My 101-year-old mother is no longer able to walk and she suffers from dementia. But her vital signs and her appetite are good, which hospice interprets to mean the end of her life is not imminent.
She has been living with me since 2019, but the challenges have increased in the past two months. My emotions are raw and the stress is always an undercurrent coursing through my days, threatening to pull me beneath the placid surface of self-control.
Last week she had an “accident.” She needed to be washed and changed while she lay in bed, but she was combative and resistant. She kicked and struck at me and the woman who helps me 8 hours a day.
I tried giving my mother an anti-anxiety pill prescribed by the hospice doctor, but she spat it out and attempted to bite my hand. Grabbing my wrist in a surprisingly strong grip, she twisted violently.
“Mama, are you trying to break my wrist?” I said, wrenching free.
“Yes. I hate you,” she said.
It took us two hours to get her cleaned up. I suppressed emotion at the time and focused on doing what I needed to do. I knew this was dementia speaking. This was not the mother I knew and loved.
Yet later, in that dark space of time that acts as fertile ground for resentment, I couldn’t help thinking, “Has she ever loved me? Or is she expressing how she really feels?”
I shook it off. Of course she loved me. But still, in fragile moments, I wonder.
My sister came to stay the other day when I was out of town. I had told her about the previous episode. “Mama was sweet,” my sister said. “We had a good visit. She smiled and laughed and I made a point of sitting beside her bed and talking.”
“You didn’t have to change her and clean her up,” I replied. “That’s the only time she gets combative.”
“I didn’t have any trouble. She’s been great.”
As she talked, a sudden, unbidden thought lapped at the edges of my composure. “Has she always loved my sister more? Why does she call me by my sister’s name when I walk into the room? Has she forgotten me, her middle child?”
These thoughts breed an unwilling and unattractive resentment.
Another thing that breeds resentment is money.
For the first year and a half that my mother was with me, expenses were minimal. My husband and I covered them. Now expenses are exorbitant, and we pay caregivers from my mother’s checking account.
I also pay my sister out of my mother’s account. She comes to stay at night when I am out of town, and she needs the money. I figure our mother would want her to have it.
But at this rate, my mother’s funds will diminish rapidly. And then what? My brother inherits the house, because he is the son. My mother told us this years ago. Her rental properties, which aren’t worth much, are to be divided evenly among the three of us: my brother, sister, and me.
I mentioned selling or refinancing some of her assets to free up more money for her care, and my sister said, “I’ve been thinking about it. I think you should pay for her care. You aren’t giving money to the church anymore since you quit going. Let mother be your charity.”
“That’s not fair,” I said. “I’ve taken care of her all this time and now I’m supposed to foot the bills?”
“Life’s not fair,” she replied. “God gives us each a purpose in life, and maybe that’s yours.”
My sister knows my husband and I are better off financially than she and my brother. We have a nice nest egg for our retirement, and she doesn’t.
“We might need our retirement funds for our own care,” I said. “Or to help with my autistic grandson, who will probably need lifelong care.”
“You can turn down God’s purpose or accept it,” she said.
Resentment rose like a tide, washing me in negative, resentful emotions that threatened to drown the sibling relationship I’ve always believed was more important than money and disagreements.
Initially, I offered to care for our mother because I was in the best position to take on that responsibility. With a bedroom on the main floor, free time because I am retired, sufficient funds and a supportive husband, I am blessed. And aren’t we blessed to be a blessing? That’s what I’ve always believed.
There is a scripture verse that says, “To him who has been given much, much will be expected.” (Luke 12:48)
I’ve been given much.
But now I chafe against the confinement of this prolonged caregiving role. I find myself thinking, “Is she going to live forever?” And realize what a horrible thought that is.
I believe it’s crazy to think I should pay for her caregivers as long as she has financial assets. It’s her money for her care. Don’t people understand how much of a sacrifice I am already making just to have her here? Or does mentioning the sacrifice make me seem like I’m trying to be a martyr?
The sad thing is, I want to turn to my mother for advice.
My sister and brother don’t want me to put her in a nursing home. All three of us agreed a long time ago that she is better off with someone who loves her.
Yet how much love can I cling to if resentment festers? Resentment is a poison. If I allow it to take root, I risk the bitter fruit of anger, alienation, and ruptured relationships.
Do I have it in me to keep on, out of love and duty and faith? I don’t know.
I am trying.
I remember standing in front of a mirror propped up onto a fading purple theater chair and drawing lines on my body with eyeliner. My performance art classmates, ten undergraduate students all taking this class to fulfill the art requirement at our small liberal arts college or to live a weird, narcissistic dream, all watched as I choked back tears marking the bits of my body where I wanted my silhouette to end.
The stomach was the most difficult part. I pulled the marker from the line of my hip inward and up, leaving a good three or four inches of body out of my desired outline. All the while, I murmured what I believed to be self-empowering statements to my reflection, avoiding the eye-contact of my peers. I continued this practice on my arm flab, inner thighs, and even my calves (which were and are still mostly muscle and cannot change without some sort of unnecessary altering surgery) for the entirety of my ten-minute performance.
This “performance art” was an original piece of mine. I hadn’t seen it anywhere. We had not discussed what our projects would be before coming into class. When a much thinner classmate proceeded to perform the exact same piece, my already vulnerable head absolutely broke.
This classmate was an actual model. Multiple Amazon clothing outlets have used her pictures to sell their products. She and I were both traditionally (and problematically) beautiful in many ways — white, somewhat muscular, blue-eyed. She had also brought a mirror and planned to measure the bits of her body that had actively kept her from getting work. She narrowed her waist even smaller than its already teeny size, changed the shape of her nose, and even lined her forearms in a way I would not have imagined to do on myself.
The natural, good-person reaction would have been to empower her and assure her that our insecurities were equal. Our deep body sadness the result of a patriarchal society held up by both men and a depressing number of our white sisters. Instead, I was pissed.
My 19-year-old mind thought terrible things during this classmate’s self-criticism. I was definitely kind to her afterwards, but I kept mentally accusing her of not knowing how lucky she had it, of being selfish for having a body like that (again, I admit that this thinking was very flawed) and not having a more celebratory performance of it, and of making me feel fatter than I already did.
Her insecurities were valid. The bigger issues of beauty standards affect all of us and are even more cruel to folks of color, trans people, and those in the disability community. Now, in 2020, the “body positivity movement” has relied much more on social media influencers than on traditional media outlets. This was even worse then, in 2015.
My performance art professor gave me an A and called my interpretation of the assignment “Brave.” I wonder if my classmate received similar feedback.
Body Positivity vs. Body Neutrality
I first heard about body positivity when I was a chubby, queer college student with a handsome boyfriend (my now husband) and a newly-gained Freshman Fifteen, developed on a vegetarian diet newly introduced to all the wonders of a daily buffet.
I was taking classes, maintaining a new relationship, volunteering, joining clubs, and trying to seem like a fun, carefree individual in order to gain friends. I wanted to believe in body positivity so badly, but my own vessel had changed so quickly that I barely recognized it.
I needed to buy new jeans and felt constantly ashamed that I did not look the same way I had when my partner and I first got together. He did not contribute to this, it was definitely all me, and a few hurtful comments from family. It didn’t help that the women who were being celebrated for “having meat on their bones” were still half my dress sizes. Jennifer Lawrence is the option that sticks out most clearly in my head. She and model Ashley Graham popped up all over my social media feeds as examples of women with fat in the right places. They were to be admired for their bravery. They were “hot without trying.” That was to be the goal. We could celebrate our bodies, now, so long as we were under a size 16 AND had abs.
Despite this revolution, however, my mom still checked in to make sure I was still exercising in undergrad because I apparently didn’t look like it and fat people were still the brunt of comedies rather than the centers of love stories.
Currently, all of this still exists and still hurts. I LOVE that there are outspoken Instagram models who I follow and who I constantly think, “Yes, you gorgeous creature!” I have worked to curate a feed that keeps me happy and motivated. The issue is that this world does not exist for me, yet, outside of Instagram.
My mom takes less than ten minutes to bring up her own weight concerns (again, while in a smaller body… her generation was affected in a way I try to sympathize with but will not likely ever understand) whenever I see her, imagining it to have to do with “health” when, in reality, she has actually admitted that her diets make her cranky and tired. A member of my partner’s family family once said, “I’m really not attracted to women who are 50 pounds overweight,” despite the fact that he’d previously had a girlfriend with an ED. We’re all hugely affected by a system, and not everyone is doing enough to undo the damage.
The highest performing TikTokers, YouTubers, and Instagrammers are still the thin folks, and the plus or mid-size accounts are usually very vocally plus or mid-size (as in, this aesthetic has to be mentioned by the creators in order for it not to be the main topic within the comments).
The only show I have seen with a fat woman as the lead was Shrill. While brilliantly written, this show is only one in tons of new-ish releases, and the only one with a leading lady over size 12. When the average size of an American woman is now between 16 to 18, it’s disappointing that we still promote a weird, unattainable standard.
Body positivity is marketing. Some smart brands are advertising with diverse models, but that’s where it seems to stop. I need my representation to be thorough, though. I need to see it after I take my eyes off of screens, too.
The issue with this idea, too, is that in celebrating certain bodies we are assuming that the others aren’t cared for. We assume fat bodies aren’t “healthy,” aren’t moving, and that promoting self-love when it comes to bigger bodies is promoting anything other than health.
I outran most of men and women playing basketball in college for fun, and by that point I was a good 30–40 pounds heavier than I had been in high school. I was eating more, but I was also exercising. I felt good but thought that I looked bad. There are so many huge red flags there. It proves that I don’t have a clear way to think about my health.
My classmate proved to me that no matter how small I could get, the world would make me want to hate my body. So why not try to feel good in it, without the pressure of explicitly needing to celebrate it, right?
Enter, body neutrality.
Essentially, body neutrality aims to encourage you to accept the body you are in and focus on its achievements, rather than its appearance.
Too often, we fall into the black-or-white trap of either loving or hating our bodies, and I think this movement provides an opportunity for a middle ground. It provides an opportunity for acceptance.
I still struggle to love my appearance. Like many other women, I’ve been harboring fatphobias and biases around weight-gain in my mind for far too long. Researching body neutrality is giving me the opportunity to want to “better myself” in terms of how I feel without pressure around how that makes me look. If I don’t see bodies like mine represented, waiting around to feel actively hot in my body will take ages.
Thanking my body for what it has helped me do, though, is the priority of my body neutrality journey. I have received multiple degrees, written a book, created short documentaries, adopted two dogs, and fallen in love in this body. That drive, consistency, and vulnerability were all made possible because of this body. I could have done all of this in another one, sure, but thanking my skin, bones, heart, and mind for the work it put in feels way better than simply celebrating how nice my butt looks.
I also would like to lose about 50 pounds and I don’t think the body positive community would take that well. I know what I ate and the amount of exercise I was doing when I felt my best and I stopped prioritizing that when all of this other important work came up. And, I was right to remove staying a particular size from my priorities list. I don’t regret that. Again, I have accomplished so much and this was the body that helped me do that. Now that I have the time to really try, though, I want to feel better. I don’t know yet how to rectify that with not wanting to give into healthism.
Can I Be “Body Positive” and Still Want to Lose 50 Pounds?