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Weight, Body Image and Dying

My mom is finally losing weight, but it’s taken until end-stage Alzheimer’s to get there.

How my mother perceived her own weight defined how I felt about my own as I grew up.

My body image eventually mirrored her own. “I’m so fat,” became my mantra, just as it was my mother’s for so many years before she got sick. Now that she’s dying and we’re in quarantine and even if we weren’t, I couldn’t ask her about it anyways, I have so many questions.

There’s a radical element to accepting we might not find the answers to our questions.

In my support group with other younger caregivers like myself, it seems to be a running theme among many of us that our biggest regret is not knowing enough about our parents with Alzheimer’s. And to think, we had all that time to ask questions. All our lives!

Fat Mom

What I do know as a fact is that my mother always struggled with her weight. When I was very young, I loved burrowing my head into the gushy folds of her tummy. During this time, she wasn’t particularly heavy, per se, but she was slightly overweight, at best. As I grew up, however, Mom kept getting bigger and bigger, hitting the 200s by the time I was in third grade.

The Polaroid

There’s this Polaroid of my mom from the early 1980s, like perhaps 1982 or 1983, where she’s had someone, presumably my father, snap a pic of her in her bra and underwear. It appears to be the first of a set of “before” and “after” diet photos, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen the “after” picture. Which leads me to believe my mom never reached her goal weight way back then, or it was somehow misplaced when we sifted through the piles “to keep” and “to throw” relics at my mother’s house before we sold it just after her diagnosis.

The look on her face suggests she’s already worried about what she’s going to look like in the photo before it’s even been taken. Will she look svelte? Is her perm in place? Has she pulled in her mommy stomach sufficiently enough to take off a few pounds? Does my father think she looks beautiful standing there?

Or has the weight gained since having two children changed the way he sees her?

Diet Crackers

The funny thing about the photo, too is that I vaguely remember my mom during this time doing Weight Watchers, or Jenny Craig; one of the two. She had special diet foods she’d eat, and even though it’s really odd and specific that I can recall some of the finer details of her dieting life when I was just four, it’s something I do, and perhaps something that shaped the perception of my own physicality.

I was sitting next to her, and either I asked for one or she gave me one. To this day, I can remember the taste: rye, crunchy, a little sweet and very delicious. I reached my hand out to the box to take another one and my mother slapped it away. Hard and angrily.

“Those are mine!” she yelled at me.

Chips and Salsa

I didn’t ask to share my mother’s food for a long time after that. Not until I was in third grade in the middle of winter on a night when I’d been tucked in but couldn’t sleep. Mom always kept the door to my room cracked open a little and left the hall light on to keep the heebie jeebies out.

Written by

Lonna Whiting is a freelance writer and editor. She is currently working on a book about Alzheimer’s and dementia.

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