About a year ago, my daughter, Phoebe—nine years old at the time—asked me what a diet was. This, I would have to say, was my proudest moment yet as a mother.
Not because she wanted to know, but because she didn’t already know. I was a chubby kid (or zaftig, as my grandmother lovingly called it); by the time I was nine, I was already scooping out my bagel to save calories and lose a few pounds. And then, eating the inside dough before it made it into the trash. Sometimes after.
In fact, when I was that age I had already tried so many diets (and failed so miserably at all of them) that I was sent to my first sentence at “fat camp.” There, I lived on skinless chicken breast and running. So much running. My success was measured in pounds and inches recorded on an index card kept in the “weight shack.” My parents celebrated the “new and improved” me upon my return home. But once I was back in the free world, I was face deep in ice cream, donuts, pizza...whatever I could get my hands on. No matter how well my parents hid the Swiss Fudge Cookies, I found them. I was filled with food and shame. And then the next diet would come along. And the next and the next. My worth went up and down with my weight.
This laid the groundwork for a life of food, body, and weight obsession. There isn’t a diet I haven’t tried: the South Beach Diet, the Zone Diet, and the Dukan Diet. (The latter of which the Middletons reportedly tried before the royal wedding. I wonder if the “pin thin” princess’ hair fell out in clumps like mine did.) There was the Atkins Diet, which left me too depressed to enjoy my thigh gap. There was Paleo, which ruined nuts for me, intermittent fasting, the eight-hour diet, the three-hour diet (not to be confused with the three-day diet), the Cabbage Soup Diet, the Cookie Diet, the Baby Food Diet. The list goes on.
For quick fixes, I did things like the Hollywood Juice Fast that ended with me, pale, weak, and allergic to mango but five pounds lighter. I paid money to go to a “spa” where the only food is a clear broth (one cup) and the daily activity includes a colonic and the aftermath. My tongue turned black from the artificial sweeteners leaving my body. (I decided to put them immediately back into my body, and my tongue went back to it's normal color.) I did a steak and tomato diet I got from a family friend where by day three, I felt like I had glass in my stomach. I think that meant it was working. I was as addicted to the failure of these diets as I was the success.
Having a daughter felt like a chance to see what I might have been like without body shame.
So when I had kids, I vowed to do the opposite of what my parents did. I would tell them they were beautiful every day. Inside and out. They wouldn’t associate their worth with the way they looked. Food would never be restricted, never an issue. They would never have to climb to the back of a credenza for Swiss Fudge Cookies or try to split a contraband Jolly Rancher six ways between their fat camp inmates.
I admit I was more focused on Phoebe, because she’s the girl. Having a daughter felt like a chance to see what I might have been like without body shame. Who could she become with a healthy relationship to food and jeans? May she never enter a dressing room like it’s a torture chamber with unforgiving mirrors and bad lighting.
My son, Jesse, was part of all of this too, but I never imagined he’d be the one I’d really worry about. Or that I’d really screw up. But then, I almost did.
For my children’s sakes...I knew I needed to cut out all of my negative self talk.
Jesse was four, Phoebe not yet two, and we were on vacation at a beach resort. I was wearing my version of a bathing suit: sweatpants and an oversized T-shirt. I'd bailed on the 21 Day Master Cleanse I was doing because the pepper and lemonade combination made me a little hallucinate-y when my husband, Todd, told me he thought he may have heard Jesse call himself "a fat piece of crap" in the mirror. I couldn’t believe it. I tell him he’s beautiful inside and out! It was impossible. Todd must have heard him wrong. I needed to know if god forbid it could be true.
As I put Jesse to bed that night, I leaned in and whispered, "When you were looking in the mirror, did call yourself a…cat? Or bat cap? A rap? Prap? Bat neice pap?” I got nothing, but I certainly didn’t want to repeat the words he may have said. So I let it go. “You’re beautiful and perfect,” I added, kissing his forehead.
Back at school, I confided in his teacher about what happened. I wanted to know if it was age appropriate to walk around calling yourself a fat piece of crap. Maybe it was a stage of development I was unaware of.
I had to start accepting compliments about my appearance with a simple “thank you” instead of a quick, “Please, I’m disgusting.”
Her answer: He’s modeling his behavior after you. “He hears you say things to yourself and repeats them.” I told her I don’t even mean those things I say about myself. I don’t believe them to be true. It’s just how I talk to myself. “I’m a comedy writer,” I explained. “I’m just being funny and self-deprecating. It’s my character.” And since when was his hearing so good? Jesse doesn’t hear me ask him to put his toys away, but a low, mumbled “fat piece of crap” from the other room was loud and clear?
The truth is, a lot of the time I don’t even realize I’m saying these things. Like in the morning, when I stare at myself in the mirror and the words “fat piece of crap” apparently roll out of my mouth. I’m replaying the tapes in my head, which were put there by others. There’s even an essay in my book Don't Wait Up: Confessions of a Stay-At-Work-Mom called "Out of the Basement, Into the Fire" in which I describe being sent to fat camp for being “too fat to look at.” Which I’m pretty sure I called myself the other night, come to think of it.
For my children’s sakes, for their own still-developing little tapes that will play forever in their heads, I knew I needed to cut out all of my negative self talk. Even if it was just shtick. I had to start accepting compliments about my appearance with a simple “thank you” instead of a quick, “Please, I’m disgusting.” I had to say “not bad!” and other unthinkable positive things like that when I look in the mirror. I was going to have to pretend I had been that little girl I want Phoebe to be.
I knew I had to pretend to love myself in front of them, to practice what I preached. This seemed like a lot of work. And it was. It wasn’t easy at first. There was a lot of stopping myself mid, “I’m such a pig,” or just say it into a pillow or out the window. And, because actions speak louder than words, I had to wear bathing suits on vacation and act like I was totally cool about my body, the one I’d been so ashamed of, exposed the way it was. I had to act like I love the way I look. In order for them to love themselves, I had to love myself in front of them. And over time, I started to believe the words I was saying out loud. I started to erase my own tapes and replace them with new ones.
I know raising kids in Hollywood will do enough damage, and there are messages I can’t protect them from, like the ones they’ll get from social media and their friends—some of whom have been in “hair and make-up” before family photos since the age of four. I can’t protect them from all of that. But I can at the very least protect them in our home. And so, when Phoebe asked what a diet is, I told her: "That’s a four-letter word we don’t say in our house."
Liz Astrof is a comedy writer and executive producer. She has worked on shows like King of Queens, Raising Hope, Whitney, Becker, Last Man Standing, and 2 Broke Girls. Her book Don't Wait Up: Confessions of a Stay-at-Work Mom is now available.
Originally Appeared on Glamour