Some of my earliest memories include the strange smell of my mother’s nutritionist’s office, which came from a blend of vitamins, cats and the pond outside. Mrs. Jarrett was a short, frail woman with white hair and paper skin who would give my mother hand-written instructions on what to eat and sell her vitamins, as well as a bag of pretzels as a treat for my attendance. They were the best pretzels, and I looked forward to our visits.
We would drive to Green, Ohio, to a back road where a large house stood far off the road. We followed the driveway behind the house to a small, white building, buried in green vines with just one heavy door. Across the drive sat a red phone booth, like the one Superman changed costume in. Inside, the office had a hideous yellow carpet, thinly padded against concrete underneath, family photos and books about diets and supplements. In the back room, vitamins and supplements were stacked on plain, metal shelves from the floor to the ceiling. As a small child, the hundreds of bottles were mysterious and enchanting.
Mrs. Jarrett taught my mother to “detox.” She would eat only fruits and vegetables for one week, add white meat the next week and then wheat and bread the next. She taught her to make a homemade V8-style drink with tomato juice, liquid amino celery and liquid protein. Then there was the Cleveland Clinic 3-Day Diet, which is a very low-calorie diet claiming to drop weight fast by means of chemical breakdown. It calls for specific foods in a specific order over the course of three days, including hot dogs, vanilla ice cream, saltines crackers and beets. I always hated that diet because my mother would make us eat beets too. I remember the Richard Simmons’ diet and attending so many Weight Watchers meetings. At a young age, I understood dieting to be a necessary annoyance.
While I don’t recall a time when my mother wasn’t on some diet or another, I do recall my own food being rationed and sneaking extra snacks when my mum would nap after chemotherapy left her consistently ill and exhausted. You see, two things happened in my youth that confused my relationship with food. The first was my own strickening with shingles at the age of seven. Shingles is a painful rash caused by a reactivation of the chickenpox virus. The second was my mother’s colon cancer diagnosis.
Despite my mother’s apparent diet obsession, she instilled in me the concept of comfort food. This was not comfort food like turkey and stuffing, but something more like stress eating. I remember being overwhelmed with pain from the blisters that covered one whole side of my body and her giving me chocolate, calling it comfort food. I remember, too, the overwhelming anxiety following my mother’s life-saving surgery and the thrill and sort of body high that came from eating a forbidden brownie without her knowledge. At just seven and eight years old, I was using food to distract myself from stress.
It is not surprising, in retrospect, that I developed body issues. In middle school, wearing just an American size 5 (UK 8-10), I saw a fat girl in the mirror. My young mind distorted the idea of dieting and made it something else entirely. I used dieting as self-harm by skipping meals and punishing myself with stomach pains at best or, worse, cutting on my stomach and thighs. Still, through the depression and body-image issues of my early teens, there was this confusing draw of comfort food. I would stress eat and subsequently self harm, which made me want to stress eat some more.
At 23 years old, I would rather try to make small, healthy choices and treat myself too than skip meals or follow some diet points program. I have a much better self-view and healthier relationship with food than I did in my youth, but only after years of therapy for anxiety and depression.
If I could go back in time, to sit with my 13-year-old self, I would like to put my arm around her and let her cry on my shoulder. I would tell her that her perspective is distorted from watching her mother diet for years and that someday she’ll realise she’s beautiful just how she is.