How Growing Up in the Low-Fat Generation Made My Mom See Food

updated May 30, 2019
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(Image credit: Courtesy of Molly Wizenberg)

This month we’re looking at the way our mothers fed us. We interviewed five women about how their body image was formed or affected by their own mother, and how their approach to food has (or hasn’t) changed over the years.

If you’ve been reading food blogs for some time now, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with Molly Wizenberg, writer behind the award-winning site Orangette and co-owner of the Seattle-based restaurant Delancey. Today we’re talking with her about how she feels in her own body after giving birth, and what it was like growing up with a mother in the era of low-fat foods.

Tell me about your body.

I feel great about how my body looks — especially since having my daughter, June. It made me feel so powerful, to carry and push out a nine-pound baby! I’ve got crepe-y skin on my abdomen from it, and my pelvic floor will never be quite the same, but seriously, women’s bodies are radical. I remember thinking, not long after birth, “I will never, ever criticize my body again. Never.”

Do you feel like your mother had expectations for how your body (or hers) should look?

My mother never expressed expectations for my body, and she still doesn’t. She does frequently comment, though, on my height and my slimness, because she sees them as a contrast to her own body and feels that I am lucky to have the body I do. She’s 71, and she’s incredibly fit for her age (or any age). She feels lucky to have her health. That said, she can tend to be critical of the size, shape, and appearance of her body. She loves to cook and eat, but she is also prone to thinking of food as reward or punishment.

So how did that play out on the dinner table growing up?

My mom was very much a product of the low-fat generation. She’s always been interested in health and fitness — and in the ’80s and ’90s, especially, that meant dieting and restricting. It was sort of the ethos of the time, both in the media and in our house. I just grew up thinking that’s what women did: they dieted. They assessed their bodies and controlled foods accordingly.

I don’t know if any of us could see another way of looking at it, you know? I remember thinking, “Why would anyone ever buy full-fat ice cream?” I think this came from being around my mom and reading the magazines of the era. I remember chastising my dad, a true gourmand, for eating olives, because I read somewhere that a single olive had, like, 2 grams of fat in it or something.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Molly Wizenberg)

When did you learn that you didn’t have to eat that way?

The host family I lived with in Paris, when I was a junior in college, served multi-course meals every night: a small vegetable dish to start, then some sort of meat or fish, then bread and a platter of various cheeses, and then a homemade dessert. It was all just lovely and simple. I slowly started to let myself eat more foods that had seemed “bad” to me before. I discovered that my body could handle it. My body knew what it wanted and how much, and if I listened to it, if I trusted that it would tell me when it was full, I found that it actually did! For the first time, I found within myself a real trust in my body.

As a mom, how do you pass that on to your daughter?

I feel a special obligation, having a daughter, to show her what it looks like to have a healthy relationship to food and our bodies. I’m doing my best to start June off with a baseline sense of trust in her own body. In our house, we don’t talk about bodies from the standpoint of appearance. I make a point to not comment on her body, unless it’s to say how strong she is, and I also don’t comment on my own body’s appearance.

I also don’t talk about food as “good” or “bad,” and I rarely use the word “healthy” in connection with food. Food is about pleasure. I put a good meal on the table, and she chooses what and how much she wants. She’s got a whole lifetime of eating ahead of her, and my goal as a mother is to raise a kid who feels good in her own skin and can enjoy the everyday human ritual of sharing food.

This interview has been lightly edited.