Content warning: dieting, intentional weight loss, hospitalization, disordered eating
“It’s like, you know, it’s a work in progress and I think we’re always just evolving and changing”
This month my mom celebrates her 60th solar return. She has moved around, changed cars, switched careers, and revamped her hairstyles six decades worth, at least. No matter where she lived, which desk she sat at, or what color her head of curls were there was always something she could never permanently change: her weight. I grew up watching my mom attempt diet after diet; she usually jokes that if you name a plan or program, chances are she tried it. Her immediate answer to why she put herself through years of cyclical dieting is “for health”, though emerging information available on yo-yo diets illustrates the severely harmful long-term impacts these efforts have on the body.
My mom is 5’ 3’’ and has been classified as “overweight” for the majority of her adult life. Like all of the women in my family, her fixation on weight meant a lot of talk about “good” and “bad” foods; self-deprecating one-liners as she helped herself to, or refused, a second plate or dessert; fascination around the newest fat burning or weight loss “handy hint”. The list really goes on. She vividly recalls upsetting visits to the dressing room while shopping for clothes that didn’t seem to fit,
“My mom would take me to the store and grab the largest dress then place it in front of me and say ‘it gives’ while stretching the ends out”
My 94-year old grandma, unlike my mom, was, and still is, by all standard measurements “petite”. Everyone in my family half-heartedly laughs at the fact that my grandma eats “like a bird” or that she never sat down to eat with her kids and instead stayed busy near the sink and stove during dinner time. But, beyond these cursory considerations there lacks a deeper discussion about why my grandma was so hesitant to eat. Her diminutive frame was a source of pride for her, such that she frequently reminded my mom that no one knew she was pregnant with her until much later in her term.
“She said she could still wear her regular clothes and she didn’t look pregnant because she wore a size 12, but that was the biggest she had been in her life. So when I started to wear a size 12 I was like damn does she think I’m fat or what?It made me wonder how come she didn’t want to look pregnant, like in my head I felt like she wasn’t happy about having me.”
Told by doctors, mainstream media, and, above all, her mother, that she needed to lose weight, health and intentional weight loss became synonymous for my mom. To be thin is to be healthy and vice versa; that is the lie that saturates all areas of our life promoted by the diet industry and western medicine. We are led to believe we should not, cannot, trust our bodies – and even ourselves.
Food, fitness, and physical appearance become weapons we wield against ourselves in a lifetime battle to mold ourselves according to the BMI index, the scale, and the next clothing size. Wellness is a $4.2 trillion industry worldwide that insidiously shapeshifts but is ever present. Think about a typical social media feed: it is likely saturated with #transformationtuesday photos praising dramatic weight loss, #detoxtea sponsorships by your favorite celebrities, and tons of infographics with #keto #paleo or #intermittentfasting diet “approved” regimens, coaxing us to buy into them. What I have found is that these fast fads do not promote wellness for the purpose of nurturing and nourishing ourselves. Instead, this messaging socializes us into white centered and capitalist driven relationship to our bodies.
As a plus-sized woman of color who regularly exercises, my mom has consistently been dismissed and undermined by physicians, nutritionists, and fitness enthusiasts alike. Her knowledge and experience are invalidated because of her age and weight. Patient intakes at the doctor’s office for my mom are peppered with accusatory language, surprised facial expressions, and patronizing “health” tips for her to “shed those extra pounds”. The blatant disrespect that medical professionals have for people who are not thin also jeopardizes the quality of care that fat patients receive, making access to medical care even more difficult than it already is for low-income and non-white folks.
The implications of weight-loss messaging extend to another area in which our lives are entrenched: desirability. Society operates within a fat vs. thin and good vs. bad binary that is informed by the values we place on certain food and the people who consume these foods. To be healthy is to be thin and to be thin is to be beautiful (re: attractive) and both are social proxy for personhood and innate worth.
Growing up, my mom would tell me how beautiful I was, unlike her. When people said I looked like her she would qualify, “yes, but when I was younger and skinnier”. As a child, I immediately recognized that I was pretty, and valued, because of what I wasn’t not because of what – or who – I was. But what happens as we age and grow into ourselves? The urge to change my body – to shrink and conform for acceptance and love – was an almost knee-jerk reaction passed down to me from my mom and her from my grandmother.
Hyper conscious of the ways her mom instilled a fear of food in her, my mom never explicitly made negative comments about my body or what I ate. In fact, she often tried to protect me from my family’s criticism and body-shaming.
“I always let you eat what you wanted and when you wanted to. It was important to me to expose you to different kinds of foods, stuff I didn’t have growing up.”
Intentional or not, observing the ways my mom and my grandmother both constructed relationships to food, each other, and their bodies reinforced dangerous ideas around was beautiful, attractive, healthy, and “normal” for women. I have lived with a disordered relationship to food/eating (ED) and body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) for nearly 12 years, with the memories of obsession and body shame as early as 9 years old. I believe that the centuries of restriction, dieting, body modifications, and associated physical traumas that run through my maternal line are deeply embedded in my cellular memory.
My transition as a teenager to a plant-based eating 8 years ago proved a catalyst for simultaneous recovery and relapse. Plant-based eating, veganism – however you name it – is often conflated with “health” and “wellness” movements that are couched in diet rhetoric. Without substantial parental guidance, it became difficult for me to discern the motivating factors behind my food and exercising choices. The slippery slope between what was “healthy” and what was harmful led to years of abusing exercising to the point of pain, binging, purging, and denying my body the nutrients and calories it so desperately needed.
Spring senior year of college I laid out across a bench shaded beneath the canopy of a tree in front of the library and, exhausted, frantically called my mom. She picked up the phone nearly 3,000 miles away and listened without response as I moved through tears of frustration to share with her the intrusive thoughts – the fear – that consumed me.
“I had no idea. I felt that … it was just surprising. I felt that I knew that it wasn’t true what you were saying about yourself. You looked fine. You seemed to have a good grasp on how to take care of yourself. I had no idea you were struggling. I didn’t know how to help you.”
As a vegan for the better part of four years, I have embraced the confidence that what we eat is always about more than just food. Because of this, food is a wonderful vehicle through which to traverse the murky landscape of all other intersecting social, political, and historical memories that shape our present realities. With the encouragement of close friends, I even started a public Instagram account (@foodxflorae) to document my ongoing process of rebuilding a compassionate and respectful relationship with my body through plant-based eating.
Ten years ago, my mom had gastrointestinal complications which led her to dive into holistic, medicinal health practices. At the time she was eating vegan, receiving acupuncture, and learning about the cycles, rhythms, and systems our bodies naturally follow through.
Once she experienced the immediate relief from illness, it became less urgent to maintain this lifestyle. She never completely abandoned these practices or knowledge; my mom fundamentally understood, from experience, and respected my choice to eat vegan. Now, after three months of hospitalizations, multiple surgical procedures, and a nearly life-ending medical complication this year my mom is embracing similar eating habits, for the second time around.
“Ten years ago it was more challenging, there wasn’t all that many options or information. It was hard to be a vegan or vegetarian, especially Mexican. As far as like going out to dinner or anything like that, to try and find some place that was going to have anything vegan on their menu was discouraging. Definitely fast food, I mean, forget it you would never find anything. Not like you do now. Even a couple of that taco places have vegan options, which makes it easier to start transitioning. But, learning about foods and how to combine them or how to make something that, you know, was tasty and not just a salad has been the biggest thing.”
It is increasingly widely recognized that veganism is not always accessible or affordable to low-income communities of color. My own capacity to grow food, buy locally sourced fresh produce, and plant-based alternatives at grocery stores are all benefits from living in my family’s home that has a large fertile backyard, the presence of vibrant community gardens, and commercial development (re: gentrification) in my city, respectively.
The problem with mainstream white veganism is that it doesn’t afford space to elevate non white vegans and precolonial food production and consumption practices that existed before veganism, as we know today. Plant based, medicinal, and holistic health practices have been appropriated and co-opted from the communities in which they originated, and are currently used, resulting in the complete stratification of access to these life-sustaining practices.The disparities in representation among the vegan community support the myth that veganism is a “white people” thing when, historically and in the present, Black and indigeneous people originated non-violent relationships to food and the earth.
Gardening and herbalism have always been a part of my family. It was my grandma’s cedrón mixed with fresh lemons from out back that would calm my stomach aches. My grandpa would spend his afternoons outside, caked in dirt and hot summer air, tending to the tomato and chili plants that became staple ingredients to the food we ate. I remember even sitting next to him, as a toddler, on the cushion he placed to protect his knees, as he bent down to inspect the blooming strawberry fruits. Even with nectarines, pears, cactus, and loquats, our avocado tree was the crown jewel and has fed generations of us delicious fruit year after year, sometimes arriving in care packages to cousins and myself across the country.
When my grandpa passed away six years ago, the garden withered. In the past year, my aunt and I revived the space to grow fresh kale, spinach, carrots, and squash. Looking to my elders for guidance on cultivation and harvest, I realized I took for granted that they would always be around to share this knowledge.
Remembering how to grow and prepare my own food is a special practice that I hold dearly because it is bound up with my complicated family relationships. In the kitchen, a space neither of us ever felt comfortable in, while learning to prepare vegan meals alongside each other my mom and I have talked about overlapping cycles of restriction and mistrust in our bodies. On dieting, my mom remembers:
“It wasn’t about, you know, okay, eat this because it’s good for your body. It was ‘don’t eat this and only eat a certain number of calories or only eat this or that.’ And it was very it was depriving, you know, a lot of it was depriving myself…honestly, it’s like I just don’t want to beat myself up any more about it. I beat myself up over a lot of things over the years and just like looked at myself like, oh, you failed again. I’m not a failure.”
Following the close of a nearly four-month medical interlude this year, my mom (re) joined me on this journey in plant-based eating. Centering food has allowed us to confront shared and different experiences around weight and mental health. It opened up a space to have honest conversations, requests for accountability, and perhaps, even, moments of clarity and forgiveness for ourselves and each other.
Food has been the bridge by which my mom and I have found each other to begin the difficult work of restoring our relationship. It is through food that each of us has disclosed the intimate details of our living with anxiety, depression, ED, and BDD – speaking into existence something which has always existed but has never been explicitly named in our family.
Now, my mom and I are learning to cook tasty vegan meals together. We spend Sunday afternoons trying out new and simple recipes or creating our own. We are discovering that cooking can be fun, pleasurable, and free of shame or reservation. Cooking is also a process for carrying our stories while rewriting new ones.
“We never did much in the kitchen together but I am so glad that we are doing things now…now I see what I missed out on. But that’s okay, now is our time.”
My mom and I don’t employ veganism as a temporary diet or a tool for intentional weight loss. It is about reclaiming our lives and cultivating a quality of life that is a radical departure from what may be expected of us because of race, gender, and socioeconomic status. We are aware of how, just by being vegans, we are challenging and contradicting myths around food and health habits. We are constantly balancing feeding ourselves nutrient dense foods, exercising for joy, and allowing ourselves to exist in these bodies as we are.
“I’m 60 years old now. It’s like, it’s (weight loss) not my focus. I want to be healthy more than anything and I think my body will change. My body’s gonna adapt. I don’t know, I just think that it’s, veganism is an ongoing choice. You know, you make the choice every day. It’s partly longevity, but if I’m going to have longevity and not be able to enjoy life, then what’s the point? I think for me my changes are more to be able to enjoy you and be there for you to be and to be present; to totally enjoy everything that is here day by day. Worrying about what to eat or what not to eat took up so many years of my life and now I was like, no, I want to enjoy every day and whatever that day brings”
Veganism is one element of the life-long work towards (re)inscribing generational narratives. In my short 22-years, I have defined and redefined myself lifetimes over. It is comforting to see my mom do the same. My mom is now encouraging her best friend, also over the age of 50, to embrace a veganism. While we reflected on the last year, her hospitalization, and our mental health, my mom revealed something that I believe best captures the importance of bodily knowledge:
“I’m more in tune with my body. There are things you shouldn’t (or should) feel that I ignored but that you need to pay attention to”
Perhaps it is only once we surrender the pursuit of perfection that we can embrace our already divine wholeness and begin healing ourselves, those who came before us, and those who will come after us.
I want to hold digital space for a moment of deep gratitude and love to the folks who read this in pieces or its entirety. It took a tremendous amount of courage to produce an offering that is vulnerable and, quite honestly, still incomplete and messy. Thank you for respecting and honoring the process of this work. Here is to forging a path toward joy, wellness, and freedom in this lifetime, whatever that means for you and the communities you find home in!
Yesenia is from sunny Southern California. She enjoys filling her 9-5 work day listening to NPR tiny desk concerts and spends time outside of the office searching for slowness through: reading, walking, eating, cooking, sleeping, and laughing – so much laughing.