What “Thigh Gap” Taught Me About Changing My Habits

by | Oct 26, 2016

Photo by jenny downing

One of my favorite things to do as a kid was sit in bed with my parents and read books. On one particular afternoon I was getting ready to read with my mom, resting my back against the headboard with my knees bent to prop my book.

While waiting for her to join me, I noticed with curiosity that when my knees were together the rest of my legs didn’t touch at all. I thought that was biologically interesting and pointed it out to my mom.

“That gap better stay there,” she retorted unsympathetically.

I was shocked. I simultaneously felt chastised, judged and confused. I was only 8 years old, and obviously had never heard of “thigh gap.” It was also the first time in my life I felt self-conscious about my body.

I didn’t say a word, and we never discussed it again. But for the following days, weeks and years the message sank in: being thin was incredibly important and my mom would be disappointed if I let my appearance slip.

I’ve thought about this incident many times during my long, convoluted path to becoming a foodist. Mostly I’ve considered it with resentment.

I mean seriously, who says shit like that to an eight year old?

Even then I knew there was something wrong about what my mother said, but that didn’t stop me from pursuing this “ideal” into my twenties and beyond.

In retrospect this was a pivotal moment in my life.

There was certainly no lack of harm done. I suffered through years of body image issues and near constant feelings of failure. I endured countless awkward social interactions, especially around meals and bathing suits. At one time in college I told an entire classroom that I hated food.

It’s difficult not to be resentful of my mother for instilling such a damaging value system. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be me without having gone through this.

For one thing, I never became overweight or obese in an era when such outcomes are normal. My dedication to staying thin helped me cultivate strong self-discipline, which has served me well in many ways (e.g. getting through school, learning new skills, etc.). I also developed the basic habits of health, including regular exercise and paying close attention to my food choices.

Most important, without having suffered through 15 years of chronic dieting I would have never known how important it is to approach food and health as a foodist. I would never have worked so hard to get to the bottom of the food-health problem so many people struggle with. And I would never have started Summer Tomato or written Foodist, and helped thousands of others solve these same problems.

My mother’s unintentionally damaging comment is an example of what I call a transformative gift. A transformative gift is any circumstance or event that feels negative in the present moment, but ultimately reveals itself as a gift that benefits your life tremendously.

You can probably think of a few transformative gifts that have occurred in your life. Something that at the time seemed terrible––like a bad breakup or the loss of a job––that ended up being one of the best things that could have happened to you at the time.

What’s interesting about transformative gifts is that nothing changes about the incident itself as time moves on. What changes is your perspective. Something that at first feels like a verdict is shown to be an opportunity, and suddenly our feelings about it change.

What do transformative gifts have to do with your health?

If you’re struggling with getting healthy or losing weight, there’s a reasonable chance that there’s a transformative gift in your past that you haven’t uncovered yet. Maybe you still see it as something terrible, and have yet to see the benefit.

In my case I struggled for 15 years before what felt like a life sentence of permadiets was transformed not only into a better body and a better life, but a new career. I can think of a handful of other transformative gifts in various parts of my life that pushed me in a negative direction at first, but ultimately led me to a better place.

Identifying your own transformative gifts is important, because discovering the hidden benefit can be the deciding factor in changing your habits and behaviors.

When you experience something that stirs a strongly negative emotion, your natural tendency is to react defensively to protect yourself. This can manifest in several ways, most of which are not productive.

For example, as I internalized how important physical appearance was in my family it became a core value in shaping my identity. I didn’t want to be someone who was mocked and ridiculed (aka felt unloved) because of how I looked, so I went out of my way to make sure that didn’t happen. I viewed myself as someone who always wanted to be thin, therefore I was a dieter.

I could have had the opposite reaction, which would have been just as destructive. I could have rejected the value system of my mother, accepted her ridicule as a badge of honor, and doubled down on fast food and video games. I wouldn’t have had the same dieting issues, but I would have embraced a life of poor health.

It is completely natural to react strongly to an emotionally traumatic experience, but it doesn’t usually bode well for your long-term happiness.

Reframing the most impactful negative events in your life as gifts forces your mind out of unconscious, reaction mode and into thoughtful, conscious mode.

This is a very powerful thing.

When you are consciously thinking instead of unconsciously reacting you learn that you have a choice of how to respond. You have the option of stepping away from your limiting beliefs and assessing the actual pros and cons of different courses of action (or inaction).

I was 26 years old when I finally stopped dieting forever and realized I could help other people do the same. The previous decade and a half of weight struggles suddenly had meaning, and I was able to take a step back and accept the good parts of my mom’s philosophy and reject the destructive parts.

As an adult I’ve discovered that it doesn’t have to take 15 years to realize that something difficult is actually a gift. Getting married was particularly tough for me, as I’m a fiercely independent person and have trouble depending on other people (I get to thank my mom for this gift as well).

Fortunately by then I already knew that growth and happiness are the children of discomfort, and so I leaned into it. It took a few months (and a bit of therapy), but I came out the other side with a much stronger relationship and the deepest love I’ve ever experienced.

Like it or not, the toughest things in your life are what shape your character and are the best opportunities you have to create your own happiness and make life awesome.

The world is full of stories of people who have endured the worst catastrophes and come out prevailing, as well as people born with everything who end up miserable.

The difference is how they treat their transformative gifts.

How have transformative gifts impacted your life? Do you have any that are still untapped?

Originally published October 27, 2014.

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36 Responses to “What “Thigh Gap” Taught Me About Changing My Habits”

  1. Charlie Baker says:

    Great post. I’m really enjoying your e-mails. I appreciate your willingness to be brutally honest about topics that most folk tip-toe around. Thank you, and keep it up!

    • Barb says:

      My entire life, my mother has told me how ugly I am, I don’t look right, I am fat, my boobs are too big (when mom is at a normal weight, she is a b cup, i’ve been a c since grade school, cheekbones too high, I look like my dad’s side of family).
      My mom gets pissed when she goes away on vacay, she shows photos, people tell her she has a beautiful daughter, looks just like her father.

      • Darya Rose says:

        That’s horrible. I’m sorry. I hope you’ve found a way to come to terms with this. No one should feel so judged by her parents, or anyone for that matter.

    • Karination says:

      ^Hear, hear to what Charlie said. Your honesty and courage inspire us (and not just in a theoretical sense.)

  2. LollyLolly says:

    This has struck a chord, my mother in law is always at me to lose weight, she’s perpetually on a diet even as a size 6 and encourages her own daughters (both size 8) to lose weight. It has an opposite effect on me, I feel awful and always makes me want to chuck on the pounds. I like the idea of viewing her constant criticisms as a transitional gift but have no idea how to actually do it.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Thank you for sharing. I totally sympathize and think I may have had the same reaction had I not been so young when my mom’s values were projected onto me. In most other parts of my life I made the exact opposite decisions she had made.

      The first step is realizing that your mother-in-law’s criticism is indeed a gift, and there’s a valuable lesson to be learned. That’s not to say she’s right for treating you that way, but she probably feels like she’s helping even if her efforts are misguided. You being angry doesn’t help either of you.

      For one thing, you DID NOT become a psycho dieter like I did and won’t have to undo all the psychological damage caused by that particular lifestyle. You can thank her for that, even if her judgements feel harsh.

      The next step is realizing that how you react to her is your own choice, and you don’t need to reject 100% of her message with your actions. There is value in feeling healthy and looking good, and it is possible to take action on those things without diving head first into a dieter’s mentality.

      You’re already way ahead of her by being a Summer Tomato reader, and you have the tools to make small but meaningful changes every day. Try to remember what you do and do not have control over, and what you really want out of life.

  3. That must of being hard to reveal. I have a blog and when I tell personal stories that involve family and friends, I typically cloak their identities. Not as brave as you, Darya.

    I wonder if you, and others with similar experiences, would have found what might have been a flippant remark from your mother so impactful if our culture did not reinforce and/or magnify it.

    To remember that remark when just eight years old, and develop a narrative of its importance and impact, perhaps required a whole set of similar experiences, which indeed you did have, as you described.

    Perhaps without those subsequent experiences, your mother’s comment would have had no place to dig in and be remembered all these years later.

    My 2 cents.

    jg

    • Darya Rose says:

      Great point. I imagine that my mom’s position was influenced by culture as well.

      And you’re right. It isn’t easy to talk about my family this way. I’ve only started to more recently, and I’m not sure I could have if my mom were still alive. She just keeps on giving, doesn’t she?

  4. AJ says:

    Darya, you are such an honest, insightful, and compassionate person. I can not thank you enough for sharing all of your stories and observations about food, body image, confidence, and relationships with important people in our lives, so much to which I can relate. I love your positive but relaxed and not intimidating approach to building a healthy life. Thank you!

  5. Lana says:

    I actually have a similar experience.
    I was always a chubby girl and my mom like yours was always on one diet or another.
    I remember one incident when we were getting dressed in the morning and she said “if you cannot see down your belly button you are too fat”. So all my life through all the yo yo diets I had one goal: see down my belly button. This proved to be impossible; because even if your stomach is totally flat you still cannot see all the way down unless your belly button sticks out. Mine doesn’t.
    These days I finally reached some peace with my size and shape. I;m at a healthy weight and still can’t see down my belly button.
    When I mentioned it to her and how much it distorted my thinking she couldn’t even remember she said it, and that maybe what she meant was that you should be able to see your belly button, and not necessarily down it (which doesn’t make it less damaging). Anyway.. I think adults don’t realize how little offhand comments like that shape the minds of their children.
    And as a result all of us who had the privilege of growing up with parents who struggled with body image have a lot of transformative gifts 🙂

  6. Carol says:

    I have been a foodist for a year now and it has transformed my life. I have lost 35 pounds and feel amazing. I have had people tell me that I inspire them. I went from working out 3-4 times a week to exercising most days. The amazing thing is I enjoy it more and it is no longer a burden. That has been so freeing.
    I never ate a lot of processed foods, but I think cutting out those that I did eat has made a tremendous improvement in losing the weight.
    I can’t thank you enough. Your book has been life changing for me!

  7. Weenie Girl says:

    My memory is not of a transformative nature like yours but I remember when I was little thinking that I couldn’t wait until I was grown up so my thighs would make the same noise as my grandmother’s did when she walked. Of course, I had no idea it was because she was fat and wearing stockings but at the time, I thought it was a rite of passage of sorts to adulthood. I’ve been an adult now for 20+ years and recently gained about 20 unwanted pounds because of a change in medication and it’s really got me down. Almost all of a sudden, my thighs rub together and I think of my grandmother. I don’t make the noise because I don’t wear stockings but I wish I hadn’t looked forward to that. And I wish there was something more inspiring to draw on to help me lose the weight.

    Thank you for your candor. I’ve been finding inspiration in that.

  8. Dee says:

    You’re a true writer – thanks for sharing and bringing to my consciousness the concept of ‘transformative gifts’… Those I can think of in my life are not related to health, fitness or weightloss

  9. Cynthia says:

    Beautiful post. I loved your definition of a transformative gift. It really could translate to so many areas of our lives. I remember leaving a job because I was sick – going into an eating disorder unit. I was devastated, didn’t see it coming. One of the gifts is I never went back to the job, I even had an opportunity to and didn’t. Once I was out of it I could see how unhealthy and dysfunctional that place was. I would probably still be there today, 24 years later if it wasn’t for being forced into rehab. Obviously there have been many unexpected gifts on this transformative journey called life, but that one has always stood out to me.

  10. Veronica Berg says:

    Hi Darya. I just want to say Thank You! Self disclosure is so hard for some of us. I used to think it made me very vulnerable. I’m much older now and at the point in my life where I believe that I’m the sum of my experiences! That being said, I was 12 years old in 1978 and needed a physical going into 7th grade. My pediatrician determined I was overweight and told my Dad that I needed to take up running or some other form of exercise. The pediatrician also insisted that I be kept at the dinner table for a full hour in order to slow down my eating. That was a lot of fun! I’m being sarcastic of course. At 112 pounds, I didn’t think I was overweight at all. I was very active and rode my bike, walked to my friends house, swam in the ocean or our little pool. Back then we didn’t have dish washers. I was the dish washer. My dad used to walk by me while I was doing the dishes and give me a little whack on my behind and say…Hey Chubs. I lived with that for many years! Sometimes, I don’t think our parents realize how one statement from them can affect us so deeply.
    I found you this past summer as I was negotiating diabetes hell for my husband! Through all of that and some very healthy changes to the way we eat I am happy to tell you that I too have lost 17 pounds since June and diabetes hell. My weight had been creeping up for the last couple of years and my husband’s diabetes was the turning point and actually helped me to get back to a healthy weight again. I know, I didn’t have a lot of weight to lose but there was enough that I was no longer comfortable in my small frame.
    Again, thank you for sharing! I find your newsletters insightful, helpful and refreshing.

  11. Tracy K. says:

    Thank you for sharing. Your story reminded me of something my mom’s best friend said to me when I was about 15. I was eating grapes one day and she told me they were fattening. Here I was a teenager who was actually eating fruit, yet I was being criticized for doing so! I’m sure to her it was an innocent remark but I struggled with my self-esteem and felt I was too heavy (in hindsight I wasn’t!), so it made me feel bad about myself. It’s interesting how we remember certain things like that. I like your suggestion of re-framing harmful remarks.

  12. annelies says:

    I’m still working on this one. This year I have been given so many transformative gifts that I ended up writing a blog post on living in my own personal rock opera. I can say with certainty that those experiences continue cultivating greater compassion within me for others who are struggling and slogging their way through life. I have been able to share some of my experiences with others as a way of hopefully encouraging them through their transformative gifts. I appreciate you sharing your story and the idea of being able to view a negative comment in a way that lets you grow from it.

  13. julie says:

    Transformative gifts is far too generous. How about “thanks mom, you crazy %^%$^, for making me neurotic and completely obsessed about weight, and so many other things?” I’m not as magnanamous as you, possibly even a bit bitter.

    • Donna says:

      +1 Tracey K….I too wish I did not ‘ingrave’ possibly ‘innocent’…or at the very least ‘ignorant’ remarks on my internal ‘Hard Drive’ disc…..The ‘re-framing’ idea that Darya presents is critical.

      +1 Julie…Again…total head ‘up-and-down’ movement with regards to the extremely generous ‘Transformative Gifts’ idea. While I LOVE the ‘concept’, in truth I am more (regrettably?) in symbiosis with the ‘bit of bitter’ aftermath.

  14. Casey says:

    I got to this post through Greatist, and honestly, I find your story compelling but your wording dangerous. To phrase the results of your mother’s body shaming as a “gift” is to risk encouraging others to give that gift to their children. And while your story turned out alright – despite causing you misery and damaging your self-esteem for 15 years – not everybody is going to have the ability to change their perspective the way you did. Anorexia and bulimia are diagnosable mental illnesses and most people can’t just read an article about reframing and snap themselves out of it. It’s probably not a good idea to use such positive language when describing an act that caused you to experience disordered eating for 15 years. A real “transformative gift” would have been if your mother explained to you the relationships between healthy eating, exercise, weight and mental & physical health.

  15. Mrsvp says:

    A link to this article (on another site) was posted by a facebook friend with a string of sneering comments directed at you (you’ve pushed a lot of buttons, it seems) around the ridiculous idea that we need to forgive everyone who might have done something awful to us.
    THAT BEING SAID, I decided to check out the blog and liked everything else I saw here, so there you go, that negative social media feed ended up being a “transformative gift” for me. I do think this article is misguided at best and doesn’t reflect the helpful, sane tone of the rest of your work.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Thanks Mrsvp. I actually wrote this article two years ago and gave permission to another site to circulate it again, and this is the first time I’ve had a negative response to it. Since that happened, I think it is worth pointing out what my intentions were.

      This article is not about forgiveness. I never use the word “forgive” in my article and in fact my point is not about other people at all. Sometimes the negative things that happen to us are purely by chance and not created by someone in particular.

      The point I’m trying to make here isn’t about what caused the problem in the first place, but our relationship with the event itself. The past cannot be changed. Damage cannot be undone. However in the present moment we have a choice of what to focus on. We can put our attention on how it has hurt us (which certainly has it’s place) or we can focus on how it can help us moving forward. This article was intended to show that finding a way to learn and grow from an experience is an option (one we can often lose sight of for our pain) and how it might look in one particular example.

      Cheers,
      Darya

  16. Dee says:

    I was told I was fat from my earliest memories ( even though I cant see it in photos) and therefore I believed what I was told until I actually did become overweight(in my teens). I couldn’t for the life of me believe a mother could be so callous, thoughtless and hurtful.

    As your mother didn’t actually tell you, you were fat, but to actually stay skinny it is a bit different. If I had to pick the transformative gift in all of this, its that I parented my daughter completely different. Today she wears a skimpy bikini, proud of her 17 year old gorgeous body. I wish I could have done the same at her age.

    Thank you for sharing your personal story. Perhaps I hate my mother just a little less for ‘helping’ me be the mother she should have been xx

  17. Barbara says:

    My mother was very disciplined all of her life because most of all she did not want to think, act or look old. I recently put together pictures for our 50th anniversary and I noticed that I really ballooned up around 45 and stayed that way until last year. My mother was ever after me to lose weight but I had so many food issues from being made to clean my plate by my dad. I did lose 30 this, my 70th year, by using an app to record what I eat. But I am stuck and my doc still wants me to lose 20 pounds more. I am not a fan of exercise though I have a gym membership. I just can’t get going regularly on my calendar even though I know I should. How can I change that into a “want to?”

    • Anitra says:

      I think the trick to staying active is to find something you enjoy doing. My husband and I have a membership to the YMCA, but there are many times I also don’t feel like going to the gym because exercising for the sake of exercise feels too artificial. I used to have a really active lifestyle naturally (walking to school/work, riding a bike to friends’ houses or the grocery store, etc.) and that is when I was happiest, not thinking about physical activity. Maybe there is a way you can incorporate more activity into your lifestyle without it feeling forced, like enjoying a walk at a nice park or taking up gardening or another activity that has you excited to get up and move. I don’t personally have the self-discipline to go pound a treadmill or ride the elliptical to nowhere, but have managed to stay fit by finding other things to do. Hopefully this helps!

  18. Susie Carpanini says:

    How old are you?

    What a self-obsessed little girl you must have been! Cut your mother some slack. She didn’t make a mean remark…you weren’t fat! How did you know she meant you had to remain “thin” if you never discussed it again? How did you know you you were even thin or fat? I really think that you should forgive your poor mom. She was just being a mom and, in fact, she was right. Obesity is a killer. I think it’s pathetic that you have sanctimoniously turned it around to make it seem like a “gift”. It was a throwaway remark. We all make them.

    I notice, that at the end of your remark to Joe, you say this, “She just keeps on giving, doesn’t she?” You are a very angry person and the only person you have hurt, or continue to hurt, is yourself.

    I am now going to unsubscribe from your newsletter.
    Reply

    • Camilla says:

      I think you might want to consider cutting Darya some slack. It’s very possible that the same remark would not have had the same effect on you, but in my experience nothing constructive comes from telling people how they should and should not feel. The same goes for telling people what their relationship with their parents should be, when you don’t know them at all. Whether her mother was right or not is besides the point in my world, even though I would argue that adult women certainly don’t need to have a thigh gap in order to be healthy.

      Thanks for telling this story, Darya! I hope you are able to brush off comments like this and continue sharing your stories, as they resonate with a lot of people.

    • Judith says:

      It sounds to me as if you are the angry and bitter person you accuse Darya of being. I wonder if you have said something like this to a child and now are feeling what impact that might have had. Your reaction is way over the top since it was not you she was talking about.

  19. Caryn says:

    Hello…i just read your article and oh boy can i relate! I grew up in a clean your plate my diet starts Monday household. I think i started dieting when i was 11 and congratulated for losing weight and looking good. Hearing this is fattening…this will make u fat etc. My parents to this day make comments about my appearance as well as others. while i workout almost daily and live a mostly healthy lifestyle…i do count calories and obsess about food. I try to be careful with my own boys who watch me eat alot of salad. While i am conscious of my food choices and my desire to exercise…i imagine growing up the way i did has alot to do with how i am today. They didn’t know any better and probably still dont. Like you i made the commitment long ago to eat healthy and live healthy…so that i guess is a good thing.

  20. Mine’s a little different. When I was growing up, my mother was not a very good cook. I don’t think she enjoyed it, and she had to leave salt out because a family member had high blood pressure. Most of what I grew up with was pretty tasteless. Vegetables were commonly boiled. The result was that I underate–then I thought something was wrong with me, not something was wrong with the food. I had a lot of problems eating as an adult–often overeating sugar or salty because the food I was making was too bland. I had to take your class on cooking without recipes to learn cooking tips that most people learn growing up, but that I had never seen.

    My mother had a number of health problems by the time I was a teenager, and she passed away of one of them when I was 25. Now I’m her age when she passed away, and I wonder if all the problems could have either been prevented or at least minimized if we had eaten better.

    Today, I made a simple chicken and sage soup, and it was delicious.

    • Allie says:

      i recently realized that I grew up with someone (my Grandma), who claimed they were a good cook but actually she was a kind of sucky cook. So I never learned how to cook right. I still struggle with this. It leads to (as when I was growing up) lots of eating out, fast food, and processed food.

      And my Grandma always said kids shouldn’t diet so I ended up eating as much as I wanted of anything I wanted with no self discipline and regardless of what was good for me. I got stretch marks when I was 10 from gaining weight so quickly after moving out from living with my aunt to living just with Grandma.

      My lifestyle is just like her’s as well. Very idle.

      She is 45 years older than me. She just turned 70, she has stage 3 kidney disease, hypertension, hypothyroidism, type 2 diabetes, and has to wear an adult diaper for risk of accidents. She can barely walk and has trouble keeping stable. (And is doing nothing about all this) I know a lot of 70 year olds- her health is a direct result of her lifestyle choices. It doesn’t have to be like that.

      She raised me and I act just like her in so many ways. Including the way I deal with health.

      45 years into my future… except it will come sooner for me because at my age she was a healthy weight and I’m basically obese (okay, fine, I’m actually obese, medically speaking.)

      Yep. But then I keep self sabatoging my own efforts. The more I think about eating healthy- the more I crave junk food. The more I think about exercise, the more I want to lay on the couch

      But I joined the Y and got set up for exercising and I’m keeping a food journal. Another start. Here’s to hoping it lasts

  21. Mary says:

    Good luck, Allie. It was a great article, Darya. Thanks for always giving us new ways to think about things.

  22. Sam says:

    I totally agree, things you parents (in particular) say to you can be damaging, not matter if they are just saying it as a joke.
    Since i was 12 my mum always said don’t have kids and to this day (28) i don’t like the idea of having kids as this seems to have been drilled into since i was young… Now that i think about it, i think she was saying it so that i wouldn’t end up being 16 and pregnant but he words have resinated with me…
    Side note: thigh gap is bullshit! Its highly dependant on genetics and your hip structure and for me, i have fairly muscular legs (1 too many leg days at the gym aha!) so i don’t have a thigh gap but i have strong sexy legs!

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