TW: Eating Disorders, Diet, Exercise, Body Dysphoria
Over the summer my mom, who is 91, moved from her house to an assisted living facility. Since then, my siblings have undertaken the monumental task of emptying the house of nearly a century of accumulated STUFF and making the property ready for sale (I have neither the financial nor the emotional resources to make multiple trips back to Michigan to participate in this struggle. Mea culpa).
A couple weeks ago, I received a couple boxes of things I had requested from my mom’s house. These included every report card I’d ever earned since preschool, my baby album, and a huge assortment of pictures, one of them my framed senior portrait from high school. Cool: it’s good to have a visual record of my existence and, as a friend pointed out, I will never lack for things to post on #throwbackthursday. Since it was, in fact, Thursday the day I received the boxes, I scanned several of the pictures and uploaded them to Instagram. My senior portrait was one. I wasn’t prepared for the way people responded, nor was I prepared to confront my reaction to their response.
“Beautiful!” “Flawless!” “Gorgeous!” “I can’t believe anyone ever called you ugly!” That’s a sample of the comments people posted on the photo thread. An overwhelmingly positive response, yet my reaction was not so positive, and nowhere near straightforward. I remember, you see, going in to have that picture taken. What I remember best isn’t the stale air in the science wing of my high school or the way the photographer hit on me. What I remember best is how sick I was. I had mono at the time. I must have contracted it in the psych ward where I’d spent a couple months not having my depression treated the previous summer. I guess it was a pretty bad case, because I was out of school most of the first term.
But mono wasn’t the only thing I brought home from the psych ward. I brought home a severe eating disorder. At the time of my senior portrait, it had a firm grip on me, though it had yet to progress to the point it did later. At the time of my senior portrait, I weighed in at 105 lbs, less than half my current weight, with almost 40 lbs yet to lose before I hit my lowest point. So when people remark on my beauty in this photo, it’s hard for me to take the compliment. It reminds me of the isolation of that year, and the silence surrounding my mental state and continuing weight loss. And it reminds me, too, of how oppressive Western beauty standards are to young people who will go to great lengths to fit within their narrow confines. It reminds me of how women are taught, almost from birth, that our value lies in what we look like above every other accomplishment, to the point where girls are praised for being sick with an enthusiasm that no one ever shows to healthier pursuits.
Maybe I look gorgeous and flawless in this photo. I don’t know. What I do know is what I hear when people respond to the photo with those, and similar, words. I hear: “You were beautiful when you were sick, so your sickness doesn’t really matter.”
I haven’t talked a lot about my eating disorder in this blog. It was a long time ago–almost thirty years. If you’re interested, I’ve mentioned it here, and here, and here. In the last weeks, however, I’ve come to realize how much the relationships to food and exercise–especially exercise–I developed when my ED was at its peak still impact me. Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa (I’m fond of the portmanteau, “Bulimorexia,”) hit mainstream consciousness in the late 70s and early 80s, but understanding of the disorder was hit or miss, and treatment methods focused on symptomology rather than underlying causes. For all I know, they still might. EDs are incredibly difficult to treat and people who suffer them are notoriously prone to relapse. In my experience, mental health professions infantilize those with EDs to a keener degree than those with any other disorder. To make matters worse, EDs and the people who suffer them are all too often the butt of cruel jokes in popular culture. When prominent figures–mostly women, but also men–lose “too much” weight, no one offers them concern or sympathy. Instead, they’re made the unwilling objects of scandal porn, with their pictures plastered on the fronts of news magazines alongside articles in which random, uninformed individuals speculate about their diets. Or newscasters and comedians wisecrack about vomiting and laxative abuse (people made those jokes in my time, too, though usually among their own peer groups and behind closed doors).
All of it reinforces the shame people with EDs feel about their bodies and the rituals we engage in to maintain control. I can’t speak for others, but for me shame was the overriding experiential quality of my ED. I felt ashamed of my body, of my very existence, to begin with. I felt ashamed when I ate and ashamed when I exercised. Later, I felt ashamed when I binged and more ashamed when I puked. NEWS FLASH: People with eating disorders don’t need the media to tell us we’re disgusting and wrong. We don’t need the media to point out how vile it is to eat a full meal knowing full well you’re going to puke it up later, or how deranged it is to disconnect from every human endeavor but obsessive exercise even when we have trouble walking up a flight of stairs. WE KNOW IT. WE ALWAYS KNEW IT. And if we had the power to stop, if the idea of not being in control weren’t so terrifying, we’d stop. The unfortunate fact is that the feeling of control is imaginary. The disorder pulls our strings, and it keeps pulling until someone intervenes or we die.
I’m fairly sure (today I am, not guaranteeing tomorrow) that eating disorders aren’t, at their roots, about eating at all. I think they’re about this deep sense of shame, of not measuring up or fitting in, and a need to alleviate the shame by forcing oneself to conform and controlling what one can as much as one can. In the case of young people–and people with EDs are getting younger all the time–one’s own food consumption is often the only thing in life one can control. I think this need manifests in EDs because Western culture is so fatphobic. (Disclaimer: I have no idea of the incidence of EDs in non-fatphobic cultures, if any exist. So I may be full of shit.) When I got bullied for being fat, I knew deep down that fat was the worst thing a person could be. I knew it because my sisters were constantly dieting, and because of the way my father sneaked slices off the roast or “evened off” the brownies when no one was looking, and because the very first thing my pediatrician always brought up at my annual exams was my “pudginess.”
When the girls at my school teased me for being fat, when the boys called me an ugly cow, I’m not sure they even meant the words in a literal way. Even at the time, I could see very well that lots of girls in the popular crowd were bigger than I was–including many who tormented me. I think what they meant was, I was OTHER. I didn’t fit into the homogeneous norm. I didn’t wear the right shoes with my school uniform, or shop at the right places, or have the right haircut. (I’ve recently learned that Grosse Pointe, the Detroit suburb where my exclusive prep school was located, had a real estate point system designed to evaluate prospective homeowners and exclude “undesirable minorities:” Jews, People of Color, and so on. This explains a whole lot.) Since they didn’t know how to express the level of threat presented by an OTHER who was obviously of the same race, they fell back on the worst things they knew: Fat. Ugly.
Sometimes I wonder how the deep sense of shame and not ever being “right,” combined with the brain chemistry that leads to eating disorders, would present in a less fatphobic culture. It’s a mind game, because we can’t know in the culture we have. Despite the movement toward body positivity, or maybe because of it (backlash is real), Western culture is more fatphobic than ever. “Obesity”–in quotes because the very term implies that there is a single correct weight and a single right way to have a body–is considered a disease in its own right now. People hand out fat shaming cards to random strangers on public transportation. An Australian foundation is offering a fellowship to an author who wants to “join the fight against obesity.” Primary schools send remarks on kids’ weights along with their report cards. Insurance companies deny coverage to people who don’t participate in company-sponsored “wellness programs.” Everyone is obsessed with “fitness”–in quotes because fitness for what? Fitness to be considered human? I can’t even buy a box of cereal without finding a message that some foods are objectively good and some are bad, and only “willpower” will save me from succumbing to temptation.
Don’t tell me about “willpower.” I stopped engaging in the behaviors of disordered eating through force of will, because the treatment I received barely merited the name. I cannot express how damaging these attitudes are to those of us susceptible to developing eating disorders. The message that “you’ll be more acceptable thinner” gives false hope that losing 10, or 20, or 30 pounds will finally assuage the inner sense of inadequacy. And when it doesn’t, the obvious deduction is “I haven’t lost enough weight yet; I’d better lose more.” Eat less, boost exercise, take laxatives, induce vomiting. Whatever. No one really cares as long as you stay within sightly and attractive parameters. In fact, they’ll tell you how great you look. Until you don’t.
Though I managed to disengage from obsessive patterns and disordered behaviors thirty years ago, I still have most of the attitudes. Issues of weight and body image trigger me. Getting weighed at the doctor’s office causes an immediate anxiety attack. Examining my food choices, even considering altering my diet, gives me heart palpitations. The very word exercise is so fraught for me that having it show up in my social media makes me want to hide from it. Being hungry triggers me, and I am hungry almost constantly. Even well-meaning suggestions that have nothing to do with diet per se, writing advice like “trim the fat from your manuscript,” send me into a rage.
One of my doctors all those years ago told me, when I expressed my fear of getting fat, “People like you don’t ever get fat so you don’t need to worry about that.” But since no one ever helped me deal the underlying causes of my ED and the only way I could survive them was by boxing them up and sealing them away from my everyday reality, I DID get fat. I’m fat, and I’m sedentary, and I don’t like it (always affirming that being fat and sedentary are not bad in and of themselves, but this doesn’t feel good to me). But the attitudes inherent in EDs make electing to pursue what others might consider a positive change all but impossible. Exercise and conscious food choices are not positive. They’re a punishment. A reminder that I am worthless. And when I do make an attempt to modify my body, there’s always a chance that I’ll fall into the old patterns, that I’ll go too far. That when I can’t reach my goal within a healthy system, I’ll modify the system, again and again, until there’s nothing healthy about it. And because I’m fat now, fatter than I’ve ever been, people will admire me for my progress and determination. The same way people admire that senior portrait.
Now that I’m in therapy again, and for the first time I’ve pursued therapy because I want my life to improve rather than because I’ll die if I don’t, I’d like to address these issues. To find a way to have a healthy relationship with food and exercise. I’d like to be able to say I don’t attach any weight loss agenda to those things, but it wouldn’t be true. When I hear the words “healthy relationship to food and exercise,” my mind immediately adds, “and if I can do that, maybe I’ll be able to lose weight.” I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to let that part of it go, no matter how many articles about body positivity I read.
I do know that interacting on a daily basis with the culture of fatphobia is physically and emotionally painful. I hope before I die, body positivity will become the norm and fat shaming will be seen for what it is: An oppressive attitude that threatens lives as much as any other axis of oppression. An attitude that causes even well meaning people to reward people for being sick.