You Are What You Hear

Pauline Campos tries to forget the harsh words that shaped her understanding of her body growing up — for her daughter’s sake, and her own.

Pauline Campos | Longreads | January 2018 | 14 minutes (3,469 words)

 

In the winter of 2011, in the dressing room at Target, I get caught up in an existential crisis. While trying on bathing suits, I find myself toggling between two drastically different views of myself: one is informed by the harsh words my mother verbalized so many years ago, probably without meaning to hurt me or realizing I was internalizing everything she said; the other by my young daughter’s unconditionally loving view of me.

In the midst of this crisis, I must perform a juggling act: I need to treat myself and my body kindly, not only for my benefit, but for my daughter’s too. I can’t pass on to her the body shame I alone somehow absorbed — the only one of my mother’s five daughters who’s wrestled with eating disorders.

***

“Mama, that one’s pretty!” my daughter shouts when I try on the blue one-piece.

I frown at my reflection in the unforgiving dressing room mirror. The lights are too bright. Beneath the glare, I see a too-fat woman with too-full hips and a too-round belly shoved into not-enough Lycra. There is fat where muscle had once been, cellulite hiding definition lost long before I got pregnant almost five years earlier. As my eyes follow the lines of my body from my head to my toes, I hear my mother’s voice and see what her words once described. My daughter, however, only sees her mama in a pretty blue bathing suit.

“I don’t like the way this one fits,” I say, evasively. “Let’s try that black one on and see how it looks.”

Innocent eyes blink up at me.

We are shopping because of a last minute birthday party invitation — a pool party, and it is tomorrow. At the time we are living in Arizona, and although I miss the changing of seasons, I can’t really complain about what I am missing while my daughter is thrilled about the chance to go swimming with her friends. She already has a bathing suit, thanks to regular swimming lessons. I do not. My husband hasn’t seen me in one since before we were married.

The black suit is…disappointing. Or rather, the body within it isn’t living up to the standards of beauty set so deeply within. It could work, except it is a bit too tight around the stomach and my boobs are spilling out of the top. I see lumps and bumps and cellulite. I keep hearing my mother’s voice. And seeing my daughter’s eyes. I keep my expression neutral and smile at her reflection.

“Let’s keep looking,” I say.

Trusting eyes blink back at me.

“Okay, mama,” my daughter says.

***

SPLASH!

My daughter is smiling. Jumping. Giggling. My toes dangle in the water. I sit on the edge of the pool in a T-shirt and a pair of denim capris.

I am surrounded by laughter and sunshine and my own judgement. That one had twins and is in a bikini. Lucky, wasn’t she? And that one, over there…the hips are softer than they once probably were but I’d kill for her body, to look like her.

It’s an echo of something my mother said not too long ago, about someone: Remember? The chunky one? That’s who I’m talking about.”

I can’t pass on to my daughter the body shame I alone somehow absorbed — the only one of my mother’s five daughters who’s wrestled with eating disorders.

Only a few months have passed since my mother uttered these words in front of my daughter and me. I don’t remember the specific day. I don’t even remember the circumstance. We may have been eating dinner out. Or maybe we were walking through the mall while window-shopping. I don’t remember who my mother was referring to when she said this, probably because I was only half-paying attention. She could have been talking about a neighbor or a stranger, or maybe a cousin we hadn’t seen in years. But where I saw people, she saw labels. I remember wincing internally, hoping my daughter hadn’t been paying attention.

My mother is five feet tall and, despite having birthed five children, slim and petite. She’s a body-conscious woman who never learned to filter her thoughts in front of her impressionable daughters, although she probably never meant to be hurtful with them. Conversations about others always led off, and still do, with physical descriptions of those being discussed, many of them harsh opinions. Blonde. Skinny. Ugly. Pretty. Black. Puerto Rican. The one with the mustache, who put on a few pounds? I grew up viewing the world through her perspective: adjectives first, person second.

 These days I try to catch these thoughts in my head, remind myself to never voice them out loud, because I know that words can hurt. They have a way of sticking, like a burr caught in a dog’s coat that leaves the animal mindlessly poking at its skin even after the burr is gone.

My mother is a product of the generation before my own, one which oftentimes fails to realize that perhaps certain conversation should be filtered — or avoided entirely — when children are present. No one asks the children to leave the room when the adults need to talk. Age-appropriate conversation isn’t an idea she or other older family members ever stop to consider.

Just the other day, when my daughter was having a Skype talk with my mom back in Michigan, I had to jump in and steer the conversation back to Subjects 10-Year-Olds Can Relate To after my mom started complaining about workplace drama. None of this surprises me. It’s par for the course when the woman speaking is merely repeating the patterns set in place generations before her own.

That day it was drama at work. Another time, it will be conversation peppered with adjectives like thin, tall, fat, short, and chunky.

These were the keywords of my childhood. I internalized them all. I’ve always been relieved my mother never uttered them in front of those she’d talk to me about.

***

My mother’s penchant for using such descriptors is a reflection of the Spanglish conversations she and I both grew up hearing, on both sides of the family. The difference with my father’s Mexican-born side of the family was that they said the Spanish equivalents for words like “ugly” and “chubby” with an affectionate tone. It didn’t really make those words any nicer. If anything, it made things more confusing. My father taught my younger sister and me to moo at my mother when she was pregnant and we were too young to know any better. He thought it was hilarious. Looking back now, I realize it was mean —  the only mean thing I ever remember my father doing.

Did my father’s words hurt my mother? It’s hard to know, because she humble-brags about her body. “I weighed 80 pounds when I got pregnant with you,” bleeds into, “These size 6s are getting loose on me.” But then she can be hard on herself, saying, “I need to lose five more pounds.” This can be difficult for me to hear from a woman who eats whatever she wants and never exercises without gaining weight — who is mistaken for my older sister more often than I care to admit.

My mother is a product of the generation before my own, one which oftentimes fails to realize that perhaps certain conversation should be filtered — or avoided entirely — when children are present.

By the time I was 8, I was able to borrow my pixie-of-a-mother’s clothes. That’s when I started hiding in the pantry and eating my feelings, before I knew that binge eating was even a thing. When I sprouted boobs that year, I felt as if my body had betrayed me. My mother marched me right over to my father, who had been trying to fix the broken screen door.

“Look, Rene,” she said, turning me sideways so he could examine my profile, the red, white, and blue glittery arrow on my pink This End Up T-shirt only serving to emphasize my mother’s point. “Don’t you think she needs a bra?”

I don’t remember what he said. I do remember my mother on the phone telling her friends how training bras were not going to work, so could they please bring over their old bras to see if any of them might fit me? I was a third-grader with a B-cup. That was also the year I started developing an S-curve in my back from always trying to hide myself and my untrained chi-chis from the world.

When I was 12, I felt as if my hips betrayed me when they started spreading. By the time I was 13, I was full-grown, at 5’6”. I towered over my mom and was heavier than her.

Not surprisingly, I picked up a complex very early on. The Latino tendency to use the word for chubby, “gorda” and its diminutive gordita as terms of affection may have played a part in my off-kilter self-image. Or maybe it was the constant thigh-pinching and tongue-clucking, always hand-in-hand with offers for more fat-laden, sugar-filled treats.

Aye, m’ijita. You need to lose some weight.” Pinch, pinch.

Followed by, “Who wants another bowl of ice cream?”

Ask anyone in my family and they will most likely tell you they didn’t mean anything by it. No one set out to make us feel less than ourselves, or thought today’s words might have an effect on tomorrow’s mindset. But I internalized it all, nonetheless, and my eating issues deepened.

By 15, I was a full-fledged bulimic. There were periods of anorexic behavior in college, but for the most part, the emotional binge eating, followed by purging, was my fallback for dealing with life when I was overwhelmed. (Severe ADHD — which I wasn’t diagnosed with until I was 34 — may have also been a factor.)

Over the years, I’ve taken part in eating disorder support groups and seen various therapists. Today, I call myself a lifelong recovering bulimic. The behavior might be behind me, but the mindset is not.

***

Today, I probably outweigh my mother by a good 100 pounds, and even if I woke up at my goal weight tomorrow, she’d still be a few weight classes below me in a boxing ring. Of the five of us girls, only one, the youngest, is within the medically acceptable range for her weight and has to put very little effort into dropping a few pounds when she feels the need. She’s built just like our mother.

Of the rest of us, two have known thyroid issues. One might able to return to her pre-baby body quickly enough if she is able to find the time to devote to herself after having four children with little age separation. Another likes to refer to herself as “fluffy and not fat.” We’ve talked, and Fluffy nods her head in agreement when we get to the part about the conflicting messages about food we received — being told we’d better eat because, “There are kids starving kids in China!” alternating with, “You need to start watching what you are eating.”

Obviously not many of my mother’s genes were were passed down to me, her first born.

By 15, I was a full-fledged bulimic. There were periods of anorexic behavior in college, but for the most part, the emotional binge eating, followed by purging, was my fall-back for dealing with life when I was overwhelmed.

“People never believed you belonged to me,” she liked to remind me when I was growing up, smiling as she remembered me for the baby she once balanced on her hip. “They always told me you were too big to be mine. I should know, I’d tell them. I pushed you out, right?”

I do, however, have her kinky hair, which a recent DNA test seems to help explain: My mother, it turns out, is likely half-black and half-Jewish. All I had ever known about her parents was that they were from Mexico and died in a car accident when I was a baby. She’d had no idea the truth of her heritage was any different from what she thought she knew — until my own DNA test results came back, showing my own quarter-heritage of each. My report specified that my African and Jewish DNA go no farther than three generations back and reside, very clearly, on my maternal side. I sent my mother a test of her own to take a month ago. It’s still sitting in the box.


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As I think about what I’ve now learned about our heritage, I consider the kind of comment my mother often tosses off about someone else: “You know, the black one?” It makes me wonder whether my mother’s parents had been aware of their own respective heritages or if they, too, had not known, and “passed.” Or had somebody, somewhere, decided secrets would protect my mother? I wonder how often my mother heard her parents use the words that shaped her thinking, and their own.

I’ve never blamed my mother. We work with what we know. The words she was taught were what she knew. And because I grew up bigger and taller and with more flesh on my body than she had, the impact of words is what I came to know.

***

Now I’m a mother to a daughter who is considered big for her age. She’s five feet tall and at 10 is often mistaken for a teenager. As a toddler, she was often confused for a kindergartener due to her height and advanced vocabulary. I think hard about the messages I have sent my daughter about women’s bodies and food, and my husband takes his cues about those things from me. We don’t make her eat if she isn’t hungry, and we offer a variety of healthy options when she is. When strangers remark how big she is, my husband is at a loss for what to say. I gently correct them with responses like, “Yes, she’s very tall, isn’t she?”

Conversations about others always led offwith physical descriptions of those being discussed. Blonde. Skinny. Ugly. Pretty. Black. Puerto Rican. The one with the mustache, who put on a few pounds?

I try to set a good example by letting her know I exercise to keep myself healthy and strong, and I eat to give myself energy. I refrain from verbally judging my body whenever my daughter is within earshot. But she knows I am not happy with the way I look. I don’t think it’s ever really possible for mothers to hide that kind of thing from our children, who look to us for everything.

On that day in the fitting room seven years ago, I might have been be dead-set on losing more weight before I’d have happily shopped for a bathing suit, but there was no way I was going to let my daughter realize that. Not then, anyway. And I’d be damned if I was going to spoil her joy at pushing her little belly-panza out and rubbing it like a little Buddha when she was “full of good food” and other happy thoughts. So I lied to her. I told her I’d decide on a bathing suit while she chose the birthday gift for her friend who was having the swimming party. It was until hours after we arrived home that my daughter’s hands rushed to her cheeks as she gasped.

“Mama! We forgot to get you a bathing suit!”

I smacked my own hand to my forehead, feigning frustration, and laughed. “Oops! Good thing we remembered the present!”

“Silly mama,” she said, laughing too.

***

There was a woman in that pool at the party — the mother of a preschooler and a 9-month-old. Of all those swimming before my eyes, I wished to be her. Not because she had a thin body like I’d always wanted. No, this woman was overweight, boxier than I am, with no defined waist. Fashion magazine quizzes would tell her that she had an apple body shape and give her tips on how to dress to flatter it. Her arms were soft and wide, her face round and beautiful. She laughed as my daughter jumped into her soft, outstretched arms, and then reached out again to catch her own daughter. She wore cute sunglasses, a smart little hairdo, and lipstick too stubborn to be washed away. I glanced at the rest of the bodies in the pool area and then back at the woman playing in the water with my daughter. I heard my mother’s voice, and wondered whose voice she’d heard and how it had shaped her mind. But there in the pool, my eyes only saw a woman who was perfectly at ease with her body, confident and sure.

“Did you have a good time getting your feet wet today, Mama?” my daughter asked me as we drove home from the party.

I smiled into the rear-view mirror. I thought about the apple-shaped woman in the pool who had been responsible for my daughter’s laughter that day and how I wished it had been me. But I filtered my response, knowing I needed to say the words my daughter needed to hear. “I sure did, baby.”

We fell into silence as we drove home, listening to her favorite radio station, and singing along when we both knew the words.

***

Now, Tucson and the undying heat are distant memories. We left the desert for the snow and extreme cold of northern Maine, and then moved again, landing in Minnesota. Along the way, there were hotel stays — too many to count — and too many solo swim times for my girl. When we traveled as a family with my husband, her shrieks and squeals as she played in the water were echoed by the deep and reassuring timbre of her daddy’s voice.

He always packed his swimming trunks when we traveled, just as she always packed her swimsuit.

No one ever asked if I brought the bathing suit they both knew I didn’t own.

“Mom? Is your laptop charged?” That meant it was time to go to the pool. That meant it was time for me to stay outside of these memories my daughter would look back on because I had too many hang-ups about the size of my ass and the roundness of my soft belly. I would wonder if my acting as if I didn’t have time to swim because I had another deadline was just as bad as admitting the truth. Would my daughter pick up on this? Would she inherit my body shame and and make it her own? Instead of saying the words to her daughter, would she one day hide the shame she might feel for her own body with excuses, sitting at a table by the pool while her children splash, knowing that all they really want is for her to be in the water with them?

***

Summer, 2016. “Mom, that one’s pretty! I love this one!” My daughter’s eyes are wide and she is smiling at me as I glance at my reflection in the mirror. I try my best not to grimace. I don’t want her to see that I don’t like what I see, but deep down, I also know it doesn’t really matter. She’s old enough to know without ever having to ask why she’s never seen her mother in a bathing suit.

I should have been in the pool with my daughter. But I’d been too ashamed of the body I’ve kept covered for so long. Watching her grow, knowing how sensitive she is to my moods, I vowed to overcome my insecurities.

She stopped asking me long ago if I would go swimming with her, often ending up alone in the otherwise empty pool, doing her best to make it sound as if she was having the time of her life so I wouldn’t feel worse than I already did, which worked exactly as badly you think it would. I should have been in there with her. But I’d been too ashamed of the body I’ve kept covered for so long.

Watching my daughter grow, and knowing how sensitive she is to my moods, I vowed to overcome my insecurities. We are now living in an apartment with an onsite pool. The minute residents were notified it was open for the season, my daughter looked at me, the question she wanted to ask me dying on her lips. Right then, before I could change my mind, I grabbed my purse and my car keys, and told her we were going shopping.

This is how we find ourselves in a dressing room with multiple bathing suits; my daughter giddy as she claps her hands, signaling the winner.

“Mom, it’s perfect for you,’ she says, emphatic. “You’re not trying on any more. Get dressed. You’re buying this one and that’s that.”

I override my broken thinking. “Yes, m’am!” I say.

Trusting eyes blink back at me.

When she asks if her dad will be able to swim with her because she knows I am still working on a story I’ve started earlier that day, I know in my heart that I am doing the right thing — for both of us. What I weigh or how I look in a bathing suit has never mattered to the child who loves me as I am.

“Only if I can go with you two,” I say, kissing her on the forehead as we make our way to the cash register. “My story isn’t due for a few days anyway.”

She squeals when she realizes my intention to put the bathing suit to immediate use. “Oh my God, mom! I can’t wait! And that bathing suit looks perfect on you.”

“This isn’t about how we look,” I say, realizing my daughter is doing more for me than I am for her in this moment. “This is about loving ourselves and having fun together. But thank you for the compliment, baby girl.”

She says nothing. Her smile is enough. As we drive home to get ready for the pool, we fall into a comfortable silence, listening to her favorite radio station, and singing along when we both know the words.

* * *

Pauline Campos is an artist, Aspie-Mom, and author of Babyfat: Adventures in Motherhood, Muffin Tops, & Trying to Stay Sane.

Editor: Sari Botton