Mary Wilshire, 54, is an illustrator who has drawn female superheroes for comic books. Thoughtful and frank in conversation, with a girlish voice, she has delicate features and an elfin quality.

I've been addicted to food and had issues with compulsive eating all my life. My background was all English. It's a whole set of values and it's all based on how you appear to other people. If you grow up in a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant setting, the way you appear to other people is everything. You must appear perfect. You must be well-groomed. Your table manners must be impeccable. You must not have any problems. The message I received as a child was that it's wrong to be who you are.

My father was a very scary, active alcoholic, with guns in the house, who had been severely beaten as a boy. My mother started to withdraw into depression when I was about 7 years old. They gave her shock treatments. She was in and out of institutions. I'm 10 years old and there's nobody there. No one is taking care of you. I have to take care of my dad and my sister and myself. I couldn't deal with that.

At 13 I felt I was the most loathsome, unattractive creature in the whole world. I was alone in the house without a mother. Food was there for me. Food made me feel better. The fatter I got, the more loathsome I felt. Ten days after my 13th birthday, my mother committed suicide. I knew it was coming. I didn't cry. There were no tears. I was alone with my insane father. The night of my eighth-grade graduation ceremony, the little girl sitting next to me said, "Where is your mom sitting?" And I said, "Oh, my mom committed suicide last year." She began crying. I was so disconnected from my feelings, that was my coping mechanism. I had to be the perfect robot. I was also eating a lot. The grief, the terror, the rage that I was not allowed to express, it came up in my body.

My father's message was: "Take care of me, take care of my emotional needs. And suppress your own feelings, your needs, at all costs. Do not behave like a child." The idea was that women are meaningless and unimportant. With my father, there was emotional incest. Maybe I wasn't trying to cover myself with fat to protect myself from a creepy dad, with no mother to protect me—but that was the result.

Raising daughters, I've tried to protect them from the negative messages I received. Many of us are unmothered mothers. So instead of feeling you're a bad person because you eat too much, you give yourself permission to cultivate unconditional friendship with yourself. Feel compassion for yourself. What God wants from a girl is for her to be who she is. This is your highest spiritual purpose.


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