Body image has been a dominant topic recently on at least two blogs I love. First, there was The Big Fat Carnival at Alas, A Blog. And now, at Mind the Gap!, there is a series of posts to mark "Body Image Week." So I guess it is high time for me to talk about body image and eating disorders-- although I have been avoiding it. I have always felt ambivalent about identifying body image as a feminist issue, partly because there is often too much emphasis on this issue at the expense of other equally important issues, and because it sometimes sounds frivolous when there are people starving in the world. But there is no denying that distorted body image causes intense and debilitating personal suffering among huge swathes of our female population (as well as a growing number of male sufferers). I know because I myself spent years in the grip of that suffering.
Like so many women of my demographic, perhaps even the majority of women in my demographic, I am certainly familiar with the pain and self-torment of a distorted body image and a self-loathing preoccupation with my food intake and body weight. I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder nor have I engaged in any bulimic behaviors or any behaviors that jeopardized my physical health. But I suffered terribly.
Despite my personal experiences, body image and eating disorders have never resonated with me as feminist issues. These problems seemed to me very personal. I also did not link my problems primarily to the portrayal of women in fashion magazines or Hollywood movies, although I think Hollywood may have reinforced my obsession with a thin physique. To me, control of my weight and my diet was an extreme form of trying to achieve self-mastery and self-control during adolescence. In retrospect, however, I recognize that my "issues" manifested themselves in the manner they did because of societal standards that tend to emphasize a woman's looks more than other things she may have to contribute -- and of course, those standards are a feminist issue.
Like so many sufferers of anorexia and bulimia, I come from a very perfectionist family. My parents, despite all their good qualities, are very judgmental towards others who fail to meet their standards of "being together." It sounds terribly cold and awful, but my parents definitely tend to think less of people who have messy houses, or wear bad clothes, or use bad grammar, or have any apparent "dysfunction," such as divorce, addiction, or seeing a therapist. (I should note that my mother is a very kind person but somehow this judgmental attitude exists side by side with her compassion. I know I am not explaining it well, but just trust me on this.)
Part of our family's perfectionism manifested itself in my mother's physique. My mother always seemed to be the only mother who wasn't overweight, and in fact, she was and is very slender. She is also very fashionable. So I grew up constantly hearing effusive praise, mainly from other women but sometimes from men as well, regarding my mother's appearance and figure. I don't think my mother ever had unhealthy habits, but she definitely watched what she ate and she was always very active, taking up long distance running with great success during the late '70s. My father tended to put on weight, which he would joke about, but somehow I got the message that it was worse for a woman to be fat than for a man.
I was always thin child, but I was significantly bigger than my best friend in grade school who was just a teeny little mite. It didn't bother me when I was 7, 8, 9, 10 years old. It was only when I was about twelve years old that I became self-conscious about my weight, and excessively so. It was around that time that I started to garner a lot of compliments about my appearance, and of course, puberty was rearing its ugly head. My self-tormenting preoccupation with weight was at its worst probably between the ages of twelve and sixteen, peaking at around fourteen. I continued to have bouts of misery on this issue all the way through college, but the worst was over by the time I ended high school. I am not sure that I have a lot of insight as to what led me to the sorry state I was in during the worst years. Thinking about it during my commute this morning, I would probably list the following as the primary factors:
-- Perfectionism and a dreadful fear, mingled with guilt and shame, at being less than perfect.
-- A sense of being valued primarily for external and visible accomplishments rather than inherent worth.
-- An overly high premium placed on self-discipline and self-control.
-- A sense that my value was transient and could be lost at any moment. For example, I was elated when the school doctor informed me that I was 20 pounds lighter than the next lightest person in my 8th grade class -- but then I immediately started worrying that I might have gained weight since getting weighed at school and that the doctor's "compliment" might not apply any longer.
These are all personal and family issues that I think would have caused me unhappiness regardless of my sex. I think, however, that these issues manifested themselves in relation to food and eating because physical beauty is considered far more crucial for women than men. So I would also identify the following reinforcing factors for my quasi-eating disorder:
-- Too much emphasis by others on my mother's appearance and my appearance, leading me to feel that much of my status in the eyes of others was based on slenderness and looks. Again, I seemed to equate good looks with something a person could and should achieve by self-discipline.
-- The fact that every heroine on television or in the movies seemed to be rail thin. Again, for me, it wasn't so much about sex appeal, as the notion of equating self-discipline with slenderness.
-- Advertisements and articles in women's magazines that imply that perfection is achievable if you work hard enough, follow the right tips, or buy the right products.
Other factors that didn't help were:
-- A lack of understanding of puberty. I knew about menstruation and breast development (neither of which hit me until I was almost fifteen), but I didn't understand that becoming larger and softer and curvier throughout one's body were also normal parts of puberty. I expected to stay stick-thin into adulthood, except with breasts, so I interpreted hip development and other changes to my body as "getting fat."
-- A complete lack of understanding of proper nutrition. I don't think I really understood, at least in middle school, that a person actually does need to eat every day to be healthy. At twelve, I also felt guilty for eating ice cubes because I didn't undertand that water has no calories. I actually credit the nutrition portion of my high school biology class with helping me to develop healthier and happier attitudes.
I am happy to report that I don't struggle too much with body image anymore, and haven't since my mid-twenties. I think a desire to be healthy, a feminist mindset, and a better understanding of myself and my body have all helped me to overcome my previous negativity. I still care about my weight but not excessively so. In terms of my body, I value my health first, then my personal enjoyment of my body, and then aesthetics. I would still like to look attractive, but (a) I don't define "looking attractive" as wearing a "size zero" and (b) I no longer want to look attractive at the expense of my health or my happiness. I monitor my eating habits with Weight Watchers Online program, which I love. Weight Watchers allows you to eat whatever you want in moderation and it provides tools for assessing how much you can eat. When you are on the program, you find yourself gravitating towards -- and enjoying -- fruits, vegetables, and healthier foods because you are rewarded for that by being able to eat more, and then along the way, you just start to like those foods. In other words, the program provides knowledge and motivational tools for eating in a healthy but enjoyable way.
It has taken a lot of suffering and work over the course of many years to develop some perspective, and I occasionally still have days when I judge myself harshly, but on the whole, it is not an issue for me anymore.
Is this a feminist post or a personal post? I guess I would say it's both. For me, my lengthy bout with food and weight related unhappiness was a result of problems that I think I would have experienced regardless of whether I were a man or a woman. But it is no coincidence that women tend to suffer eating disorders at a far higher rate than men-- and, in my experience, many (if not most) young women in my demographic, suffer unhealthy and debilitating attitudes about food and body even if they aren't actually suffering a diagnosable disorder. It's a complicated topic but I have to believe that the undue emphasis on women's appearance in our society has to be a substantial contributing factor.