Sad Revelations: My Mother’s Lifetime Struggle with Eating Disorders

me and mom

Below is a blog I posted about my mother Diana in January 2015 after a very emotional interview I had with Sara Underwood from Fox 25 News.  The blog received an overwhelming response on social media and many people wrote to me after and thanked me for sharing it because they, too, struggle with body image, low self-esteem and self-confidence.  

me and sarah underwoodWhen I received the phone call from a Fox 25 producer that news anchor Sara Underwood was interested in interviewing me for a segment called “Selfie Surgery on the Rise Among Teenagers”, I was honored and more than happy to offer my perspective. After all, being on Fox 25 News was not new to me. I have been an expert contributor since 2009 and was quite used to offering my opinion on how to raise confident girls and warning of the pitfalls of our accelerated social culture and the damage it can cause. However, I was not prepared for what happened during my interview with Sara, an experienced reporter who clearly understands the right questions to ask to get to the heart of the issue. More on that in a moment….

Fashion Focus Program’s curriculum was created directly from successful techniques I discovered while struggling with my own self-confidence. When my daughters Alexandra and Gabrielle were born, I was determined to try to be the best role model I could be for them and for all young girls (and of course for my son Gregory, too!). My personal journey and struggles with self-esteem, although sad and tumultuous at times, had resulted in success. I found my way and today I am a confident woman who truly understands and appreciates her worth. And it’s priceless.

I have always credited my mother, Diana DiFrancesco, with offering a loving, solid and non-judgmental foundation for me. I was beautiful and perfect in her eyes and when I needed guidance she offered sound advice and reminded me of the smart, kind, and dynamic person I was.  And even though I struggled with self-confidence at certain points of my life, I knew she was my biggest fan and I used her love to help get me through.  She truly was the wind beneath my wings until she passed away in November 2011 at 76 from complications from Alzheimer’s.

Back to my interview: I am seated in the living room of Sara’s beautiful home. Lights. Camera. Action. Sara begins asking questions relevant to this very disturbing trend of teen plastic surgery so girls can have the perfect “selfie”. And I’m doing good.  I’m relaxed and my head is clear.  Then Sara asks me: “What are the long-term consequences of someone being so young and caring so much about their outward appearance?” After a brief hesitation I answered “A lifetime of never being able to accept who you are and to be truly happy”.  In the split second after I said those words, I had a personal revelation that brought me to tears:  My mother, my constant support and source of never-ending love, sadly was never able to accept who she was and struggled her entire life with feelings of self-hate and low self-esteem which resulted in a life-time struggle with bulimia and anorexia.  I realized in that very moment that my comment about a lifetime of unhappiness was about my mother.

I regained my composure and finished the interview.  I apologized for getting so emotional because at the moment, even I didn’t fully understand why.  As I drove home and replayed the interview in my mind, it all came into focus: My mother battled obesity her entire life.  She was a chubby little girl and grew into a morbidly obese adult. At one point, she weighed over 300 pounds. She looked to others for approval but they never gave it to her.  Sadly not even my father did. She believed her weight defined her. She was convinced that people never appreciated the kind, intelligent, giving person she was because all they saw was a fat person. In some respects, she was right. People are cruel. And I remember as a young girl overhearing the devastating comments about her size not only from my schoolmates, but from neighbors and “friends” of the family as well. Their mean comments gave me a lump in my throat. I will never forget how it felt overhearing people talking about my mother like that. I never thought of her that way. To me she was warm and affectionate and took such good care of me and my siblings. She would do anything for us.  She was perfect. She was my mom.

me and momHer battle with bulimia began while I was fairly young, although I didn’t understand it or recognize what it was until my late teens.  This was the cycle that became all too familiar:  Binge eating.  Closed bathroom door.  Running water.  Retching.  Toilet flushing several times.  She would emerge and sometimes blame it on an upset stomach, something she ate that didn’t agree with her.  Other times she would come out with tears in her eyes and dismiss us and go to her room.  It was sad.  I was upset but didn’t really know why or how to help.

When I was around 21 years old, one of the many diets she tried worked.  She lost A LOT of weight.  I think around 125 pounds.  My siblings and I were happy for her. My dad made a big deal about it.  As we saw her size drop dramatically there was an air of celebration because we felt like she was doing something she wanted to do.  But once again, I was confused.  She did not seem happy.  She seemed bitter and resentful. And she was.  She was angry at the fact that just because she was a size that everyone else thought she should be, she was finally likeable to others and loveable to my father.  But why wasn’t she likeable or lovable before?  She was still the same person on the inside, a good person who went out of her way to be kind to others.  Why wasn’t that good enough?

This sad and confusing struggle continued her entire life.  Yo-yo dieting, bulimia and eventually anorexia.  My mother never found the inner strength to accept all of the positives about herself.  She never fully realized her “inner beauty” and took ownership of the wonderful person she was.  She was stuck in a torturous battle of trying to please others.  Her weight consumed her every thought, affected her moods, her actions, her self-worth.  When she was at her lowest weight it was a bitter and twisted victory.  All at once she would gloat about the size 8 clothing she was fitting in and then spew venom about the people that rejected her when she was heavy.  It was so upsetting to witness. But in spite of her inner struggles and demons, my mother made sure that her three children grew up with the knowledge that we were strong, smart, and capable and it was because of those traits that we were beautiful.  Apparently she was unable to practice what she preached.

In the late summer of 2011 my mother was hospitalized for the final time before she was brought home to be cared for by Hospice.  Alzheimer’s had taken its toll on her.  She could not walk and could barely see.  She was scared and confused as to what was happening to her.  She was anxious all of the time and would cry out for help.  Watching my mother die from this awful disease is the single most traumatic thing that has ever happened to me.  But something transpired in that hospital room that I will never forget and it is what drives me today and why I am so passionate about helping young girls find their inner strength and self-worth.

My sister and I were in her hospital room and we were helping her eat lunch.  I was sitting on the bed and spoon feeding her applesauce.  On the third or fourth bite I asked her to open her mouth so I could give her another spoonful and she said ”Oh no I shouldn’t eat anymore.  I don’t want to get fat.”  To which I replied “Mom don’t be silly!  You’re not going to get fat.  You need to eat to stay healthy.”  She then said to me “Are you sure?  Do I look OK?”  At that moment, my sister and I locked eyes.  We were in disbelief at how deeply rooted her disorder was.  Her brain was literally deteriorating and much of her motor skills and memory were gone.  But somehow this part still remained.  It was a cruel irony.

So, thank you to Sara Underwood for giving me an opportunity to gain more clarity and understanding of what my life’s passion is and will remain for the rest of my days.  As women, we are so much more than what we look like.  We HAVE to believe that.  “Beauty from within” is not a tired, old cliché.  It is the foundation of a LIFETIME OF HAPPINESS and personal prosperity.  Through watching my mother unsuccessfully trying to please everyone else and live by others standards of beauty, she unwittingly taught me the most valuable lesson I have ever learned: The only person’s opinion that matters is your own –  Define yourself.  Love yourself.  And be proud of what makes you unique.  Once you believe it, others will, too.  To gain others respect, you must first have self-respect.

Thank you to my mom, Diana, for giving me the tools and insight to live a healthy, happy life and to pass on that knowledge to others.  I am forever grateful for the gift she gave me. She inspires me every day.

Maria Wood

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