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On Body Image, Eating Disorders and How to Shake Free

Apr28

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Hello Amalah,
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!
-K

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.)

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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12 Responses to “On Body Image, Eating Disorders and How to Shake Free”

  1. Olivia Apr 28 at 1:57 pm Reply Reply

    I’m on the other end of the weight spectrum from Amy, but a couple of things I find helpful are:
    1)buy/wear clothes that truly fit. If the clothes are too tight, whether you are overweight or not, and all day long you’ll think about that pesky belly roll, or the muffin top, etc. Clothes that are too big will make you feel like a giant blob. Find beautiful clothes you feel comfortable and lovely in.
    2)Focus on general health by eating well balanced meals and exercising. Instead of seeing these as a means for weight loss or specific toning think of how healthy your heart and lungs are getting. Celebrate the increased flexibilty and strength. Find happiness in the fact that your marvelous body allows you to do so many wonderful things each day.
    3)Remember everyone who loves you unconditionaly. Victoria’s Secret is trying to sell you underwear, their message is for their benefit only. Turn away from those toxic messages and focus on the people and activities that really make you happy.

  2. TasterSpoon Apr 28 at 2:03 pm Reply Reply

    Perhaps like many of us, I used to be more concerned about skinniness when I was in high school than I am now. Never anorexic, I was still generally underweight, and remember one semester when I had gained about 5 pounds, looking at a photo of me and thinking, “Gee, my face looks prettier when I weigh a little more.” And then decided to lose the weight anyway. Apparently because skinny was better than pretty. Idiot.
    Anyway, a turning point for me was reading someone’s observation that weight/looks obsession was just one more means of oppressing women in which we’re complicit. Not only does it keep us weak, but also, they said, “Imagine if women took all the time and effort they spent thinking about their weight, their clothes, their appearance, and spent that on improving the world around them.” What a waste of ourselves to turn our resources – our attention to detail, our determination, our cleverness – to such petty concerns.
    And as I’m getting older I also am more conscious that physical attractiveness is going to fade no matter what you do. So my time is better spent making myself a more attractive *whole* person, by being healthy, by exploring diverse interests, by improving my mind, by exercising my creativity and by engaging with the world. I mean, honestly, whom would YOU rather be around, a person who does those things, or a person who’s busy thinking how she’s going to burn off that doughnut she really wishes she hadn’t had?
    Great topic, K; great response, Amy. This comment would have been a lot shorter if I had just said, “Ditto,” but that remark about how women are squandering their abilities has influenced me for years.

  3. TasterSpoon Apr 28 at 2:32 pm Reply Reply

    I had another thought: expand your range of beauty icons.
    Rent Some Like It Hot. By no means is Marilyn Monroe a stick figure in that, but boy, her sex appeal is unbelievable.

  4. Kimmy Apr 28 at 3:19 pm Reply Reply

    Great answer Amy — thanks for sharing your experience.
    But I think K can look at it from another perspective as well. If you long to have a fit, toned body with Giselle-esque abs, you don’t have to look at “skinny” girls and wish for that. You can DO something about it! I don’t mean that to sound b*tchy by any means… but I was like K for a long time, unhappy with my figure and always looking around at the other women whose bodies I liked better than my own.
    Instead of longing, I put time into learning about fitness and nutrition, and how to find a healthy path to a body I love. But not a “skinny” body, a fit, toned, healthy body.
    It’s really irritating to me when women come up to me and say, “You’re so lucky to be skinny.” Lucky? No way. I earned this body. I did hours of research to find a plan that would work for me. I go to the gym at least four days a week, which often means a whole bunch of crazy scheduling to make it fit into my day. I choose to eat a healthy diet (with some allowances for “cheat days” to keep me sane) but that takes work too; it’s work to always have the fridge stocked with fresh, healthy food… it’s work to cut it all up ahead of time so it’s easily accessible when I’m hungry… and it’s work to NOT stop by the Dairy Queen drive thru for a Blizzard every single time I’m craving ice cream.
    Oh, and let me be clear: my body isn’t perfect either! There are still spots I don’t love… I have cellulite in a few places too. But I still feel great about myself because I’m healthy and strong. AND, sometimes when I just NEED that Blizzard… I have it, because you have to be realistic too.
    My whole point here is that while I fully agree with Amy about accepting who we are for what we are… I also am strongly on the side of female physical empowerment. To me, that means ignoring the Victoria’s Secret catalogue models… but at the same time, hitting the gym and breaking through our personal hurdles to achieve fitness and health goals. Because, trust me… there’s NOTHING that makes me feel better about myself than standing in front of a mirror and flexing my muscles — a product of my own hard work.

  5. kalisah Apr 28 at 3:30 pm Reply Reply

    I am in recovery – not from an eating disorder but other addictions – and one of the things I’ve learned is that you can’t THINK your way into ACTING right, but you CAN ACT your way into THINKING right. It’s the old “act as if” concept.
    If I could have gotten rid of my addictions by trying to THINK right I certainly would have. But I couldn’t. What I learned to do in recovery is to “act as if.” Eventually, if I do it long enough, I will find that my thoughts have changed and are much healthier than they were.
    Maybe this can help you. If you’re trying to get up every morning and change the way you think about your body, but find that you just can’t no matter how hard you try, turn it around. Act as if you’re OK w/ your body. That the thighs rubbing together don’t bother you. That you’re totally comfortable with the little muffin top over your jeans. You will find that your thoughts will follow your actions.

  6. bethany actually Apr 28 at 3:52 pm Reply Reply

    Amy, that was a great, heartfelt response.
    TasterSpoon, that was a fantastic comment. I especially liked this:
    “And as I’m getting older I also am more conscious that physical attractiveness is going to fade no matter what you do.”
    Yeah, I should have just said “Ditto” too. :-)

  7. ScholarLi Apr 28 at 5:30 pm Reply Reply

    “act as if” — Fantastic advice, kalisah. This is what has helped me be a fashion-forward, happy and becoming healthier plus sized woman (who recently dropped a pants size — WOOT!!!1!).
    In addition to doing something similar to this suggestion, I found myself becoming increasingly irritated with a few very close friends who could not make the decision to *be* *happy*. Once I saw how destructive their misery was, I began noticing how destructive mine was — and boring and predictable. (“Eat a french fry for god’s sake like a normal human being” is very true, Amy! For me it was, “Jesus, it’s just some rice, you don’t need to throw it up! Rice! It’s healthy!”) While I am by no means a model of plus-sizedom, almost every day I’m able to look in the mirror and say to myself “damn, you look fine!” Try that at 5’4″ and 200 lbs! It’s true!!
    And Kimmy gets love from me, too. Fitness is an excellent goal. To be fit, to be right, to be judged (by oneself) and approved (by oneself) — a beautiful goal mentally and physically.
    Good luck, K!

  8. Lori12309 Apr 28 at 6:36 pm Reply Reply

    I’m 47. I am a size 8, 10 or 12, depending on the manufacturer. I have no idea how much I weigh, but I know that my 14-year-old daughter is gaining on me in height.
    I am legally blind, but I wear contact lenses. Nothing to do with vanity–my nose is too small to support the gargantuan glasses I would need.
    I also have slightly crossed eyes, which bother me because I suck at parallel parking and my passport photo is weird.
    My worries about my body image left (“Bon voyage, Body Image!”) when I delivered my second child.
    I am an avid reader, though, and insanely interested in the world around me. I brush, floss, shampoo, shower and deodorize daily. According to most of the people who know me, I am a wonderful, gorgeous, fascinating woman.
    Good luck, honey. Listen to Amy.

  9. fashionismylove Apr 29 at 10:46 pm Reply Reply

    Although you may think that the Victoria’s Secret models look great, keep in mind how much plastic surgery they have had. Without those surgeries, they would be rail-thin without any curves.
    Good advice from Amy and the people who commented.

  10. Jonniker Apr 30 at 8:56 pm Reply Reply

    Oh man, Amy. I’ve read this repeatedly, and it made me love you even more than I thought possible.
    You have such astonishing self-awareness about this topic that I am almost speechless. I can’t believe you got through this, and I can’t believe your perspective is so harsh, and yet so true while talking about yourself (you rule, by the way).
    My mother-in-law is anorexic. Severely so. And she is, as you put it, the most self-absorbed person on the planet, for her body is the center of the universe. She is tedious and boring and difficult and unhappy. And we can’t make her happy and it kills us. So instead, we vacillate between feeling heartbroken for her and wanting to punch her in the head — punching her, of course, would be awfully dangerous, for we’d break her skull, as it’s so brittle and fragile. And besides, as much as we hate her, we love her.
    So thank you. This touched me in a different way than you intended, but it touched me all the same.

  11. Jonniker May 01 at 9:37 am Reply Reply

    God I have to comment again, because I’m petrified my words were misconstrued. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s amazing to hear someone who’s been through what you have describe it with such clarity and wisdom after the fact. And seeing what my mother-in-law puts herself (and, let’s face it, her family) through breaks my heart, and it’s broken ten-fold knowing how many OTHER people go through this every day without the happy ending that you have.
    I’m … I’m really happy for you, and very impressed. That’s really all I meant.

  12. Colleen May 02 at 1:08 pm Reply Reply

    thanks so much for such an honest answer…and the end where you mention some of those beginnings of warped food/body image.

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