Pretty Hurts: The Generational Impact of Colorism & Obseity.

Today I received an apology I was not expecting. I could hear her voice crack as she said those much needed words “I am sorry.”

Now you must be wondering what did she do? What was wrong?

Today my mom and I talked to each other about our weight and why each of us continues to struggle with our weight today. My mom is 6o years old and is overweight. I am her oldest child and am 36 years old and am currently obese. We are both in individual therapy working on making ourselves better people.

My mom shared with me her reasoning for why she struggles with weight. It rested in her value of herself. Growing up in a house full of light skinned siblings and parents, she was the one dark skinned girl. She believed she was the ugly one. She vividly remembers her family members referring to her “neg” short for negro. She remembers family naming her light skinned sisters as beautiful and naming her as lazy. During her teen years she resolved that she would not live up to the stereotype of “lazy” and worked diligently to become successful which she in fact did. But as she became more and more successful she still felt this unnerving feeling that no matter how successful she was she would never be beautiful because of her darker complexion.

Gloria Benoit, pre all the babies.

My mom has 4 children. At the time she got pregnant with me she was 5’5″ and 140lbs. At my birth she weighed 160lbs. She was able to lose the weight but within 2 years gave birth to my sister and settled on 160lbs. 2 years later she gave birth to my brother and gained 20 lbs and weighed 180lbs. 3 years later she gave birth to her last child and weighed 200 lbs. The baby weight that she gained within a 8 year period drastically impacted her self-worth. Food was her secret friend. The friend that she could soothe her in hard times. Despite her financial success, she still felt not worthy. Somehow food gave her the validation she sought from others.

Gloria (mom), Nisha, Reyad, Sally. Our first family portrait after moving from Trinidad to NYC.

My grandmother was also obese and struggled with her relationship with food. My grandmother was the mother of 8 children and lived with a raging alcoholic for decades. My grandmother continued the legacy of shaming fat women even though she herself was fat. This belief that fat was not beautiful was not a creation of my mother but was passed down to her from her mother and subsequently passed down to me. My love for my grandmother knew no bounds which may also be why I too latched on to her fat shaming ideology.

My mother as a child pictured with her mother, Florence Benoit holding a new baby sibling.

My grandfather, Carlton Benoit pictured with his 8 children in Trinidad. Cynthia, Gloria, Sharon, Junior, Clary, Claudette, Robert, Carl. My mom Gloria, is in the white shirt in the middle of the picture taken in 2009 after my grandmother’s death.

Now at age 60 my mother is fully coming to terms with how she used food to self soothe her anxieties of feeling less than.

The dred that came with living with dark skin carried into her pregnancy with me when she was 25 years old. She a black woman from Trinidad had 3 children with an Indian man from Trinidad. She said that when I was born I was the most beautiful baby she had ever seen. When she said it it sounds like an exaggeration but to this day she firmly believes it. The reason she found me so beautiful was because of my complexion. I was born very fair skinned. “You were a white baby, Nish. I actually thought many times that they gave me the wrong baby.” There was an unspoken weight lifted off her shoulders when she saw my fair skin. She was happy that she was able to bring into this world a beautiful “white” baby.

As I got older, my skin got darker and yet she still saw me as the most beautiful child she had. Throughout my childhood I was constantly affirmed by my mother and my extended family as beautiful. This heavy reliance on my beauty created confusion within my young soul. As a child I was socialized to believe my worth was directly proportional to how “beautiful” I was. Regardless of how smart I was, beauty was the standard to which my worth rested firmly on.

Nisha (me) holding my mother’s hand while she held my baby sister Sally in her arms.

I left for college a slim tall girl weighing 145lbs at 5’7″. Months later visiting my family at Thanksgiving dinner the conversations revolved around my weight which at the time was 155lbs. “Nisha done gained some weight.” My weight gain seemed to align with a seemingly decrease in my beauty. I held on to this in my soul. The week after I visited my family for Thanksgiving I learned that I was pregnant.

8 months later, at age 19, I gave birth to a 4lb 15oz baby boy named Louis. I was 180lbs. I vividly remember the depression that came with seeing my fat post baby belly. The conversations amongst my family began immediately – “Nisha what are you doing to lose the baby weight.” I could no longer fit into any of my pre baby clothes. Because I was only 19 I also had no idea that the post baby weight might linger around. Instead I focused on the celebrities who had babies around the same time as me who were able to lose the baby weight quickly. Why not me? I was devastated. Little did I know I was suffering from post partum depression. It was during that period that my relationship with food became toxic.

Food was my secret friend that was always there for me when I was in need. My mom and sister constantly nagging me about what I was eating and how much I was exercising led to me to keep food my secret. I couldn’t let them know how much I relied on my friend food. How when I was unhappy in my then marriage, it was food who comforted me. But as I ate I also gained weight. As I gained weight my beauty and subsequently my self worth drastically diminished. A year after giving birth I had gained an additional 30lbs and at age 20 I was 210 lbs. 200 was the ugly number. Size 16 and up was even uglier. As I gained weight I looked at myself and no longer saw a person of value.

Today in my conversation with my mom, I shared my stories with her. I told her how her constant pestering about my weight negatively impacted my view of myself. It also impacted my “why” for losing weight. For me losing weight was about appeasing and pleasing my family members and not for my own personal health or self-worth. I wanted to be affirmed again by my family and I could not find that in a plus size body.

Now that I’ve given this context, I bet you’re wondering how is this about colorism?

My black mother did not think she was beautiful because she was socialized to believe that her skin color was not beautiful. My birth and my “white-like” features finally validated her worth. She, dark-skinned Gloria, was actually able to make a light skinned baby. So much of my worth was inextricably connected to her worth. I was socialized within that value system. I had to be pretty and I had to maintain that beauty.

Growing up FAT was not seen as pretty. So as I blossomed into my womanhood as a fat woman I could no longer see beauty in me. I shared this with my mom.

There was silence on the phone. By this time we had been speaking for over an hour. She was at work and I could hear her whisper “Nish.” I could hear her voice crack and silence followed. Then she said “I’m sorry.”

She told me that I was always beautiful in her eyes. No matter what weight I was at, I was always in her eyes beautiful. She apologized for not making that more clear to me. and for displacing her personal childhood trauma on me.

I thanked her for hearing me and validating my emotions. I told her that I I recognize as an adult woman and a mother that this thing we call parenting can create insidious consequences on our children that we did not purposefully intend to create.

She and I together are working on breaking up this trauma that is our family history. It is not easy work but it is the work of her lifetime and my lifetime.

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