My dad was a big man who suffered from various kinds of chronic pain most of his life. When he was a teen, he was bedridden almost a year with some genetic disorder that appears from time to time in adolescent males. I don’t know how to spell it, so I haven’t been able to look it up. Otto Shleggerer’s Disease? Auto-Schlegerer Disease? That’s phonetic, but neither have turned up any Google results, so I remain in the dark. He had bad knees, and arthritis, and from what I know now I suspect he also had sciatica. At least, he had some kind of pinched nerve in his back that caused incredible pain. He complained a lot about his “damned left leg.” I may have inherited a little of this. I have a weird numb place in my left leg that seems attributable to a pinched nerve. So far, it hasn’t caused me pain, thank the gods.
Anyway. Every time he consulted a doctor, the doctor told him to lose weight, because if he weren’t so big he wouldn’t be in pain. So my dad would go on one diet or another. Sometimes he lost a few pounds. Inevitably, he’d give up. I’d come upon him in the kitchen at odd hours, “evening off” the pan of brownies or picking at the leftover Thanksgiving turkey. And because I didn’t know what I know now, I despised him for what I saw as a lack of mental discipline. I thought, “Geez, dad, the doctor told you what to do if you don’t want to be in pain; why don’t you just buckle down and do it?” And I hated it all the more when he complained about his physical ailments, because I thought suffering them or not was under his control.
Now, as I struggle with my own metabolic problems, which sometimes cause me to feel like I’m starving to death an hour after eating a full meal, I wonder if he was just hungry.
I vowed not to be like my dad. When I wanted to lose weight, I’d do it, come hell or high water. Never mind physical discomfort, or lack of interest in exercise, or anything else standing in my way. I’d put my will to it, and I’d do it. I wouldn’t give anyone an excuse to despise my lack of discipline. I wouldn’t claim to want a thing and do the opposite of everything necessary to achieving it.
Unfortunately, this attitude, combined with certain other factors, led directly to my becoming anorexic. When losing weight didn’t lead to, for example, a reduction in the amount of bullying I suffered or being able to attract a boyfriend, I decided I wasn’t disciplined enough and hadn’t lost enough weight. So I restricted my food intake and increased my exercise level more and more. And before long, I reached a point where I literally wasn’t in control, though not in the way I feared. I knew my obsessions were killing me (probably long before anyone else did), and I could not stop. When I became bulimic, I couldn’t stop that, either. I kept telling myself, “Just put your mind to it!” But my mind had no influence. Eating disorders are funny like that; I expect all compulsions are. I experienced something similar when I engaged in self harm through cutting. There’s a period before an episode when you’re trying to resist. But the longer you resist, the more anxious you become and the stronger the compulsion gets. It builds to a point where you can’t think of anything else; you just want to get it over with so you can go back to some semblance of normality. So you give in, eat the bag of cookies or vomit or whatever, and then there’s this kind of relief, almost like you’ve had an orgasm. Until the compulsion hits again.
As I wrote that, it struck me how similar this sounds to the classic cycle of violence: A period of tension-building, followed by a violent episode, followed by relaxation of tension and remorse. I think they’re the same, only in relationship violence the compulsion is focused on the other partner and in eating disorders you’re driven to be violent toward yourself. I wonder if anyone else has thought of it this way, and if not looking at it this way is a reason perpetrators of domestic violence have such a high rate of recidivism.
Given my history, I have a complicated relationship with the concept of discipline, which often translates in my head to “forcing yourself to do something you really don’t want to do because ‘not wanting to’ isn’t a valid excuse.” Some of this my mother instilled in me. Inevitably when I expressed a lack of interest in doing one thing or another, she responded with, “Well, you could if you wanted to.” Which is problematic in and of itself; it dismisses lack of desire as a reason not to participate in an activity and at the same time implies that lacking interest is itself a flaw, while also promoting the completely irrational idea that the only obstacle to accomplishing anything at all is not wanting to badly enough. By that reasoning, people living in poverty have no excuse because surely if they really wanted to they could be rich, and making accommodations for the disabled is wrong-headed because if they really wanted to they’d succeed on the terms of the able-bodied.
A lot of cultures seem to place an inordinate value on the ideas of discipline and self-control. We admire asceticism. In a benign form, discipline counsels moderation; “Nothing in Excess” (Greek, μηδὲν ἄγαν) was inscribed over Apollo’s temple at Delphi, and the advice was repeated by philosophers like Socrates and Plato. Personally, I think a little excess at times is healthy, but for the most part (and leaving aside questions of “who gets to define excess?”) I don’t have a problem with the idea. However, taken to extremes, discipline can be harmful, as well as easily exploited. We’ve all heard stories of abused children whose parents claim they were “just trying to instill discipline.” Some religious sects encourage mortification of the flesh, even to self-flagellation (and in groups where this is the norm, the tool for administering blows is often known as “the discipline.”)
Speaking as a Pagan, I do see some of the reason behind these practices. On a purely practical level, if you mean to embark on a long period of meditation, a vision quest, or other observance, it’s good to be able to ignore hunger and other bodily discomforts. Another truth is, asceticism promotes an out of the ordinary state of consciousness, wherein one can better access wisdom and information not apparent from or on the physical plane. Self-inflicted (or other-inflicted) pain can act as a catalyst to a shamanic experience. Pagans often share food after a Circle not only to be social, but to aid in returning from magical consciousness. Eating and drinking is one of the best ways to ground and recenter.
The problem lies not in the practice itself, but in the fact that discipline is seen as morally superior to the lack of it. I could write an entire different essay on why this came to be the case. It would include things like religions and philosophies of transcendence, which favor the upper classes, superseding religions of immanence, which tend to spread power more evenly, and the way religions of transcendence privilege things of the spirit over those of the flesh as a way to reinforce oppressive systems. But, as I said, that’s another post. *winks* The result is that the ability to endure unpleasantness has become a good in and of itself, rather than a temporary means to a particular end.
So what does this have to do with my eating disorder, my relationship to my body, and fat phobia in general? Short answer particular to me: It makes it really easy for me to beat myself up and get stuck in a loop of bad thoughts. Although I have, at various points in my life, been highly capable of doing things I find personally unpleasant to achieve an end, I still see myself as lacking in discipline, especially as regards my body. It goes back to the prevalent mythology that some body sizes are bad, even harmful, and altering the shape of one’s body into one better and less harmful is a matter of simple math, calories in vs. calories out. This is a view that people cling to despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Even medical professionals, who should know that multiple factors affect body size, promote it. When combined with the idea that self-control is morally superior to lack thereof, it perpetuates stigma. After all, people think, much as I thought of my father, if you know the equation, what stands in the way of working it? Nothing but your determination and will. And the idea that those of us who don’t fall into a narrow definition of physical acceptability–and worse, don’t or won’t work to get there–are in total control of factors like how our metabolisms process food and how much activity our bodies require to effect change excuses all kinds of stigma, from public fat shaming to financial penalty.
In our culture, fat symbolizes laziness and excess. Any student of history should know this was not always the case; fat once signified prosperity and the ability to withstand periods of famine. In a country where most people have enough to eat and a significant portion of wealth is inherited, prosperity is tied less to hard work and more to the concept of leisure (much in the same way middle class people like to have lawns surrounding their houses, because a large area of uncultivated ground shows you don’t have to grow your own food). For those to whom it doesn’t come naturally, maintaining a small body size implies you have both the time and resource to devote to it: Joining a gym, hiring a personal trainer, shopping for and preparing the appropriate food or having it delivered. Where celebrities, whose jobs may depend on their looks and who are actually paid to maintain an image, are the equivalent of royalty, it’s easy to dismiss the difficulties of the poor, the overworked, those living in food deserts, and those who simply aren’t interested in spending every moment of spare time in an effort to make their bodies comply with and idealized concept of health and normality. Far easier to condemn them for lack of discipline than challenge the prevailing wisdom.
I suffer a good deal of guilt over my lack of discipline. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I wish my body were different. I wish I didn’t get hungry as much as I do, or that someone could at least explain to me why this is the case. I wish it didn’t seem to take me three times the physical activity to achieve half the results others seem to. I wish my lower arms didn’t flap in the breeze and my belly weren’t so large and my back didn’t have obvious rolls. And, of course, I always have that little voice in the back of my head asking, “If you really care about those things, why don’t you get up off your fat ass and do something about it?” It’s a question I have a hard time answering, but I think a lot of it has to do with the role of discipline as a measure of worth.
When my friend offered me a free gym membership, I thought a long time before taking her up on it. I decided, from a completely rational place (or so I thought at the time), that I could try it without attaching some weird agenda to it. I thought, “Twice a week is okay. I can do that. It isn’t unreasonable.” I set goals unrelated to weight and body size; the first was, “I want to be able to walk to the gym, do a circuit, and walk home without wanting to die.” I kept the commitment for two or three weeks, and then I got sick, and I got triggered. I started telling myself, “There, that’s over, and you don’t have to do it again for three days.” Which begged the question, “If I have to console myself with the idea of not going to the gym, why am I going to the gym at all?” I didn’t have an answer. I slept badly one night before a scheduled gym session, and decided to postpone it, just one day. I castigated myself for weakness, and lack of dedication. I fell into a spiral of guilt and justification: “You know sometimes you have to do things you find unpleasant to achieve goals,” to “But I really don’t fell well! Besides, I don’t get any immediate reward for doing it, and I have no guarantee it’ll change anything.” to “Well, then, stop complaining about your body because you obviously aren’t willing to do the work.” Over and over. It’s a cycle I’m all too familiar with from my anorexic days, and I don’t want any part of it now.
On social media, a day doesn’t go by when I don’t see one friend or another engaged in this same kind of self torture. “OMG, look how gross my body has become, I can’t believe I’m in such bad shape, I need to stop being lazy and get back to…” The treadmill, the gym, the Zumba class. Whatever. And I have no problem with a true desire to get into better physical condition (although the definition of this eludes me; it seems ever-changing). I don’t have a problem with people who really like to exercise, who’ve been ill and unable, or gotten out of their routine for one reason or another. Some people find it uplifting. For some people, the daily walk is their favorite personal time. I am not one of those people; if I ever was, I can’t remember it. My relationship with exercise is too loaded, with gym class bullying, with the toxicity of my eating disorder, with the politics of the dance world. I don’t like that all forms of movement are overwhelmingly emotionally painful, but there it is.
I just wish people would stop with the self hate in the name of discipline. Shaming yourself into doing something never is good, no matter what the result. But as long as society promotes self-discipline as a moral imperative, I fear that wish will go ungranted.