom now looks more like a grandmother than anything else—she wears her hair in a short permed style and has a penchant for tops decorated with flowers. So in some ways, the two of them have traded places—now my aunt is the one who is turning heads, and my mother is the one who feels uncomfortable in her body.
As a result of their differences, my mother often compliments her younger sister on everything—her clothes, her hair, her makeup, and of course, her body. And being the good niece, I also compliment her. I want my aunt (and everyone) to feel good about herself and know how attractive she looks. Which is why I told her how great she looked tonight.
But when I said so, my mother’s response caught me completely off guard. She said, “Well, she works out every day!” as if this were the only explanation for my aunt’s trim figure.
“I work out every day too,” I said to my mother defensively, but based on her response, it was clear that she didn’t get my point.
“But Vicki works out really hard,” she added. My mother’s implication was clear: If I worked out as hard as my aunt, I would be that thin too. And hand in hand with that implication was another one: if I’m not as thin as my aunt, then I’m not trying hard enough.
I’m sure it will be no surprise for me to tell you that I was having none of it: “I work out hard too!” I insisted. “When I lived in Cincinnati, I worked out two hours every day for an entire year, but during that whole time, I never lost any weight.”
“That’s true,” my mother said. “There are other factors involved.” Finally, my mother had figured out what I was trying to say, and why her original comment could easily be construed as misleading, even offensive.
But I don’t blame my mother for the misunderstanding. I blame society. We are all taught—through the constant stream of advertisements for the latest fad diet and gym memberships—that if we are willing to discipline ourselves, then we can lose weight. And not just lose weight, but be thin. Model thin.
In reality, there are many people who are genetically designed to be bigger than the kind of women we glorify in our society. No matter how much they diet. No matter how much they exercise. And the implication that a woman is bigger or curvier because of her own lack of discipline is, quite simply, offensive. It may even be dangerous. Because it sends the message that if we are not model thin, then it is because we are not trying, we are not good. That message really frightens me, and it’s one I will forever try to dispel—both here on the blog and every time I have dinner with people like my mother and my hot cougar of an aunt.