Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Let's talk about "body image."

I grew up chubby. Not anywhere near obese. But enough that people made sure I knew. And I didn't need much help to know.

When I hit 14 I started to slim down. But I never stopped seeing myself as the chubby kid. If you were one too, you'll understand how that changes you.

And now I will admit something publicly that to this point I have only told a few close friends: I am an anorexic.

I would say "recovered anorexic," but through my own experience and reading about others, I really feel like a tendency toward disordered eating is something that sticks with you pretty much forever and can only be managed. I know at least that I never fully got rid of the compulsion. Currently I channel it into being a vegetarian. (When asked, I usually say it's because of environmental or animal welfare concerns -- and certainly that's part of it. But really it's because it's the best way I've found to keep myself eating healthily and enough while still putting parameters on myself that feel necessary to me.)

Looking back on my life, I have found that the times I was most compulsively unhealthy in my relationship with food were the times I felt the least empowered in other areas of my life. Make no mistake, this was never about food for me -- it was always about control. (This makes me a pretty textbook case, I've heard.) I am generally health-conscious in what I eat and I genuinely enjoy healthy food. But when I was in the throes of a disordered phase I did not eat healthy. I remember in high school I went for a stretch of time subsisting on pickles and popcorn. And then I might stop for awhile, and then something would happen and I'd start again. In my freshman year of college it was tomato soup and popcorn. Junior year of college it was V8 juice and carrot sticks, as well as one day a week of total fasting except for water (which I remember totally loving at the time). I can still rattle off exactly how many calories are in each of these items per serving, as easily as I remember my date of birth or SSN.

This is all stuff you've probably heard or read before. But I share this experience to add this hopefully slightly newer angle into the mix:

Not every anorexic is thin to the point that people invite them on Oprah or put them in the hospital. In fact I imagine that there are many like me -- relatively functional and not losing so much weight that it causes real alarm. I'm 5'7" and typically wear a size 6 or 8. My junior year of college, which was probably my worst bout in that I was eating virtually no carbohydrates or protein on top of exercising like a crazy woman (the whole thing initiated by a breakup with someone who had criticized my weight), I still only got down to around a size 2. I remember my classmates telling me how great I looked.

So when you're talking about eating disorders, be really careful about assuming who does and doesn't have one. It's probably a lot more of your friends than you even realize. I was a pro at talking about positive body image, even when my journal was full of entries painstakingly recording what had gone into each day's 200 allotted calories. (The most fucked-up part of this is that most of what I knew about anorexia was from TV specials about girls who had panic attacks over communion wafers, so in a twisted way, I thought what I was doing was okay in comparison.)


This is how I looked after maybe two months of subsisting on water, V8 and daily hours-long workouts. I almost look healthy...right?

This is the kind of "what the hell was I thinking" experience that today gives me compassion for myself, and for anyone who has ever looked in the mirror and thought things like my life would be fine if only I were thinner, or I'm disgusting, or any variant of these horrible thoughts.

This is also the kind of experience that, when people see images of especially thin women and say things like "go eat a cheeseburger" or "real women have curves," I really just want to punch them in the fucking face. I don't understand why this pendulum needs to keep swinging. The whole point is that health, just like illness, has no one specific "look," and frankly people should just know better by now.

I also share my history to say that the secret to preventing eating disorders is not to be found in "awareness campaigns" or on the backs of Dove body wash. I was a precocious kid raised by a badass journalist mom on feminism and organic granola and "all women are princesses" and all that good stuff. I was constantly reminded that every size is beautiful, inner beauty is what counts, etc. etc. etc. And in the end it still didn't keep me from genuinely believing that I would be better/prettier/more liked/more desirable if I only made myself smaller.

I won't pretend to know what the secret is. But I do know that in my worst days dealing with this condition, the bulk of the stuff I remembered were the everyday little ways people show -- not tell -- that overweight people don't matter to them the way thin people do. I remembered quitting dance in 6th grade because my classmate made fun of how I looked in my leotard. But I also remembered being out to dinner and feeling myself nearly ignored while the waiter invested all his enthusiasm in a thinner friend. I remember seeing my naturally thin older sister in her prom dress and thinking I'd never be half that beautiful unless I was thin too.

I've heard the term "microaggression" used in the context of racism, and I think it's an apt term to use for how people sometimes treat overweight individuals as well. So if I can say anything of value here (and I'm addressing this to myself as well), it's this: look at people. Make eye contact. With everyone. I think we have a tendency to avoid looking at people who are overweight because we don't want anyone to think we're gawking.

But it's a little bit like that Louie episode where "fat girl" Vanessa explains to Louie that the worst possible thing to say to a fat girl is "you're not fat." These well-meaning lies, and their subtler sibling the "I'm looking away because of course I'm not noticing you at all because you're not fat" eye dart, carry more hurt in them than any blatant insult. It is the fastest way to confirm to a person who (trust me) already knows or even just thinks they are fat that yes, it really is a shameful thing to be.

I guess like most modern-day ills, the solution basically comes down to "don't be a dick." And that includes to yourself.

Also, my boss just brought me a giant chocolate chip cookie. I ate the whole thing.

YUM.

Here's to Wednesday.

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