A baby boomer’s memories of a mom who was fat

We all have memories, lots of them. Some happy, some not. From New York City, Paula Thesing writes for BoomerCafé about memories of her mom. They are good memories … until they turn to bad ones, simply because of her mama’s size.

Have you ever seen the statue of a ballerina across from Lincoln Center? She is costumed and posed exactly like the famous statue created by Edgar Degas called The Little Dancer.

The only difference is, she is a 15-foot bronze hippopotamus.

I like her a lot. She has long eyelashes and smiles coyly as she defies the primary rule of being a ballerina: she is fat and she doesn’t seem daunted by her size.

She can also be compared to the dancing hippos in the Walt Disney cartoon, Fantasia.

But they were figures of derision. She just isn’t.

She looks downright proud of herself.

I wish my mom could have seen her.

My mom was overweight. Fat. And that word, fat, ruled my childhood.

Paula Thesing (left) with her mother, Natella Bova.
Photo by Jenny Ryan.

My mom believed people looked down on her. She saw her weight as a moral failure.

Her weight was the one constant subject of discussion in our house. What could be done about it? What diet would she try next? And worst of all, what could she wear. Mama had a wonderful sense of style but it was very difficult to find good-looking clothes in her size.

She alternated between extreme diets and feasting. It was lettuce or fudge in our house.

While on one of her diets, she prepared meat and potatoes for Daddy and me and would sit at the table peering miserably over her salad at our gravy.

I think I wanted her to lose weight as much as she did. I believed as did she that if she were thin we would be happy.

My mother was so much fun when she wasn’t obsessing about how fat she was. At home, away from people she thought were judging her, she was funny and silly, singing and dancing around the house to her favorite records. We acted out Show Boat and sang along to the Ames Brothers. I still know all the lyrics to every piece of Cole Porter she played.

We would make popcorn and fudge and iced tea and sit outside under the awning and read jokes from the Readers Digest to each other.

But as soon as we went out anywhere, she became a different person. She was stiff and formal and uneasy. She seemed to be waiting for someone to criticize her. Her sense of humor disappeared. I remember a time when people told her she looked like a movie star. She was delighted until she learned the actress was Shelley Winters who was overweight and as Mama saw it, ‘slovenly’.

Every Sunday morning was a battle between her and her girdle. I can see her sitting in front of a fan in the middle of winter to cool off enough to put on her makeup.

Paula Thesing

Then there was the struggle to find clothes for special events. If there was a wedding coming up she would begin to diet and search for the right dress. But in what size? The size she was when the invitation arrived or the size she intended to be she arrived at the church?

We spent a lot of time in the dress department searching for size 18. I came to hate size 18. Not only did we have to find a size 18 but a 16 too. The tags wouldn’t be removed until the actual event so the unworn dress could be returned.

The real problem was that she denied herself so much because of her weight. She wouldn’t go swimming because of how she looked in a bathing suit. She loved tennis and horseback riding but felt she didn’t look good enough for either. She wouldn’t go dancing or on a vacation. Anything spontaneous— an invitation that didn’t give her time to diet— was rejected. “I can’t go I’m too fat. You go without me.” Whatever the event, Daddy and I would go and she would sit home insisting she was fine. But I knew she wasn’t.

I felt like her fat ruined a good deal of her life.

I wish she could see that Hippo ballerina that looks absolutely proud of herself and secure enough to gaze at Lincoln Center with a twinkle in her eye.

On the other hand, she might not be too happy about this essay at all.


  1. This is so wonderful on a few levels:
    1. It addresses the issue of female body image that is so trending right now..but has never really not been a topic of angst for us all.
    2. it tells so much about your relationship with your mom and dad. You obviously were a close family but had this elephant (hippo?) i the room at all times.
    3.It resonates with me because my husband’s late mother had many similar issues with her weight.

  2. What a sweet and sad description of moments in your childhood. We’ll share memories of our pasts very soon..looking so forward.. C

  3. Dear Friend. A loving tribute to your mother. So sad that she denied herself of so much because of her weight, but that story still speaks to our weight obsessed society. As for the Licoln Center hippo, I will never be able to see it or think about it without thinking of you and your mother.

  4. The only oversized things in this story are two hearts and your own prodigious talent. Don’t stop writing! More important, keep encouraging us to live life with a smile. You’ve achieved that admirably with this piece.

  5. I love the way your piece puts me inside your head, I easily become you feeling what you feel. You have an undercurrent of levity that is so enjoyable.

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