I’ve been an overweight human since I was placed on my very first scale. It’s been part of my identity, and to those who also have been overweight, likely part of yours too. I can recall middle school and high school being brutal emotionally and how I felt like I was leper amongst the flock. I was one of the girls who never was “asked out” publicly, and when I did begin having sex in my late teens, it was always hush-hush: the guys didn’t want their friends to know they were attracted to a “fat girl.” While I was always rewarded for my academic merits and “dazzling personality,” they felt completely empty under the shadow of my weight insecurities. It wasn’t so much my body that I hated intrinsically, but the body I was told I should hate by my family, peers, the media, and those boys I longingly cried for when I was all alone. I really felt debilitated by my “condition,” as it was all I’d ever known. I covered up, I rejected, I was socialized to hate and be ashamed of my reflection in the mirror.
In college, I took a sociology class and my mouth often went agape as I realized the behind-the-scenes fat-hate brainwashing we are all being pumped full of. I realized that my feelings about my body were a direct reflection of the culture I was living in and that they were only a cultural norm. I felt at peace on an intellectual level; I had realized that my body was not intrinsically bad, but rather stigmatized by an industry that made money by selling beauty paraphernalia to me. I read The Beauty Myth and held my head higher. Unfortunately, my epiphany did not change the social reality that I was occasionally stereotyped on sight, mocked, humiliated and generally shunned for my appearance. I want to tell you that I’m embellishing, but I’m not.
At 24, I was 5’4 and 210lbs. I was beginning to feel pain in my knees and back at the end of the day. I was looking at my beautiful life and my beautiful husband and realized that I needed to change my life, take control, and lose the weight. So I wrote in a food diary, joined a gym, and within 11 months I’d lost 60 lbs the “healthy way.” Fantastically, I have more energy, I don’t hurt when I walk all day, my blood pressure has gone from high to “athlete,” I sleep better and I’m more flexible. I feel in better control of my life, and I feel better about the personal goals I’ve met. Everything healed, right?
Unfortunately, when I lost the weight I did not lose my overweight identity. What I had been dealing with all along was a sort of body dysmorphia, where I obsessed over ideas about my body that weren’t true to the point that it impaired my life. I suffered severe anxiety and depression cyclically stemming from my phobias and traumas associated with my “fat” body. I didn’t really look at my vagina until I was 25; I was convinced that I was a disgrace. So when suddenly, like a decision everyone else had made without me, I got praised for my body, I felt completely bewildered. Yes, I was buying clothes in smaller sizes, and people were treating me with a new morbid respect, but I felt like the exact same person inside. The rapture I assumed would happen did not; to the contrary, I found myself lost in the mirror, trying to decipher these new adjectives for the same reflection.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. In fact, I think one of the most uniting thing women in my culture have is their conflicting relationships with their bodies. I’ve been taking mental notes and every single time I walk a patient to the scale at the beginning of her appointment, she emits some sort of audible reaction: either she justifies or rejects or, once in a while, cheers. Through their reactions, I came to reflect upon my own. I realized that the number on the scale did not correlate with reactions; these women all struggled with the unrealistic expectations of the beauty myth, no matter their appearance. It helped me better understand my own beauty myth, and better understand how to unravel it.
Here at Planned Parenthood, we care about your health, and we care about your heart! The debilitating effects of eating disorders and/or body dysmorphia can affect both your physical and emotional health, and is more common than you might think (from ANAD):
- Up to 3.7% of women suffer from anorexia nervosa (deliberately starving to lose weight) in their lifetime
- 4.2% of women have bulimia nervosa (deliberately vomiting to lose weight) in their lifetime
- 95% of those with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25
- 25% of college-aged women engage in binging and purging (over-eating and vomiting) as a weight-management technique
- 47% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine pictures
- 69% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape
- 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner
- 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat
- The body type portrayed in advertising as the ideal is possessed naturally by only 5% of American females.
Eating disorders can not only lead to major physical health problems including death, but emotional problems such as low self-esteem, social isolation, anxiety, and depression or even suicide.
I have been working on my own ideas about myself over the last 18 months, and am piecing together something completely new. I’m only recently seeing myself for how I look now, but strangely, only in photographs. I guess I’ll be duking it out with the mirror for a few more rounds.
To learn more about eating and/or body image disorders, check out:
- The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
- The National Eating Disorders Association
- International Eating Disorder Referral Organization