I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri with my mom, dad, three brothers, and two sisters. My parents wanted nothing less than the Midwestern dream for their Irish-Catholic brood: quarterbacks and prom kings for sons, dance team captains and homecoming queens for daughters. They dreamed of future lawyers, soccer moms, grandchildren galore. And who’s to blame them? Who wouldn’t want what’s best for their kids?
Unfortunately for my mom, I didn’t fit into her idea of Midwest perfection. While my sisters exemplified my mother’s own beauty–petite waists, tan skin, bright blue eyes, illustrious straight, brown hair–I spoiled my mother’s dream with my “big-boned” pale physique, a gift from my equally robust father, and a wild red mane from my great-grandmother.
Growing up, I constantly fought to embrace this big body, but the seemingly endless disappointments made it difficult: like when my mom bought adult women’s clothing at Talbots for me during middle school because she didn’t know where to buy clothes that fit me, or when I couldn’t share clothes with my sisters and was left out of their constant trading with each other, or when RJ Half asked me how it felt being the fattest girl in the 8th grade, or when each prom dress I tried on wouldn’t zip up all the way no matter how much I sucked in my stomach, or when my inner thighs chafed so badly on a hike in the Ozarks that they bled. Each and every one of these moments made me doubt my self-worth. But for every moment of shame I felt, my mother felt it tenfold.
My mom took my large physique personally, as if she had done something wrong and the consequence was my fat body- and she was determined to atone for her “mistake.”
By her logic, I could never possibly find happiness being fat. I wouldn’t be popular, find a boyfriend, get married, or have a family of my own- all the things that she thought led to an ideal, happy life. She was determined to “help” me lose the weight and find her definition of happiness.
From kindergarten on she enrolled me in every sport you could think of, in hopes that physical activity would slim me down: swimming, tennis, golf, soccer, basketball, ballet, field hockey, lacrosse, even cross country. While I was never very good at any of them , I enjoyed being out of the house, focusing on my role during each game, relay, round, match of the day, and fostering relationships with my peers- some of whom I’m still very close with 10 years later. But my weight gain remained steady.
When sports didn’t work, she took it to the dinner table:
“Ginnie, are you sure you want to eat that?”
“Maybe you should stick to salad tonight?”
“Going for seconds again, are we?”
When shame didn’t work, she resorted to bribery:
“Ginnie, if you lose 10 pounds, I’ll buy you that Chi straightener you want.”
“Ginnie, if you lose 25 pounds, Dad and I will buy you your own car.”
It was incessant. It made me angry.
My parents wrote me off as an overly angst-ridden teenager whose anger stemmed from hating the way she looked. But they were wrong.
I genuinely accepted myself as a person, despite being ashamed of the way I looked. But I was hurt that they didn’t. I was upset that I lived in a society that constantly reminded me that I literally didn’t fit in.
I wanted someone, especially my mom, to reassure me with those cliché, trite sayings that every parent tells their “ugly” underdog of a daughter in a teenage rom-com. This happens right before the boy next door swoops in, removes her glasses, and reveals to all that she’s been beautiful the whole time. I wanted someone to tell me:
“There’s more to life than being thin.”
“What’s on the inside matters most.”
“You’re beautiful to me.”
That didn’t happen. Instead, my mother turned to medicine.
It wasn’t until I was 17 and still hadn’t started my period that my mom decided to set up an appointment to get my thyroid tested. That was her hunch. “It has to be your thyroid” she told me time and time again, “there’s no other way to explain it!” I think she only knew thyroids existed because a friend of hers recently had had theirs removed.
To her disbelief, it wasn’t my thyroid. I didn’t have diabetes, either (another one of her hunches). I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, or PCOS. This chronic hormonal disorder causes ovarian cysts, excess hair growth, acne, infrequent or absent periods, and you guessed it, obesity.
I was relieved. Being fat wasn’t entirely my fault.
I started making plans to kick-start the new diet and workout regimen my doctor provided to prevent further weight gain and curb my symptoms. My mom wasn’t as enthusiastic. She was quiet and somber the entire drive home. I think we both assumed she would be relieved. It was no longer her fault. She finally had an excuse to tell others why I was fat. But ultimately, I think she pitied me, and now had no way to help.
Following my diagnosis, my weight plateaued, but I continued struggling to love my body and my mom continued to support me the only way she knew how: snide comments, shame, and bribery.
I finally graduated high school. I needed a change of scenery. I needed a fresh start. I needed someplace that embraced people of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. I needed Chicago.
In the fall of 2009, I went to Loyola University and never looked back. I found a job that kept me in Chicago during the summer months. I visited St. Louis only once or twice a year for a week, maybe two, at a time.
Chicago became my new home, and I flourished. Seven years later, I’ve found friends that have become family, and fulfilling work in a career I truly enjoy. I’ve fallen in love and fallen out of love. I’ve found a style that I slay. I wake up each day proudly proving societal expectations of beauty wrong.
But most importantly, I have gained the utmost respect and love for my mom. She was cruel and unhelpful but, in the end, all she ever wanted was for me to live the Midwestern dream she envisioned for each of her six children. She wanted to provide each of us with the life she lived, the life in which she found happiness, happiness she hoped to help us each replicate and, damn, she tried her hardest.
Since my diagnosis nearly 10 years ago, my mom and I have never talked about my weight outright or my journey to self-love. She no longer makes snide comments or intentionally tries to shame me. Instead of complimenting my appearance, she tells me how proud she is, and encourages me to pursue what makes me happy. Every now and then she will tell me I look like I’ve lost weight, even though we both know I haven’t. I no longer bother telling her that’s not actually a compliment. I choose to thank her, because I know she’s genuinely trying to be supportive in the way she knows how.
Age has shattered the confidence my mom once radiated. Her skin is wrinkled from years of laughter and smiling; her stomach, paunchy after raising six great kids, her hair thin and graying after 60 years of fabulousness. When I visit we go shopping, just the two of us: a tough thing when you share your mom with five siblings and nine nieces and nephews. As she walks out of the dressing room in a floral dress or flashy blouse she no longer feels comfortable wearing in public, I look at her and tell her how beautiful she is, inside and out.
Ginnie Redmond grew up in St. Louis, MO before moving to Chicago seven years ago to study creative writing at Loyola University Chicago. She’s a champion of red wine, reluctant grown-up, and chronic sufferer of wanderlust. When she’s not writing grant proposals for performing arts non-profits, she can be found snapping pictures of her cat, reading on the Red Line, writing during her lunch hour, and sipping tea while re-watching Arrested Development for the sixth time…but mostly snapping pictures of her cat.