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Feb. 1st, 2009 @ 04:58 pm Body Image and Disordered Eating

This is for day one of

14valentines.  Today's focus is on body image, and for me, that issue is intricately tangled with eating disorders and the way that that can cause you to form a negative body image. It doesn't matter how many times someone else tells you you're pretty; some days, I think nothing is ever going to change my negative view of myself.

And I'll preface this with: yes, I'm a size six. Sometimes a size eight, but given the way the past several years have gone...well, yeah. I generally swim in a size eight. And I know that I'm small (a grand whopping 134 lbs), but the BMI swears to god I'm overweight, and sometimes that starts to sink in. And then someone points out how ridiculous my body image issues are. So I know that it seems bizarre that I spend half my life worried about the fact that I hate my body and I tend to worry that I'm headed down the path to anorexia.

At one point, near the end of my first year in university, I realized that I hadn’t eaten more than a banana in three days. I remember freaking out; for all that I may hate my body, I have always managed to hide from the lurking specter that I call genetic predisposition and someone else might refer to as “Eating Disorders.” I’ve had more conversations with therapists about disordered eating, anorexia and bulimia than I have about other topics. And yet, here I was starving myself in a manner that I recognized. And someone said, “Well, you’re not actively trying to harm yourself. You don’t see being painfully skinny as a good thing. You’re not anorexic, hon.” And they were right, but they were also very, very wrong.


I had just spent the better part of a year on a campus where the workout facilities get more use than the library, where there is an entire gym that is dedicated to women who want to be as fit and as trim as humanly possible. I understood the feeling of inadequacy about my body—I’m five foot, two inches, 134 pounds, and I hate the people who say, “Well, you’re only a little bit chunky”—and I knew how quickly the disordered eating could spin into something far, far worse. I knew that if I kept hating my body and loathing food, I would wind up on a path that I’d been fighting for six years. I had lost fifteen pounds my freshman fall because I wasn’t eating; while I didn’t mind being skinny—we’re trained by the media, by commercialism, and by our peers to know that skinny girls are the only ones who are desirable—I also knew that it was an incredibly unhealthy cycle.

For you see, I am the daughter of an anorexic-bulimic. I know the cycle of disordered eating that spirals into starvation followed by binging followed by purging. I understand the need to control something, anything, and realizing the only thing you have to really control is your body, your responses, or your eating habits. I know, in some long buried part of me, that eating disorders have a thousand different causes, a thousand different reasons, and that it isn’t as simple as, “But you’re not displaying classic anorexic reasoning.”

And no, at the time, I wasn’t thinking about how much I hated my body and if I just lose a couple of pounds, it would be alright. I was just not thinking about food or about eating or about the need that the human body has for sustenance. I wasn’t thinking that it’s ridiculous to consider myself fat when I fit into ninety percent of all size small clothing and that most mediums actually swim on me. But later, when someone harped on my body image—apparently, I have a negative image of myself; somehow, this doesn’t surprise me—I thought about all the reasons why I could have kept starving myself. All the reasons that I could have used to justify “just a little less food.” I realized at some point that that was probably how my mother’s anorexia really began.

And that was when I stepped back from the issue and got help. I’m sick of the media telling me that I’m not okay at my weight; I’m sick of feeling inferior to girls who are sticks and who don’t eat enough to keep a bird alive. I will not allow myself to slowly die to please some horribly twisted ideal. So I work out enough to keep myself fit, and I eat salad because I actually like the taste, but I don’t take it to extremes as much anymore. I keep fruit in my room in case I end up missing a meal; fruit and packaged tuna might not be the most normal meal in the world, but at least I’m eating.

And if I ever let myself start to starve again, about four different people actually ask me on a weekly (or daily) basis if I’m eating. They smack me if the answer isn’t “yes”. Hell, they smack me if takes too long to remember that I actually ate. 

These are, by the way, the same people who remind me that the BMI screws people with muscle mass over.  And often, anyone else.

Quick Synopsis of My Current Insanity
VM Sad
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Date:February 2nd, 2009 04:04 pm (UTC)
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It doesn't matter how many times someone else tells you you're pretty; some days, I think nothing is ever going to change my negative view of myself.

Yeah, I understand that one completely. Sounds like the people who smack you if the answer isn't yes are pretty good people to have around though.
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Date:February 9th, 2009 05:05 am (UTC)
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You and I are height and weight twins. And we have some of the same issues - thank you for writing this.

For too long I've been fixated on returning to my junior high weight of 125, ignoring all the things that my body has done since then - gained 20 pounds, lost 10 pounds, gained breasts, lost muscle, gained muscle.

I love food and cooking and eating with a big, boundless love, but if I hadn't learned in school from a very young age how destructive bulemia is, there are many times in my life when I would have started down that road - knowing that would make me "sick" stopped me from ever following through (and yet, the desire persists). I have a profoundly charged relationship to eating - a relationship that will never be meaningless. I try to focus on food as creation, as pleasure, and as gift.

You struck a lot of chords in me about BMI and size. Because we're right on the edge of that "overweight" category, aren't we? And I drive myself crazy with 1-2 pound fluctuations which could be due to water retention or stress, or time of day, or time of month, or a real accumulation of fat, or an accumulation of muscle - but whatever, because that one pound is the difference between "normal" and "overweight" on the BMI and if I weigh myself in the morning it completely skews my day. And affects how I think about what I'm "allowed" to eat and "allowed" to wear and how I'm "allowed" to interact with other people.

But it was the size thing that really hit me because for many years I've been wearing a size 12 (hiding myself inside it). And it's only in the last year that I've started buying clothes that fit the body that I (we) *actually* have - in sixes and eights (and wondering, is this how clothes are supposed to fit? And feeling obscene because the shape of my body is apparent now). And it's had this profound and strange impact on me and my perceptions of what I look like and who I am. I've gotten used to dismissing it as "vanity sizing," and so when I saw you, my height and weight twin, write that you wear a six, it kind of sunk in, in a new way. That maybe this really *is* my body. You wrote "I know that I'm small (a grand whopping 134 lbs)" And you forced me to think, wait, that's me, maybe 135 isn't a (fake) plus size - maybe I'm small.

And I'm kind of teared up now thinking through all of this and writing about all of this because I never usually talk about it - thank you for helping/forcing me to see this in a new way.
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Date:February 9th, 2009 06:08 am (UTC)
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And your response strikes just as many chords for me--I was 120 to 125 in middle school, went up to 145 by the end of senior year, dropped down to 130 halfway through my first year of college, and got called anorexic due to that little stunt. And years of sports meant muscle tone, muscle loss, and back again. So yes, I understand your issues. (Except I have relatively small breasts, for which I've always been thankful; my problem is that I have childbearing hips because apparently my genetics didn't get the memo that I didn't want children. And then gave me a corresponding rear.)

And all I've got in reply to your explanation on food is basically, "This. This makes everything make perfect sense." I go through withdrawal when I can't cook and I love going through a market and picking what's going to go into a couple days' worth of meals. A friend, upon telling me that ramen was food, found herself outside of my kitchen muttering, "Okay, how'd I offend her, and why is she threatening me?"

Yeah, something finally snapped the day that I looked at the BMI chart and realized that if I was 5'3" and 134, I would still be squarely in the "normal" section. There's something screwy about a system that punishes people based on the correspondence of height and weight--you can't account for bone density, muscle mass, or hell, clothing. You can't even account for the size of one's breasts or how thick and long one's hair is. (I kid you not--I cut off 12 inches of medium thick hair and lost about 3 pounds.) That was the point that I gave up on weighing myself and instead just concentrated on trying to stay healthy. I really only know I'm losing weight again if my jeans start falling off. There's a scale in the bathroom, but I don't touch the thing. Otherwise, I'll drive myself crazy and I have long since given up on doing things to really upset my sanity.

I know the inclination, though I have to say that I've never gotten to hide in clothing. When I was younger, my sister would throw things at me and demand that I try them on; my aunt did as well. One forced me to wear short skirts and dresses. The other tried to put me in long and lime green for prom. She settled for clingy and burgundy. These days, I don't even flinch at wearing a corset in public; I've done worse. (Pictures, however, I still run away from.) I've also learned over the years that just because you think someone's smaller than you doesn't mean they are. One friend, who I would swear to god was a smaller size than me, actually is ten pounds heavier and wears a size (to two sizes) larger than I do. I remember staring at her going, "No, seriously?" Because I didn't think I was smaller, and she's staring like I've lost my mind.

And yes, it really is your body. You really aren't the blimp the BMI tries to convince you you are. And vanity sizing, I have learned, does not exist in petite or juniors clothing. (Which to my great shame, are the only places I can actually find things that fit me correctly. And even in juniors, they have to be hemmed.) And don't believe people from England (at least) if they say that our sizes are too generous. If anything, one thing I learned when I was looking at a couple of English stores last month, is that most things here? Are actually sized larger than they are in England. There's a difference of about a size. For instance, I can fit a size four in England, and wear a size six shoe (as opposed to an eight). This isn't the sizing everywhere, mind, but it still made me blink a bit.

I'm glad that I made you think, and that I helped shake your perception of yourself a bit. You made me think more as well; I rarely talk about weight. And I try not to let myself go to the place where I dwell on it. Even these days, when I can't get to the gym, I generally get annoyed. And that isn't a healthy attitude.

And you are small. If you're anything like me, you're petite, but with some muscle, some heft--just enough for people to know you're not a delicate flower--and enough curve to make them keep looking. In a world filled with stick figures, curves sometimes make you feel huge. But that's an illusion. You're actually a healthy weight and should feel good in your skin. Don't think of yourself as a (fake) plus size--you really, really aren't.
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Date:February 10th, 2009 06:37 am (UTC)
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Thanks again - this has been a profoundly useful and affirming conversation for me. I've friended (I hope that's ok?) because I think we have more in common that height and weight.

Like cooking. Because I adore cooking. In grad school I once tried to cook and freeze things so that I wouldn't have to bother with cooking during finals - and yet when finals came around and I had a freezer packed with food, all I wanted to do was cook because it's a huge stress reliever for me - and so affirming. I love farmers' markets and brightly colored produce and the anticipation of planning something good :)

I'm 40-30-40, so I have trouble getting things that fit both my waist and my breasts/hips - so sometimes I end up with x-large tops (especially in the junior section!) just to be sure that the buttons won't gape. But. I am increasingly starting to talk myself out of even trying on 12s and 10s in dresses and bottoms. I'm coming to grips with the fact that those just are not my sizes. It's kind of shocking to realize just how off my own picture of myself has been.

I never thought of myself as physical or strong until I started yoga two years ago, and that has also had a profound effect on my level of realism and comfort with my body. I have so much more muscle now than when I started, it still surprises me - like when I cross my arms and feel muscle there.

You're so right about curves. In yoga my teacher says that the belly shouldn't actually sink back into your body - when it's hydrated and healthy, it rounds a little. And that's my biggest hang-up, looking down at my belly and thinking, "why do you not just disappear below my ribs?" But it's powerful to think, even here, this can be ok - can even be healthy and attractive - and that's one I'll be working on for a long time, but to even start that process is profound (in a world that valorizes sticks and women who erase themselves).

And who knew that hair weighed that much? That's me in this icon, btw, so I probably have a few pounds in hair weight.
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Date:February 11th, 2009 04:18 am (UTC)
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I'll friend you back (because I happen to agree that we seem to have things in common), but I will warn you--I'm a pretty laid back (if stressed out) college student most of the time. Sometimes I post on life, sometimes on things I've been thinking about, sometimes on food, and sometimes on the stuff I'm coping with right now. And that's the second thing I'm warning about--I've had a really long year and I occasionally vent in here.

That said, dude. I cook when stressed as everyone I know can attest. Freshmen aren't allowed to live in dorms that have kitchens, so I was not a happy camper until this past September. Finals are definitely when I cook the most at the moment; unfortunately, the cost of food at the nearest supermarket is ridiculous and I haven't quite been able to justify the longer trip to go to the organic collective. I cannot wait until farmers markets start back up. Produce. In every color of the rainbow (and then some).

Not a problem I really have--I'm tiny on top, although I do have hips. *claps* Good for you! I always try on the size above what I actually wear and then wonder why it's so loose. I was a bit terrified when I bought something that was an extra small a couple weeks ago; that's just overkill.

I need to get back into the habit of going to yoga on a regular basis. I loved it last year and started again this year, but got derailed. However, I start rock climbing this week, so that's going to be interesting.

Honestly? I'm really good about beating myself up for being curvy, but I read an article (which I just tried to find so that I can actually include the author and title and can't) in my Women's and Gender Studies 101 class well over a year ago that still sticks with me: it was an article by a radical feminist discussing her eating disorder and the reasons why she'd starved herself. How, at one point, when she was so skinny that she was harming her kidneys (and came close to dying), she got more compliments for being slender than she ever had before. She made a point that I'm not certain I agree with, but that has stuck with me: that by molding ourselves to conform to this beauty standard, we are denying ourselves power and draining our resources. If it didn't go on to incorporate an anti-patriarchal rant and blame this starvation tactic on men, I'd probably agree with the sentiment entirely. But while I'm a very staunch feminist, I am not actually a radical feminist and felt that the rant detracted from the power of the statement. (Feel free to disagree with me. :) )

Pretty. You have a far more defined figure than I do, and it's really pretty. Also, the fact that you thought you were overweight makes me do a double take. You look healthy, not overweight.

...And yeah. Sorry. I babble. I downloaded the syllabus and first few readings for the media class you're teaching this semester, by the way. It looked interesting. And then I had class back to back from *:30 until 2:30 and eighty other things to accomplish, so I still haven't gotten to look at it.

(I swear, I don't stalk. I just wanted to actually look at your livejournal before friending you. And then it was intriguing and I got sucked in.)