Mom posing on her honeymoon at Mt. Lassen, 1952

The Dangerous Power of Thin

Last week, when 24-year-old Rachel Fredrickson walked on stage as the winner of season 15 of “The Biggest Loser,” many viewers gasped. Fredrickson started the show at 260 pounds; she ended up 105, losing 155 pounds, more than half her body weight. She looked anorexic.

Mom posing on her honeymoon at Mt. Lassen, 1952 Mom posing on her honeymoon at Mt. Lassen, June 1952.

I thought immediately of my mom, who died three years ago at age 79. Her death certificate lists “severe rheumatoid arthritis” as the cause, and it’s clear that her RA contributed, as did early Alzheimer’s.

But what sent my bright, quick, funny, and intensely loving mother on her final slide was an obsession with thin.

Joan Cannon (later Tweit) in the Sierras in her teens Mom in the Sierras in her teens

Mom, a California girl who grew up hiking and camping in the Sierra Nevadas, and who was always happiest outside with mountains in sight, was a healthy weight until one summer in her late 50s when a combination of rheumatoid arthritis drugs robbed her of her appetite. In three months, she lost 20 pounds from her 135-pound, 5″6″ frame.

Mom and Dad in Tucson, Arizona, in about 1990 Mom and Dad in Tucson, Arizona, in about 1990

She never regained that weight. By her sixtieth birthday, I realized with a shock that Mom was no longer taller than I. I commented and she denied it–until we measured each of us. She had lost 3/4 of an inch in height.

“How much do you weigh?” I asked, suddenly worried.

“I’m healthy; I don’t weigh myself.” Her tone was both lofty and evasive.

Perhaps I should have clued in, but I didn’t. She and Dad continued hiking, birdwatching, and traveling the world.

Mom and Dad with my brother Bill in Norway, August 2008. Mom and Dad with my brother Bill in Norway

And Mom continued to shrink. By the time they took their last trip overseas, she stood 5’2″ and weighed (she claimed), “around 100 pounds.”

By then, I was on a campaign to help her gain weight. Only it was already too late. Mom understood intellectually that she needed to stop losing, but she simply couldn’t.

Mom in the Never Summer Mountains on her last camping trip. Mom in the Never Summer Mountains on her last camping trip.

Her weight continued to slip, her bones continued to thin and her health deteriorated until one January morning in 2011, when she stepped out of bed and one hip shattered. It was unrepairable.

We brought Mom home. She lived another three weeks, long enough for all of us to be able to spend time with her, and to say goodbye.

Months later, I asked Dad if he knew where things went wrong.

“Thinking back, I guess when some boys called her ‘piano legs’ in high school. It stung so much that she never forgot.”

As he said the words, a childhood memory surfaced: My blue-eyed, curvy mom with the English-rose complexion and wavy brown hair eyed herself in the mirror and vowed to fit into a size 8 dress again. I had forgotten that part of Mom.

“That summer when she lost those 20 pounds must have triggered it. Losing weight was something she could control when she couldn’t control the arthritis. It was power.”

Dad nodded. “Something like that.”

I shivered. I know precisely the power of numbers on the scale dropping.

I inherited Dad’s slender build (and his Scots-Norwegian freckles and reddish hair too), and, I realize now, I learned Mom’s unhealthy fixation with weight.

Hiking with Mom and Dad. Yes, I'm too thin. Hiking with Mom and Dad.

No matter how thin my reflection in the mirror, it always looks just a little fat to me. When times are tough, it is comforting in a way I can’t explain logically to watch the numbers on the scale drop, pound by pound. I’ll stop when I get to this number, I say to myself, meaning it.

Except at that number, the idea of going lower is awfully appealing. Only the memory of caring for Mom as her body consumed itself, skin eroding from within, bones poking through, keeps me from sliding farther.

Which is why the photos of Rachel Fredrickson made me sad. Losing weight, she said, helped her find herself again. I hope so, and I hope she can find a healthy weight too.

The power of being thin is dangerously addictive. I know. So did my smart, funny and beautiful Mom.