Melissa Liebermann on her family’s Holocaust story and her distorted body image

Melissa Liebermann on her family’s Holocaust story and her distorted body image

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Melissa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Lose Weight.”

Melissa Liebermann: Thanks, Zibby, so much for having me.

Zibby: I’m so glad you reached out as someone who’s a part of the Moms Don’t Have Time to Lose Weight community and shared your story with me over email. Now we get to talk face to face over Zoom. This is a real treat. I am thrilled to be your first podcast ever.

Melissa: Thank you so much. As I mentioned, when you said, “Hey, do you want to come on the podcast?” to tell my story, I thought, would people want to listen to it? Then I thought, you know what, why not? As I said to you when I reached out, so much of what you have had to say on this podcast has really resonated with me. I really wanted to share it with you and was glad you thought maybe we could share it with others as well.

Zibby: Thank you. Sorry to have taken your message and been like, all right, now we’re going to blast this out to the world, but I’m always looking for interesting stories. Honestly, everyone’s story is interesting to other people. There’s nothing that makes one person’s journey more relevant or not. We’re each just trying to get through life the best we can. Everyone has their own perspective which someone out there always ends up relating to. That’s why I think it’s all valuable, personally.

Melissa: I agree. I definitely agree.

Zibby: Speaking of stories, tell me your backstory and your relationship with your weight and body and when it began and where you are now. I’ll jump in and maybe interrupt you a hundred times.

Melissa: You probably will need to because, of course, like all of our stories in this regard, it’s long. One of the formative elements of this for me is that I’m the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. I think that when you grow up with, in my case, a parent, my mother, who grew up in a home with that kind of trauma — her parents had lost pretty much all of their family in the Holocaust. My grandmother was in concentration camps. They were starved, basically, for years. There’s a lot of dysfunction that comes out of that experience. I think there’s not a lot that’s been said about the relationship with food that people have when they have not had it. I was very much raised with food as a very prominent element in our lives. A refrigerator that is not filled and stuffed is not okay. You have to have a lot of leftovers after every meal, particularly a holiday. That sort of overabundance was definitely a reaction, I think, to my mother being raised by Holocaust survivors. I think that is an element of it.

Zibby: Wait, I’m already interrupting you. Where was your family from? Which concentration camp? How old were they? Give you a little more detail if you don’t mind.

Melissa: Of course. My grandparents are from Poland. They were from Łódź in Poland. My grandmother was in a couple of camps, Auschwitz and I think another one or two along the way. My grandfather was more of a — he escaped and was in a work camp and has this unbelievable story how he fled and survived through working and hiding. They met after the war. My grandmother and her sister, my great-aunt who just died of COVID in April —

Zibby: — I’m so sorry.

Melissa: I lost my grandmother a long time ago. She was the only thing I had tied to her. They survived, the two of them. The rest of their siblings, there’s these horrible stories of them being taken away by the Nazis, and their mother in front of them. It’s just so hard to even think about. That’s a lot of the backstory. My grandparents met in a displaced persons camp after the war, as did my great-aunt and uncle. They were married in a joint ceremony. Then they all came to the United States together. It’s the American dream in many respects but with a lot of trauma in the history, for sure.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I’m so sorry that that happened to your family. I cannot believe that your great-aunt lived through Auschwitz and died of COVID. Honestly, you should call a newspaper about that. That is the most crazy journey through awfulness. I didn’t say that well, but you know what I mean? That this is what felled her after she survived all that. I’m so interested in what happened after the Holocaust, and the Holocaust obviously. I shouldn’t say obviously, but I happen to be super interested. I took a whole class in college about the generational effects on what happened after the war and what happened in the displaced persons camps, all of that. Now to see you sitting here, the next generation, it gives me chills, really.

Melissa: It’s a lot. It’s a lot of deep family history. You worry that the loss of these survivors really impacts the ability to tell these stories. I know you suffered a lot of loss from COVID. It was very sad. It was just not the way her life should’ve ended.

Zibby: I’m so sorry. I bet in the early days you couldn’t even be with her and all that. Melissa, I’m so sorry. Okay, not to drudge up all your painful memories. So they made it through that. Then which part of the States did you end up?

Melissa: They came to Paterson, New Jersey. My mother was born there. My grandfather became an electrician and had a very successful electrical supply company. My great-aunt was a businesswoman before her time. She owned a ladies’ clothing store. She and my great-uncle would go to the city and buy clothes for the store. She had a successful business. She was a working mom sixty years ago and really was a trailblazer in that way. It was the American dream. There’s no question. They stayed in New Jersey, raised their family in New Jersey. That’s where I was born and have lived for all of my life other than the four years of college.

Zibby: All right, so back to eating.

Melissa: It’s all about the food, always.

Zibby: You had a stuffed fridge. You have this inherited trauma of starvation in the genes somewhere that courses through that you can’t escape… Continue.

Melissa: Right. I think that the pivotal time for me was actually when my grandmother died. She was very sick for a lot of her life. From when I was about seven until I was eleven, she was had a brain tumor that was removed. She was paralyzed. It was terrible. My mother was consumed by her well-being and her struggle. She died the end of sixth grade for me when I was eleven. Went to sleepaway camp late because she passed away right when camp was starting. We were moving to a new house about an hour away, moving to a new town. I came home from camp to a new home, to a new town. My parents had moved over the summer. Here I am, an almost twelve-year-old girl starting what we called junior high back then, seventh grade, had gone through early puberty, was tall, was the same height I am now. I just never grew again.

Zibby: I had that too. I was tall for a hot minute in 1983 or something, maybe a little later.

Melissa: There’s a picture of me in sixth grade, and I’m the tallest one in the class. The problem is, I was that height for the rest of my life. I used to joke around. I was waiting to stretch out and it never happened, and grow. That was really the pivotal year for me because I started a new school. I didn’t know anybody. I was starting to feel really insecure in my body. I turned to food. Food made me feel better. There was no expectations. It just always made me feel better. I really became a binge eater. I really started to come home from school and I would go right to the pantry. I would take out a big bag of potato chips — it’s amazing to think about what I would eat — and ketchup. That was my binge food of choice at the time.

Then I started sneaking food. That was a huge part of my issue because I knew that I was doing something that was not good for me, but I couldn’t stop. To this day, I will tell you — I’m forty-seven years old. It’s been thirty-five years since I started the behavior. I will still go to the pantry and take out something at night that I shouldn’t be eating and I’ll look around waiting for somebody to say, do you really need that? Do you really need to eat that? It’s so deep in there. Nobody says anything except me. That was it. I put on a lot of weight in that seventh-grade year and then went on my first diet. I was trying to think about the name of the place I went to. It was a diet center. I can picture it in the strip mall on the highway in the town I lived in. I remember I would eat these freeze-dried little apple pieces in a bag that were on my program. I would make these frozen Carnation Instant Breakfast chocolate something that was okay on the plan.

Zibby: I think I did the same thing, by the way. I haven’t even interjected to say that everything is the same until this. My mom dragged me to the diet center. There were these big brown pills, whatever they were, that tasted kind of gross. Did you have the same thing?

Melissa: Yes.

Zibby: Oh, my god. What was this place?

Melissa: I don’t know.

Zibby: Now a couple people have come out of the woodwork. I only remember going briefly. I haven’t heard of it since. I’ve got to investigate. Anyway, I was there too in New York City.

Melissa: Oh, my gosh. I went on this program. I lost the weight. I have such memories of deprivation from that program. I remember going to the movies and taking those stupid dehydrated apple packets with me so I could have a snack. It’s the same. To this day, if I go to the movies or when I went to the movies and if we ever go to the movies again, if I want popcorn, I eat popcorn because I have such a terrible memory of that deprivation. So I went on this program. I lost all my weight. I will never forget. My mother never had a weight problem. She’s tall, thin. She smoked at the time. She had a very fast metabolism. Her best friend, who’s still like a second mom to me, always struggled with her weight. I remember saying to her when I was twelve, thirteen, “I did it. I lost all the weight. It’s over. I never have to worry about this again.” I remember her looking at me and saying, “Oh, sweetheart, this is going to be a battle for life.” She knew. She knew what I did not know which is that it was not about one diet and losing twenty pounds and then it was over. That was really the start of this lifelong journey.

Zibby: My mother also smoked, also very thin, worked out all the time, never had an issue. Her best friend and her would talk about it. Her name was Sally. Then Sally ended up getting lung cancer. When she was super sick, she came over. She was wearing jeans and a head scarf because she had lost her hair. I will never forget this. She walked in the front door and my mother goes, “Sally, you lost so much weight. You look amazing.” Literally, Sally, whose daughters are like my family at this point, puts her hands on her hips and starts turning around 360 so they could admire how much weight she had lost. Then she passed away. It doesn’t end ever.

Melissa: It does not. I think that my parents, who are wonderful people and I’m so close to — but they were always thin. They were very attached to thin being good. When all of a sudden I was not thin, it was hard. They struggled with it. I think they would do a lot of it over again if they had the chance with how they talked to me about it. I don’t think they realized that this was a deep-seated problem that I was having. I also have a developmentally disabled brother. I had a sibling who was a few years younger who needed a lot of attention. It’s always difficult to have a child with special needs. Forty years ago, we didn’t have the resources and the community that we have now. I think that the difficulty that my mother felt in parenting him, getting him what he needed, and dealing with a sick mother and everything else, it was a lot. There wasn’t that much left for me and what I was going through as a teen girl going through puberty and struggling in a new school. That was the beginning. It was not over, obviously, after that first weight loss. Then it just went on and on for years. It was a cycle. Something stressful would happen. The binge eating would return. I would lose control over it. I would put on weight. Then I would get control over it.

Then I started Weight Watchers. I’m a huge Weight Watchers fan. I still believe that it is something you can do for life. I was glad I was introduced to it in my teens. I have been on it on and off for thirty-something years. I believe in it because I’m also a big believer in moderation. Weight Watchers is really about that and the lifestyle. It went on and on, back and forth with my weight. Looking back, one of the hardest things is that I’ve been so cruel to myself. The negative self-talk about my body and the way that I talked to myself and still do is upsetting to me. I’m this confident person in all these other aspects of my life, professionally and otherwise. Yet I cannot shed this deep-seated negative feeling I have about my body. That is something that really is stunning to me, that it has had that impact. I say this sometimes. I have sons. I don’t have daughters. People always say, gosh, you should’ve had a girl. You must’ve always wished that you didn’t have a daughter. I always say to myself — this is so sad — I am glad that I don’t have a daughter because I feel that I’m not equipped to necessarily raise a daughter with a positive view of her body. I am well past having any children. My kids are not little. I am closer to fifty than to forty at this point. It’s something that is that deep in me that I wouldn’t even want to have that as a responsibility because I know that I don’t have a healthy relationship with my body.

Zibby: I’m so sorry. By the way, I probably should not say this, but I’m looking at you, and you’re tiny. I’m serious. People listening — not that it matters. You could weigh five hundred pounds for all it counts. I don’t want to talk about weight, but you happen to be tiny. It somehow makes this even more pronounced because it’s clearly not in line with how you actually look, not that it ever is, not that that’s the point. It’s how you feel.

Melissa: Totally. It’s funny you say that because when I told my husband I was doing this, he was like, “She’s going to be like, what?”

Zibby: No, I’m not like that at all.

Melissa: I know you’re not, but that’s actually such a good point. I always say I think I’ve always had funhouse mirrors in my house. I remember distinctly being in college and being at the gym. I always was looking for someone who looked like me, somebody who was 5’2″ and pear shaped and hip-y and had the same sort of body type and weighed about what I did because I wanted to see what somebody else looked like.

Zibby: You were looking for me.

Melissa: I was looking for you, Zibby. I was.

Zibby: And I was looking for you. I felt like everyone growing up was like a string bean. I was like, what the heck? This my body.

Melissa: I know. So I’m at this gym, Mike’s Gym in Medford, Massachusetts, near where I went to college. I see this woman from afar. I’m like, that’s it. That’s what I look like. I was like, that’s it. She got close to me. I looked at her again. I said, oh, my gosh. The woman was probably sixty to eighty pounds heavier than me. When I really looked at her, I said, that is not what you look like, Melissa. I just cannot see myself the way others do. It’s still the case. When I talk to people about the fact that I’ve had a weight problem, and who have not known me, they are — it’s not like I used to weigh fifty pounds more than I do now. I’ve never been more than overweight. I’m always on the cusp of the BMI, healthy, a little overweight. When I had my babies, I put on a lot of weight, but I took most of that off. It’s not about the number. It’s a mindset. I relate to people who have serious weight problems. I get that in a way that — I think that part of my being raised with this, thin is good, the string bean body is good, is that I really feel that we aren’t gracious and kind to people who have real problems, whether it’s binge eating or some obsessive compulsive disorder or a family history that they can’t get away from. Nobody wants to live in a body that is uncomfortable. I just think we don’t treat people with sufficient respect around these issues at all. Even though nobody would think it, maybe, from seeing me, I get that. I want to be an ally for people who are struggling to feel, as you always say, to feel better in their bodies. That’s really my goal and my mission today for myself, is to just feel better in my body.

Zibby: And I would argue in your mind. Maybe I should add that. I guess by saying that, I really mean the whole Megillah, if you will. How you feel about it is how you feel in your body too. It’s not just that this is tight or this isn’t as strong or blah, blah, blah. I don’t know the answer. I still feel that same sense that you were talking about with the stealing food. I had a cookie last night. I put it under my book because I didn’t want my husband to see that I was going to eat this cookie. Finally, I was like, this is ridiculous. He doesn’t care if you eat the cookie. Eat the cookie. Finally I stopped waiting for him to leave the room. This is ridiculous. I just ate the cookie in front of him. He said nothing. He thought nothing. It’s all me. It’s how many years of this? I feel like this is, in some way, generational. This is not happening to the girls — by the way, I also wanted to say to you, you would have been a fantastic mother to girls. You would have found the way. There are other women who I know feel the same as you and I know maybe would’ve gone the other way. I give my kids whatever they want to eat because I had food hidden from me. I’m like, I’m not going to do that. Just even feeling that way, that you feel that you couldn’t do it, that you couldn’t help someone else when already you’re coming on this podcast to help other people, it breaks my heart in a way, but I relate completely.

Melissa: The sneaking food, I have to tell you, you were saying that you — it’s amazing how deep-seated that is. I’ve been married for almost twenty years. said one word to me. We’ve been together half my life at this point. He’s never said a word to me about my weight, what I’m eating, nothing. It’s my body. It’s my issue. That’s how deep it is in me. I’m glad to hear that that’s not the case, maybe, for the new generation because I’m sort of detached from raising teenage girls. I have a teenage boy. I’m getting to live through him. I always used to say I wanted to be a skinny teenage boy who could eat anything. I was never going to be that, but I get to feed one now. He made a comment to me a couple months ago where he said, “Mom, food makes me feel better.” I thought, yeah, he’s got it. He loves food like I do. I love food. He loves food. He’s an athletic, tall, very active teenage boy, but he loves food. You have to stay moving to be able to eat all that.

Even with him, I talked to him about the fact that I was doing this because I said, “You need to be quiet. You guys need to be quiet.” I talked about binge eating when I was a kid and all that because I think we need to talk about all of this. I’m glad this podcast and other — this is what we need to do to cure this sort of dysfunction around food. Today, I’ve talked about all the history. I am much healthier about my — I still have all these deep-seated problems, but I don’t have the same issues anymore in a lot of ways. I’m focused on moving my body. I used to joke around. I hated exercise when I was younger more than I loved food. There were a lot of stretches of my life where I literally would starve myself rather than exercise so that I could lose some weight because I just hated exercise. It was a chore. It was the first thing to go. Now I love it. I need it. I have to move my body.

Zibby: What do you do?

Melissa: When I turned forty, I started running a little. I’m not a big runner. That helped. I started to get more active. Two years ago when I turned forty-five, I said to my husband — my best friend was in Chicago. She had a Peloton bike. She said, “The Peloton bike is great. It’s at home. You can get up early in the morning and do it. You don’t have to go to a gym, whatever.” I said to my husband, “I’m buying this.” I’m not the kind of person who normally would spend a lot of money on a piece of fitness equipment. It’s just not my way. I said, “I’m buying this.” He was like, “You’re not going to use it.” I said, “I’m buying it. I’m doing this.” It was the best investment I’ve ever made in my health because it has become a regular part of my life. I used to say that the lack of exercise was my biggest failure as an adult. The biggest failure of my adult life was my inability to make exercise a regular part of my life. I’m a professional. I’m a mom. I’m a wife. I’m a volunteer. This was the biggest failure of my life, and it’s not anymore. I love to exercise. It’s not just the Peloton. I walk my dog a lot. I do some strength training. I’ve started to do some yoga during COVID because…

Zibby: Why not?

Melissa: Why not? Whatever works to get through the day. Look, people always say you lose weight in the kitchen. Working out is important. If I’m working out and eating everything, I’m going to gain weight. That certainly happens, but my attitude about it is different, for sure. I used to be like — it would be the start of the week. I’d screw up. It was Monday. You already ate the three slices of pizza, and that was it. I don’t do that anymore. Every meal, everything I put in my mouth, it’s a new moment. I do not do that anymore. Well, this day’s a wash. This meal’s over. I just don’t do that. Today, I had the salad for lunch. Maybe tonight I won’t make a good choice. I don’t know, but that doesn’t mean tomorrow I’m not going to try to make a good choice again. That’s more about the health part of it. That has changed my mindset. I don’t weigh myself a lot. I used to. I don’t weigh myself a lot because I want to feel like what I’m eating is healthy and I’m making good choices when I can and I’m moving my body. If I make it really about the number, then I get really obsessed.

Zibby: That is amazing advice. It’s all so true. It’s hard to move it from the realm of the intellectual to the behavior to the habit. It’s all fantastic advice and important. It’s so important. Working out is just one piece of the puzzle. I try to, in my head, think, this is just for my mental health. This isn’t even for my body as much, but it still doesn’t get me on the bike some days. I also am on Peloton. I’ve recently discovered it. I am ThisMomHasTimeTo if you want to be my friend on Peloton.

Melissa: Absolutely. I’m MomWifeBoss.

Zibby: I love that. Wow, that’s so cool.

Melissa: All the parts of me.

Zibby: Melissa, first of all, I’m sitting here thinking as you’re talking, gosh, I would really love to sit and have coffee with you sometime when we’re not having this podcast on. Then I’m thinking to myself, gosh, there are so many people, if you just get out of your own world, your own proximity — I’m thinking of you and I both growing up among people who even just have different body types and how that feels. There’s all this, I was such an outsider because of this or that. Anyway you feel different than is something. If you don’t see a model somewhere, not to say that I never did, but certainly not in my — I just feel like I would encourage other people who haven’t broadened out their group from where they live, that now is a great time to do that. Sometimes you have to push the boundaries of not just the moms in your school or the kids in your class or whatever. You might not find someone like you, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there in the world. They are. That sounds so obvious, but I just don’t think I totally understood that until I started meeting great people like you and so many people around the world on Zoom and all these ways. Thank you for sharing your story. I think your aunt’s experience should definitely go in a newspaper or a book or something. I hope we can continue this offline sometime.

Melissa: I hope so too, Zibby. Thank you so much. Thanks for your community. I’ve told you, your book podcast got me reading again. Then this community has been so great because the message is so important. I’m not the kind of person who normally reaches out to people that she doesn’t know. It’s been a pleasure to get to know you through this and to talk. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: You too. Thank you so much.

Melissa: Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Melissa: Bye.

Melissa Liebermann on her family’s Holocaust story and her distorted body image