Love yourself

Not for someone else’s love or for self-improvement. Just love yourself.

My mother always described herself as fat. And she did so in a self-derogatory manner. I hated it. To me, my mom has always been the pinnacle of beauty. I acknowledge that this is because I love her and she was probably the best mom who ever lived (sorry, all other moms and future me, but you’ve got some big shoes to fill). But mom was always in a fight against her size. And it was a fight she could never ever win. She was a Danish woman, the shortest in her family at 5'11" and had always been muscular and strong. She towered over most men and could never find women’s shoes that fit her in both length and width. She was also curvy with long limbs and she did end up gaining quite a lot of weight.

When I was born I was more or less average and my mom hoped I would be tall like her. But, my father is Hungarian and while medieval Hungarians were known for their height, unlike Scandinavians, Hungarians tend to be incredibly sexually dimorphic. What this means for me is although I inherited my mother’s gorgeous auburn hair I would be relegated to a much shorter stature while my brother got to have all of her height and a bit more.

I’m average height for a woman but if you stand me next to my cousins male and female on my mother’s side I’m a miniature. But I wanted to be big like my mom and she wanted me to grow. So between that and something my father never addressed before it was too late we fell into a rather unhealthy routine. My mom fed me quite well hoping I’d grow. She took me to sports to ensure I’d stay active and did everything in her power to keep me healthy. But simultaneously she neglected her own health. Something was very wrong in my parents’ relationship and my mother’s sense of self evaporated.

While I wanted to be like her and gain my father’s approval, she wanted me to avoid her mistakes. My mother hoped I’d be tall. Even when I was eighteen and we were relatively certain I wouldn’t grow anymore she hoped I’d have a late growth spurt. I did not. But what she didn’t want is for me to be fat. To be honest, I didn’t either, but being tall and being fat were not really different things in my mind as weird as that may seem. Somehow my mother associated her lack of self-worth with being fat. She didn’t turn to food for comfort, but she also couldn’t seem to put the self care into herself that would have let her lose weight.

I found out after she died that my mother — like most mothers — told everyone who would listen how gorgeous her daughter definitely is. That’s not notable in and of itself. But what was notable was just what about me she emphasized. I am petite where she was tall. I am sharp where she was soft. And my hair is straight whereas hers was curly. These were the things that she emphasized about me when trying to convince people I am beautiful.

I am certain that my mother’s love was such that if I had been a perfect clone of her she would consider me beautiful even while hating herself, but I was heartbroken when I found that the woman to whom I owe all my intelligence and most of my beauty could not see that I was her creation.

But the world didn’t really appreciate my mom. And to be honest, as excellent as our relationship was I don’t think I appreciated her enough myself. I did get frustrated with her for not caring for herself, or defending herself, and never just once in her life being selfish, but I myself could not always find it in me to be selfless towards my mom.

Ultimately though and where I think my experience bleeds into the experience of all or most women is that my mother and I both have had this ongoing and unrelenting battle with our physical size. She let it become her literal weight to bear and as much as I resist saying this I do think it contributed to her early death. I — conversely, or perhaps not — developed an eating disorder.

I, and I believe my mother as well, are autistic and so it is unsurprising that we had issues with our weight. I actually engage to this day in some food hoarding behaviors. I’ve gotten a bit better about which ones I train out and which I indulge, but for autistic women that’s just a thing. But I can’t really say that my anorexia was due entirely to the autism.

I won’t here engage in an explanation of exactly what I did or how it felt or how unhealthy I became, but there are a few relevant points. One never fully recovers from an eating disorder. I am not cured. But it has been years since I engaged in seriously dangerous disordered eating. There were many things which signalled to me that I needed to take better care of myself but the big ones had to do with my mom.

For one, as much as my mother avoided interfering in my life she could see I was in trouble, and I could see that I was worrying her. I love my mother and I don’t want to cause her pain so I got better.

For another, when my mom was in her late 50s working at the Pentagon during the winter she slipped hard on a patch of ice and fell hitting her forearm rather severely on the curb. For most women her age this would have meant a fracture, but mom had such strong bones with such thick cortices that she walked away with just a bit of bruising. In contrast at my worst point I could feel that the bones of my axial skeleton were being leeched of nutrients and just the wind made them hurt. I wanted to have strong bones like my mother, so I got better.

Lastly, my hair — my auburn hair that I inherited from my mother and from her mother — lost its lustre and became brittle. When I washed it it fell out almost in clumps. Redheads never go grey. We go a bit blonde and then in very old age our hair turns entirely white. But my hair was and remains my closest tie to my mother. Without my hair I’m just a woman. I’m average. Not bad not good. With my hair though I truly am absurdly beautiful and it’s all because of my mom. Hairdressers can’t make it better, I don’t use any special product, it just grows out of my head and is wonderful because my mother gave it to me. So call it filial piety or whatever you wish but to avoid losing my mom’s gift to me — the clearest symbol that I am her daughter, I got better.

I basically recovered my health because I love my mom and she loved me.

Lest I be misunderstood illness is not for lack of love and a person’s death is not the fault of their relatives for not loving them enough. Sickness and death are inevitable and are an eventuality we all must face. My mom — my beautiful, brilliant mom — died of pancreatic cancer at 62 years of age. I will love my children possibly more than I loved her but it’s a hard concept to imagine. Love cannot stop death, but it can persist.

You, whoever you are, whatever you’ve done or haven’t done, are loved by someone. Hopefully it’s mutual and you know about it, but no one is truly alone even when they try to be. Loving yourself is difficult. But it’s so worth it. My self-love got me out of my worst bout of anorexia. That won’t work for everyone, but it worked for me.

Look at it this way if you have difficulty with this concept. Someone who you care for loves you. If you are suffering they will want to save you from that. Mileage may vary for just how much they’re willing to do for you, but they will want to do something. If you are suffering unnecessarily they will feel awful. Your suffering is contagious and spreads most quickly to those you care about. So, to reduce their suffering you should care for yourself.

There’s times where being heroic and selfless are called for. You’ll know when they come. Perhaps you’ve already been there. But as a general rule, being kind to yourself is worthwhile even if for now you have to think about it as keeping others from being concerned for you.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

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