On Body Image, Eating Disorders and How to Shake Free
While I’m not sure how you feel about advice-seekers straying away from beauty and fashion, I will take a chance and submit a non-product-related question (because in addition to converting me to Philosophy products for my face – OMFG, thank you – several of your responses to serious “life” questions have almost brought me to tears with their comfort and wisdom-filled thoughts).
My question is in regards to body image. As a young woman I am fully aware of the fact that .001% of women on this earth look like a Victoria’s Secret model, but yet I find myself at the gym or witholding food because I want “Gisele-abs.” There are few women who are exempt from harsh self-criticism and too-high standards, but man, do I wish I were one of them (and I am so, totally, not – I am of the “insecure pinching of the roll under my bra underwire” and “sucking in my abs in the mirror every morning” variety). I hate that I do this – and ultimately I control my own thoughts, right? But as soon as I make some progress or resolve to love my body for what it is, I see some damn skinny girl with amazing legs, etc. and I just go back to feeling inadequate.
So my question for you is: how do you view/treat/regard/improve/accept your body? You are a beautiful woman, but maybe you have some advice to all women on how to feel good about themselves – with or without an extra ten pounds, poreless skin, etc.
Thank you Amalah! And CONGRATS on your pregnancy!
Many years ago, before there was the Internet, or at least before I knew how to use the Internet, I was anorexic. Very, very anorexic. My goal in life was to stay under 100 pounds at all costs. Those costs included my skin, hair, menstrual cycle, general health, future fertility and many friends and boyfriends along the way who simply could not take my bizarre food rituals and stubborn refusal to see reason.
But hey! I was five-foot-five and 91 pounds, so EFF ALL THAT, right? I win at being skinny! I win at life, happiness and everything! Or…I will, once I lose another couple pounds and get below 90. Yes. 89 pounds is totally the ticket.
It was the kind of adolescence I would not wish on anybody, even though it’s certainly a very common story. When I think about possibly having a daughter it’s the first thing I think of. How could I help her avoid that trap? How can I teach her the lessons that I had to learn the hard way because I wouldn’t listen to anyone? I’m still not really sure HOW I learned them, since passing out in the dorm room hallway and being carried to the medical center by friends sure didn’t do it (that just meant I was excelling at not eating, boo-yah). One day I…just…decided I wanted to get better. That I wanted and needed to stop. A lot of women with eating disorders do not get to that point. I was lucky.
But going through that gave me a biiiig dose of perspective and reality that helps me a lot today. I was so unhappy! So desperately, pathetically unhappy! Who wants to live like that? Who gives a shit what my dress size is? What made me think that everybody else was playing the same game I was, that anybody cared whether I was the skinniest girl in the room or not, when what probably really mattered to them was that I was easily the most shallow and self-absorbed girl in the room, because I made my body the center of the universe.
I mean, I abused my body terribly, but abuse through disordered eating is just a really weird form of naval-gazing or even self-worship. When your body image takes over to that degree, you stop caring about how your behavior affects others, whether you’re breaking your mother’s heart or not or whether your friends can’t stand to be around because SHUT UP AND EAT A FRENCH FRY LIKE A NORMAL PERSON. And you certainly don’t have the time or energy to care about issues and problems beyond yourself. (MY recycle bin is full of zero calorie seltzer water, because I hide the soda cans and that jar of salsa I binged on in the trash, and God, I WISH all I had to eat was a little white rice everyday, that would make life so much easier, etc.)
So. My experience with body-image problems is obviously really extreme, but that’s still kind of how I look at it. I got better because I grew up. Because I realized that was not how I wanted to live — thin is nice, but damn, I want to be HAPPY. I found things outside of my own digestive tract to devote myself to and I am happy. Sure, I have cellulite on my thighs and having Noah utterly destroyed my stomach muscles and skin and my 16-year-old self would be HORRIFIED at what I’ve become, but really, she mostly needed someone to slap her in the face. Repeatedly.
Maybe the Victoria’s Secret models are happy. I don’t know. Heidi Klum and her freak genetics aside, I know I certainly wouldn’t want to spend my adult life with that same adolescent fixation on my body, no matter how much money it made me. It’s tedious and boring and it makes YOU tedious and boring.
Our culture just slams us with unrealistic body images, but it also hammers in a deep-rooted sense of entitlement and selfishness. Consume all you want, screw the earth and the poor and your credit rating, you deserve it all! Just don’t let it go to your thighs, or anything. Because ew. These messages get mixed up and tangled and suddenly we’re thinking that it’s really, really important that we are thin and beautiful and look good in a designer swimsuit, because WE are important but we’re really NOT important but maybe it’s because we’re not thin enough to be important and ’round and ’round we go, down the existential crisis rabbit hole. And then we crash into the ground and a Thighmaster bonks us in the head.
I’m losing my grip on my very tenuous point here, I know it. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that, oh, I KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN, because sure. What woman doesn’t critique her reflection and suck in her gut and owns a pair of Spanx but tries to deny that she owns a pair of Spanx? But an important part of growing up and learning to be a citizen of Earth involves…kind of getting over yourself. Focusing on important things, and the size of your ass is sooooo not an important thing.
(I know I type a lot of words here every week about taking care of our skin and hair and How To Look Pretty And Hide Ugly Things Like Zits And Wrinkles!!1! ZOMG WRINKLES! And really, I think we can all occasionally delve into the superficial without it ruling our lives. I really don’t spend much of my life contemplating moisturizer, but weight and body image are things that I think many of us really do obsess about to unhealthy levels.)
Live a good happy life. Help people, love people, respect yourself enough to make sure you’ll be healthy and present for the people you love for years to come, and TAKE IT FROM ME, being rail-thin does not improve your ability to do any of those things. You will not lie on your deathbed and lament being a size 12 back in 2008, or wish you’d skipped more breakfasts. You’ll probably look back the way I do already, and wish for more face-slapping.
(VERY IMPORTANT PS: If you withhold food on a regular basis, skip meals to “atone” for past indulgences or binges, or work out past what would be considered “normal” [i.e. a compulsive number of crunches, doing cardio until you feel dizzy or light-headed], please please please consider calling a counselor TODAY. Particularly a counselor who specializes in disordered eating. Full-blown eating disorders do not flick on like a light switch…they build gradually until your mind is simply unable to distinguish that this is not normal, until your entire worldview is skewed and consumed by the disease. The National Eating Disorders Association’s website will help you find a doctor, counselor or free support group in your state. They also have a telephone helpline.)