I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Month: May, 2013

Beautiful Girls

I Am a Prude

The New York Times style magazine, T Magazine, published an issue with a cover photo and inner photo spreads that sparked some controversy:  Too Tough To Handle – Harnessing the dark side with black bikinis and a leather cover-up.  I actually missed the physical issue, because it was Mother’s Day and I was busy not running errands in a very determined way.  So I followed the controversy after the fact in the blogs with intense professional interest.  I market magazines for a living.  Beautiful girls and sex help sell magazines.  I have worked with the editor of T Magazine, Deborah Needleman, and was curious about how she would present her point of view publicly.

In short, readers complained that the girls were too young and too thin and that the imagery was too referential to sexual bondage.  The commentary from Jamie Peck at thegloss.com and Margaret Sullivan as Public Editor of the NYT was remarkably benign about the images.  Peck acknowledged liking the look.  Sullivan focused on the issue of photo-shopping images in fashion photography (forbidden in journalism, but practically de rigueur in fashion photography).  Needleman was quoted as saying she also thought the cover model was too thin and considered photo-shopping some plumpness to her but opted not to do so.

Given my personal experience with too-thin-ness, I decided I really should look at the images and check in with my own gut.

My professional distance dissolved.

Two young too-thin girls, perhaps they are all of 20, dressed in black bikinis with a leather cover-up (you know, “harnessing the dark side”) with an aloof and unsmiling gaze.  Their skin is pale.  Their expression is almost hostile (you know, “too tough to handle”).

I imagined the photo shoot.   I imagined myself as one of the models at 20.  Eager to please.  Flattered they think I am beautiful.  Lucky to be wearing couture.  Anxious to be considered grown-up, sophisticated, sexy, not naïve.  Obedient – I, too, would have endured, willingly, the scrutiny of my body, if it meant I was special.  Can’t you hear the photographer (Craig McDean) and the stylist (Joe McKenna) commanding them to be sexy?  Why does sexy equate with haughty and aloof, hostile and hard, breastless and bony?

Shouldn’t sexy mean bare souls connecting with intimacy, love, passion?  Shouldn’t sexy be happy?  These girls don’t look happy.  These girls don’t look like they know anything about love, joy, and happiness.  Shouldn’t beautiful girls be smiling?  Who are the people that think these girls are sexy?  Who are the girls that want to look like this?

Sadly, we are everywhere.

In the magazine world, whenever we engaged in serious self-questioning about what kind of models and celebrities to use on the cover and on the inside spreads, we bemoaned the fact that white blonds sold better than ethnic girls and that thin sold better than curvy.  I always cheered when a magazine would take a stand against too-thin models.  Alas, the readers might say they want to see real women in their magazines, but they don’t buy the magazines with the real women.

I did have some genuine conversation with the editor of Teen Vogue, Amy Astley, across several years of working on that title.  Like me, she had been a ballerina.  Like me, she was a mother.  Like me, she understood issues around body image and eating.  In my experience of her, Amy loves all things related to girls and works hard to create a magazine that encourages healthy and positive, honest and open points of view – though within the framework of a fashion magazine.  She advocates for no smoking.  She advocates for no drinking and driving, no texting and driving.  She addresses important issues of body image and bullying and sex.  Once, when I came to her requesting images of happy girls making eye contact for a marketing piece, I remember her saying – poignantly – something like: Oh Sally, these girls don’t smile.

Beautiful girls who don’t smile.  Sad.

I revisited the T magazine fashion spread and the commentary about it.  Blasé, the bloggers commented that the images were unremarkable.  I too wanted to be blasé.  Not a prude.  Yea, these images are unremarkable and the controversy is ridiculous.  Everyone wants $500 black bikinis and $5,000 leather jackets to wear to the beach.  And then it hit me.  Yes I am.  I am a prude.  An outraged prude!  These images are remarkably ridiculous.  These images are insidiously dangerous.  These images are sad, not sexy.

Now pejorative, “prude” actually means “honorable woman” and was originally a noble compliment, associated with wisdom, prudence, sound judgment.  Where are the prudes protecting our beautiful girls?  We should be creating a world where girls can allow their bodies to feel.  Feel hungry.  Feel pleasure.  Feel pretty.  Feel safe, sexual intimacy.  Feel happy.  Happy enough to smile.

(Photo is from T Magazine: The New York Times Style Magazine)

My name is Sally and I weigh 123.4 pounds.


Addicted to the Scale?

I weigh myself on Monday mornings.  I am the first person up.  I tip-toe into the bathroom.  (I still move like a dancer.)  I turn on the shower so that the water gets really hot.  (I love getting lost in the shower with hot water surrounding me.)  I pee. (It’s important that all possible fluids be eliminated.)  I strip naked.  (It’s important to not be weighed down by any clothing…my threadbare pajamas must weigh at least a pound!)  I pull out the scale from its somewhat unobtrusive and hidden location.  (I don’t want my daughter to get the scale addiction.)  I step on it.  I hold my breath.  The digital numbers flicker back and forth before settling into this week’s verdict.  Aha!  Under 125 pounds.  My current magic boundary.  I weigh as little as I’ve weighed since I was married 19 years ago.  I feel ridiculously proud and virtuous about this dubious achievement.  What a way to kick off the week.

My mother’s scale was in their walk-in closet – a small, dark, private room that always fascinated me.  My mother’s clothes on one side and my father’s clothes on the other side.  Hidden treasure boxes of old jewelry, old photos and other mementos on the shelving high up.  This was where the Christmas presents were stashed away.  She was not particularly modest.  Dressing, undressing, bathing with doors open.  I liked to sneak in when no one was there.  Trying on her clothes.  Trying on her shoes.  Curious about her bras and under-garments.  Examining the old jewelry, wondering if any of it fit me.  Wondering about what I would be like when these grown up womanly items did fit me.  She weighed herself every morning, naked.  I did too.

At 10, I already weighed over 100 pounds and was “pleasantly plump.”  (My father’s words.  He used the same phrase for the Rubenesque nudes in the art he loved so much.)  He loved ice cream and we had it every night.  Usually Baskin & Robbins French Vanilla.  Or Peppermint – my favorite flavor.  He carefully measured out a precise serving.  No over indulgence allowed.  Or we had 2 cookies, usually Oreos or Fig Newtons.  My mother had none.

In Paris, during our one truly extravagant family vacation before high school, my father and I sampled chocolate mousse at every restaurant.  That trip was where I developed my taste for intensely dark chocolate and strong coffee.  In Florence, the men wouldn’t stop touching me.  It was an early taste, at 13, of sexually aggressive unwanted male attention to my “pleasantly plump” curves.

Entering high school where boys and girls began to do more than eye each other with curiosity from afar, I became sure that “pleasantly plump” was not what I wanted to be.  Ambivalent about my curves and their impact on men and confused that “Pleasantly plump” became “Better not eat that, you’ll get fat,” I found myself in the mirror-lined ballet studio.  In a leotard.   About 15 pounds heavier than the ethereal tall, thin, breastless ballerinas I began to admire.  Having reached puberty at 11 with a mesomorph’s solid and strong body, there was no way I was going to transform into an ectomorph.  But I could try.  And so I did.  I upped my weekly dance class to twice, 3x, 4x, every day except Sunday.  When that wasn’t enough, I started taking two classes daily.  I learned the calorie counts of every food item and began to mete out allowable calories obsessively.  About 1,500 calories.  (For someone dancing 4 hours a day, 1,500 calories was starvation.)  Starving yourself is impossible to sustain.  So I would swing in the other direction and binge on large quantities of food.  Alone.  In secret.  I couldn’t eat normally in public.  Terrified of getting fat.  Terrified to be thought of as beautiful and desirable.  When I binged, I felt bad.  Guilty.  Ashamed.  Embarrassed.  Fat.  I had to punish myself.  So I would run.  Take another dance class.  Eat even less the next day.  I tried the-vomiting-thing a few times.  It really disturbed me on so many levels.  It was gross.  And I didn’t want to admit I had a problem.  Avoiding vomiting helped me remain in denial that I had an eating disorder.  Maybe other ballerinas did it, but not me.  Instead I figured out how to keep my eating swings tightly controlled in my disciplined way.

Over the course of that year, I became incredibly strong and incredibly thin.  I liked being thin.  I liked hitting weight-loss goal after goal.  Clothes looked good on me.  I liked the breastless version of myself that I saw in the ballet studio mirrors.  I liked being hungry.  It made me feel alert and better than the other girls.  I could resist food.  (Except when I couldn’t.  But I kept that to myself, hidden.)  My weight got down to about 100 pounds.  My parents never said anything.  Did they not notice that their pleasantly plump daughter was now breastless and bony?  It was dear, honest Emily, with the scale dipping to 98 pounds, who exclaimed, with true alarm, that she could see my ribs!  I liked that my ribs were showing, but it jarred me enough to reconsider this aesthetic when she expressed such alarm.  100 pounds became my magic boundary.  The low boundary.  If I didn’t drop below 100 pounds and I didn’t make myself throw up, then I didn’t have an eating disorder.  I carefully put on a few pounds.

By the end of high school I was a healthier weight and had given up ballet.  Off I went to college where I easily gained the Freshman 15.  And hated myself for it.  To punish myself, I returned to ballet and 100 pounds.  It felt good to be in control and thin again!  But I was so unhappy.  Through therapy and time, I learned how much food I could eat and how much exercise I needed to maintain a more normal weight.  Love and my marriage helped.  I was busy and happy.  I was so busy and so happy that I threw away my scale.  Hooray!  I was done with eating issues.  Besides, I wanted to set a good example for my daughter.  I so wanted to have a healthy relationship with food and to model normal eating behavior for her.  But she knows me.  I measure everything.  I don’t allow myself dessert except for maybe a yogurt or some very dark chocolate.  I control my portions so carefully that I can neither tolerate sharing my food (it’s my allowance of food not yours) nor do I have room for any serendipitous treat offered to me (I ate my allowance already).  I can’t just stop when I’m full.  Because I don’t know when I’m full.  I’m too obsessed with weighing what is the right thing to eat; what is the right amount to eat.  I am too busy thinking to feel.

There was an easier time with my eating during courtship and early marriage where we ate out, we cooked in, we enjoyed food together.   And then my 40’s happened.  What isn’t discussed about disordered eating (to my knowledge) is that it COMES BACK!  Just when you think you’ve got the eating thing figured out, its ugliness reemerges when you’re looking at middle age staring back at you in the mirror.   If I could just lose 5 pounds, 10 pounds, 15 pounds, I will look younger, feel better, sleep more soundly, defy death.  When my age creeped over 40 and my weight creeped over 140, I went into action.  Back to the ballet studio, I bought a scale.  I got thin and strong again.

Of course it is different as a more experienced adult.  I don’t swing between extremes the way I used to.  A calmer yoga practice has replaced an obsessive pursuit of ballet.  I don’t punish myself.  I do enjoy food.  But my enjoyment of food remains controlled.  The anxiety hovers under the surface.  Intellectually, I know five pounds doesn’t make a difference in who I am.  Intellectually, I know maintaining that magic boundary on the scales is not what makes me happy.  Now I can laugh at how ridiculous it all is, while acknowledging its presence.  It’s part of who I am.  Stepping naked onto the scale every Monday morning, I am aware that I let the scale’s verdict influence my self-esteem.  Stepping naked onto the scale every Monday morning, I remind myself to breathe, to be grateful for my strong body, to enjoy my chocolate, and to not let the scale’s verdict influence my self-esteem.

Before You Die


Dear Mom,

How well do we know our mothers?  As children, we focus on our own survival and development.  Our mothers support this behavior, desiring us to be happy, safe, and loved.  Our mother’s life before us is mysterious except as it pertains to our own personal development.  Our mother’s life after we grow up and leave home is a sidebar to our more interesting-to-us life, at least until her life makes the shift to requiring us to take care of her, to take notice of her.  Or until we realize that every essence of our being is infused with every essence of her being.  Learning about her, we learn about us.

When I was told that my mother had been brutally stabbed by her second husband before he killed himself, I was a young girl.  Too young to fathom this fact.  And so I did not.  Occasionally I would tell the sensational story to garner a reaction from a new friend.  It was a scintillating factoid that I thought made me interesting.  For the most part, I did not think my family was very interesting.  We did not fight.  There were only three of us.  We diligently pursued our activities and goals, with little demonstrative emotion.  This isolated nugget of sensation – that we never talked about – seemed so unbelievable and out of character that eventually I questioned its truth.  Did this really happen to my mother or am I making it up?  What did she do with the fear and emotion?  How has this event shaped her life, my life?

As my mother turns 91 this year, living…surviving another year, I am reflecting on her life and the end of her life.  I feel urgency to know what I can of her before her mind fades, before she dies.  How much more time do I have with her?  For her 90th birthday a year ago, I made the pilgrimage home to visit with her.  I set up the visit to have time with her, to ask her the questions I have never asked.  So much is unspoken.

  • Are you happy?
  • You are so successful, why did you end up with men who were self-centered and abusive?
  • How did you fall in love with Dad?
  • Is there anything you want to say to me?
  • What do you hope to be remembered for?
  • Would you do anything differently?
  • What advice to you have for your granddaughter?
  • What does it feel like to be at the end of your life?
  • Are you ready to die, afraid to die?
  • Do you believe in God?

I mustered up my courage to ask the questions and vowed to keep probing instead of sinking into docile silence with the first answer I got.

My mother was born in 1922.  Her father, a physicist, dropped dead suddenly of an aneurism when she was just 7.  She told me how every morning she went to her father’s room to say good-morning.  Clearly there was a special bond between him and her.  On the morning after he died, she was not allowed into his room.  She never saw him again and grieving was not tolerated.  What a devastating loss for her!  Her mother was a no-nonsense, undemonstrative woman who then had to hold the family together in the Depression.  She took on boarders, taught school, and did not have a lot of time for my mom.  My mother was painfully shy, sad and lonely, and was homeschooled because school was socially challenging.  Although she was drawn to art and more introspective and creative activities, she was encouraged to pursue science and academia.  She was good at school so she just kept going to school.  Kept going until she received her Ph.D. in 1950 – an unusual accomplishment for a woman in 1950.  But it was a more passive accomplishment than I realized.  She didn’t know what else to do with herself, so she kept going to school.  Her first husband was a fellow graduate student.  I am not sure what broke apart that marriage other than youth.  Her second husband had a history of drug addiction and mental illness.  My mother was discouraged from marrying him, but she went forward with it anyway.  My father once said to me, as I was embarking on my own marriage, as if to explain the mystery of attraction to himself, “You can’t help who you fall in love with.”  What a destructive act of self-sabotage on her part.  It did not end well.  I don’t know much more than that.  There is still a shroud of “don’t talk about that” in our house.  It took several years of therapy for her to recover from the violent attack, from the violent betrayal.  She moved to Washington and met my father.  He thought she was beautiful.  She loved being loved.  They married in 1961 and I was born in 1962.  She was desperate for a baby, for the family she did not have.  The story of my birth is told by my parents as if it was a miracle.  I was delivered by emergency C-section (her life-giving scar always fascinated me).  We both almost died.  Post miracle, she was felled by post-partum depression, rejecting the baby she so desperately wanted.

How did she recover from this post-partum depression?  What impact did her rejection of me have on me?  How did her trauma carry over to me?  My main sense of her as a mother is that she was very devoted to me.  She adjusted her work schedule to be home for me.  She spent a lot of time with me: reading together; teaching me how to cook, sew, do algebra; going to the ballet together.  She thought I was wonderful and gave me a lot of freedom to explore my interests.  Indeed, I could do no wrong.  I remember very few instances when she got angry with me or set limits for me.  But there were significant ways in which she was absent.  She was not physically demonstrative.  Very little hugging happened in my childhood.  The only times I remember my mother touching me were when I was ill.  I managed to be ill a lot.  All sorts of maladies kept my mother hovering over me, from hypoglycemia to migraines.  These illnesses kept me home, were an excuse for me to avoid.  Avoid parties that made me shy, avoid deadlines that seemed insurmountable to my perfectionism, avoid living in all its messy imperfection.  When I was sick, I was allowed to move into her bed where she would lie next to me, reading out loud or watching bad tv sitcoms and game shows endlessly.  In her desire to love and nurture, she neglected (or was unable) to model what a powerful and effective woman was.  Bereft of her father, abused and abandoned by her second husband, she did not know how to stand up to my father when he was boring, compulsive, remote, abusively inflexible and insistent to her, to me.  She and I stuck together, forming a strong mother-daughter bond built on a love of all things female (Jane Austen, Mary Tyler Moore, tea sandwiches at The Birdcage) and a suspicion of all things male (money, sports, confrontation).  But her desire to give me freedom meant that she was absent as a parent in many key ways.  She was unable to help me negotiate an effective father-daughter bond where I could articulate who I was, what I thought, and say no in a constructive way.  My inability to establish a sense of self with boundaries meant a string of intimate relationships where I lost my sense of self and had to end them, and hide at home, in order to regain my sense of self.

The summer after high school graduation before I went to college, my mother assured me that she was prepared for my departure.  Her composure at such a life-changing transition was so strange to me and not what I wanted to hear.  I wanted to hear that she loved me and would miss me.  Some kind of honest and emotional dialogue.  It was not to be.  When my parents dropped me off at school, my mother broke down sobbing uncontrollably.  I had never seen her cry before.  I had never seen her cry before!  How strange is that?  My beautiful, successful, brilliant scientist mom broke down.  It was my fault.  I never really recovered and spent college dealing with my inability to separate successfully and feel confident in my self.

After college, I never went home again.  The only way I could separate and create a sense of an independent self was to leave.

Simultaneously, my mother had a recurring benign growth in her throat.  This growth prevented her from breathing.  The surgery required to remove the blockage from her airway, damaged her vocal chords, preventing her from speaking.  As I was finding my voice, my self, she was losing hers.  How I wish I had an audio recording of my mother’s voice before the surgeries!  Ever so gradually, over the next 30 years, my father and I spoke for my mother, over my mother, depriving her of chances to speak her truth.  As she stopped speaking, she stopped remembering.  Speaking one’s truth, speaking one’s stories grounds us, establishing who we are.

Now, in her 90’s, faded and fading, she sits and reads or watches tv.  My father meticulously cares for her physical being, desperate that she not die and leave him alone.  But her self is locked inside the shell of her body, less and less able to express itself.

On the rare occasions when I visit her, because I am busy busy busy with my more interesting-to-me life, she lights up with complete joy at seeing me.  Even though she can no longer walk easily, she travels back in time to her role as an active mom – forgetting her walker in her eager enthusiasm to cook for me or care for me in some way.

In answer to my timid questioning, she whispers her regret about her life and her advice to my daughter, her granddaughter.  They are the same:  “Be more sociable.”  She whispers that God is unknowable, “too mysterious,” and last but not least, “I am so lucky to have you.”

I love you Mom.  Happy Mother’s Day.

But What About the Laundry?


My Deepest Fear

Sunday morning, my daughter woke up crying.  She had a class trip to Six Flags and was overwhelmed with homework.  Frightened of her anxiety born of perfectionism, too much like mine, I galvanized her to go on the trip.  “When you’re 50, you will wish you had spent more time having fun and less time on work.”  A tearful mess, (her, not me) I deposited her at the school and went home and worried.  My husband suggested that I surprise our son by taking him to Six Flags.  That way, I could check on our daughter and please my son at the same time.  (Conveniently, he had a business trip that day and could not join us on this “great adventure.”)

I don’t like amusement parks.  I was terrified of the local Halloween Haunted House as a child.  Dark with costumed figures jumping out and bowls of spaghetti guts and peeled grape eyeballs to feel, it was not a frisson of fun for me.  While the other kids were laughing, I was quaking and looking for the exit.  My fear was compounded with embarrassment at not fitting in with the other kids.  What was the matter with me?  When it came to rides, I could barely stand the Merry-Go-Round.  The Ferris Wheel was too high.  The Round-Up was too fast.  I never went on those flying swings.  And forget about roller coasters.  As amusement parks became theme parks and got better at supplying a well-rounded overall experience instead of just rides (think Disney, Busch Gardens), I grudgingly accepted them and even have been known to have a good time, usually in the company of more adventurous and extraverted souls.  The log flume ride was fun!  But roller coasters – I hated them.  The safety belt strapping you in so that you don’t die when you go upside down.  The adrenalin as you crank up to the first swoop.  The force of the swoop on your neck.  The wondering when the ride is going to be over.  The nausea.  The screaming.  And the newer ones in the dark?  I hate them.  I hate amusement parks.

I looked at my husband like he was crazy.  “But what about the laundry?” I exclaimed, grasping at a responsible-sounding excuse.  I wanted to go to yoga.  I wanted to plant spring flowers.  Maybe go for a bike ride.  And, of course, I had the weekly laundry to do.  I did not want to go to Six Flags.  But I was worried about my daughter.  And I did want to make my son happy.  Rarely spontaneous, I am quite sure that when I am 90, I will wish I had spent more time having fun and less time on laundry.  I woke my son and told him we were going to Six Flags.  The surprise, the disbelief, the thrill on his face gave me joy.  Off we went.

When we arrived, I remembered why I hate amusement parks.  The long lines.  The loud music.  The rickety rides.  The junk food.  (I brought my own peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat bread, of course.  I cannot eat that food.  Thank god the security guard didn’t make me throw it away when he inspected my purse.  Speaking of purses, do not bring a purse to an amusement park.  You cannot go upside down on a roller coaster with a purse.)  Six Flags pretty much consists of roller coasters, ranging from scary to terrifying.  It doesn’t help that I wonder about their maintenance and safety records and am skeptical of the nonchalant teens operating them.  For better or worse, the first ride we hit was the most terrifying.  (SUPERMAN:  Ultimate Flight)  I used my yoga:  Breathe.  Remember it doesn’t last long.  I willed the adrenalin to subside.  We swooped and screamed and I did not lose my purse.  I acknowledged, firmly and with no embarrassment nor apology this time around:  I hate roller coasters.  I hate amusement parks.  I wished that I could be a more enthusiastic and spontaneous and fun-loving mother for my son, but I couldn’t do it.  We spent the day sauntering the park, looking for rides that were not too terrifying.  He solicitously didn’t want to make me go on any rides that were too scary.  We ran into my daughter once.  She was having a good time with her friends and didn’t want to be stalked by her mother and little brother.  We let her be.  Exhausted, and about $200 in the hole, we drove home.  My daughter returned on the bus to her mounds of homework.  Life returned to its normal relentless pace of too much to do and too little time for joy and connection.

A 13-year-old boy killed himself this week.  I don’t know him.  It doesn’t matter.  I am devastated.  So sad for his mother.  I am the mother of a 13-year-old boy who can’t imagine life without him.  Even when, (especially when), we have days where I fall short of being the fun-loving mother I aspire to be and imagine he wants.  Tragedies like this one remind me that every day is precious, even when they’re not perfect.  Perhaps being the careful-loving mom that I am who acknowledges who she is and who she is not may be the best mom I can be to him.

Life is hard.  We all suffer.  Some more than others.  At 50, I have more self-knowledge and self-acceptance than I had as a teen.  I have become resilient, surviving the troughs because I have the experience of surviving previous troughs.  Surviving because I have people I love and who love me.  Surviving for those precious and imperfect moments of joy and connection.  Surviving because I am grateful for all the good in my life.  My deepest, most unfathomable fear is to lose a child.  I pray that my children never experience so much pain that they feel there is no way out.  I pray that my children speak their anger and ask for help.  I pray that my children do less laundry and have more fun.

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