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Like you, I had a mom who was pretty well balanced on eating and exercise. We just didn't talk about bodies very much. Yesterday I was making a lunch of cottage cheese and pineapple chunks, and realized that this was my mom's diet lunch. I'm 50. I don't diet. But I also don't particularly enjoy cottage cheese. Unpack that if you're bored. (It was a pretty good combination, and easy for WFH!)

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May 10, 2023·edited May 10, 2023Liked by Emma Bates

My almond mother was a varsity cheerleader who also did gymnastics, and had me growing up on Slim Fast, Diet Coke and diet yogurts (you know--the kind that have gelatin, aspartame and a few small chunks of "fruit" in them?)

I never had a lasagna until a dinner theater show at my elementary school. I never had a banana until I was 8. I was told that I shouldn't eat olives because I wouldn't like them. The list of food control goes on and on.

This was normal to me--until the point of my life when I could buy my own food, and eventually cook it too. Do you know how wonderful a cheesesteak on a Sarcones roll is? Or a piping hot bowl of pho, a lovely chicken korma, or a greek salad with feta and kalamata olives tastes after an upbringing like that? I'm well above my ideal weight. An act of rebellion? Probably. I've also raised adventurous eaters who go out of their way to try new things. That's definitely an act of rebellion--and a parenting win as far as I'm concerned!

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My mother had both good and bad influences on my health and body image. The biggest was obviously the DNA, the celiac gene. Then there was the gene that, in combination with genes from our fathers, made her a fat celiac and me a skinny celiac. I enjoyed being thin and energetic enough to push through being flabby and sickly, pre-diagnosis, but I worried that this might change--as in fact it can. The same thyroid irregularity that made me a skinny kid could, under stress, flip and make me a fat adult. I'd hate that. Mother hated it too, when it happened to her. She was a professional world-class beauty in her day, so people thought they were flattering me by saying I looked just like her. I dreaded the thought. Mother had become fatter and less healthy after each baby. I wanted to play aunt or teacher, not mother, in primary school!

She had a healthy don't-care attitude toward looks, though. All the women in her family have almost the same face. I can see a difference between Mother's and Dad's female relatives, but there's a similarity, the look of longevity, the "good" look, symmetrical faces, high cheekbones. There's a way Mother's family, including my sister and her children and me, look when we're healthy. It's a look everyone agrees is good. There's a way we look when we're suffering from the effects of the celiac gene. It's a look almost everyone agrees is ugly--sickly, haggard, bags under eyes, sags around chin. In the twentieth century some of the relatives who were suffering more from the gene went through life hearing "That sister, and that other sister, are such Beauties. What about the other one? Was she left on the doorstep?" Actually the face can go from one look to the other in hours. In the old photos you have to know who was who. On their good days the plain ones looked just like the Beauties. And vice versa. We don't need face lifts or Botox; most of the time we just need to eat what we were built to digest...or avoid glyphosate!

So when I was growing up we didn't know we were celiacs, but we did know that how people reacted to our faces was irrational and had nothing to do with us as human beings. As a teenager I grew up slowly because I was chronically malnourished, as a celiac. Little saucers of vitamin supplements on the breakfast table were completely wasted because that healthy wheat germ was sprinkled over the cereal. I was baby-faced and not a particularly attractive baby, either. Relative to Dad's side of the family, who lived nearby and weren't celiacs, I was definitely at the bottom of any list of which of the beauty queens was currently looking most spectacular. So there was nothing to do but concentrate on doing good work and being a good friend. "Grooming" my face only attracted more attention to the look that really is ugly and undesirable because it's unhealthy. A "Who cares about the face as long as it's clean" attitude at least showed a proper Southern Preppy nonchalance, and served me well.

Eventually I grew up. The college girls applied for all the summer jobs available to people with only student labor experience, and the ones for which I was hired were activist, singer, sales, tour guide, as distinct from baby-sitting and food service. So some people appreciated the way I looked. Around age 25, when I finally (a) shook off "chronic" mononucleosis and (b) started looking like an adult, I even enjoyed the dating game. I never tried to be glamorous, do not normally wear makeup or do anything with my hair beyond cleaning and cutting back. I tried to be healthy. So, I was offered clothes just in exchange for wearing them, did pretty-face jobs, was a well preserved diplomat's trophy wife. Body shapes happen. Considering the relative amounts of hostility they've generated, I even see some advantages in being the less-glamorous one. We're all basically introverts but I'm easier to work with than the relatives who've been resented, suspected, harassed, betrayed, and hurt more often.

Now, with glyphosate driving my celiac symptoms out of control again, other people often remind me that whether my face is seen as pretty or ugly, older or younger than it really is, can flip in an hour or two. How the face looks is the least of my worries. Being mistaken for a relative who's thirty years older is, first, a laugh, and then a warning that in another hour or two I may be sick in a less amusing way. Mother was a totally awesome example of how to do old age, as a celiac who's flipped the gene from disease to superpower, until she developed liver cancer and died at *only* eighty-five. By rights, if she hadn't suffered through so many glyphosate reactions, she should have been an awesome example for another ten or fifteen years, as so many of our relatives are! I miss her, have some concerns about my own future, accept that every life includes a death, and hope to get glyphosate banned in time for me to be a good-looking--meaning active and healthy--ninety-year-old.

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