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002: In Shape
For over twenty years my best kept secret has been my eating disorder. The first time I binged and purged, I was eleven years old. In the beginning I felt exceptionally powerful to be able to control not just how I looked, but how I was loved too. Having discovered the secret to (what I believed at the time) eating anything without the consequence of gain, I thought I had found the recipe for beauty, desirability, love and acceptance. I had earned approval for constricting my body to behave in a very exact manner, but I was disappearing and it seemed that the only way I could be beautiful was in my disappearance.
From a very young age I had been painfully aware of my body. I was the tall, "chubby" girl with asthma, standing in the final row for class photos and cognizant of my own fragility, terrified of collapsing during playtime and being unable to breathe. Because I was not petite or slight or diminutive enough, my physicality became synonymous with "big" and I was an easy target for insensitive remarks, often made by elders. The class photo is a very exact memory because for the entirety of my childhood and adolescence I stood in the back row, almost always removed from most or all of the girls, and without reassurance there seemed to be truth in the cruelty. In those moments my notions of femininity were constructed around my physical proximity to it, from which I felt increasingly far removed. I stood out like a sore thumb in a world where the feminine ideal of perfect girlhood and womanhood verged on the disappearance of our physicality.
As my eating disorder took root, I believed that denying my body sustenance and care would grant me a morsel of acceptance, that it wasn't sufficient for me to accept myself or that it was even a necessity. The cycle of control and constriction became addictive, but so too was my fear that I could all too easily lose the key to beauty and thinness. The reinforcement and approval I received for the drastic amount of weight I'd lost served as a temporary high followed by an intense low. I was always afraid about when the food would take hold of me and I would lose the admiration I gained; it began to feel like no matter how much weight I lost, I wasn't ever going to be good enough and that my appearance was my only marker of my worth. In all the years that I've had an eating disorder, it wasn't until I had entered my thirties that I felt empowered to articulate my illness and permit it any legitimacy. Even then, I have felt a great deal of internalized shame when attempting to speak to those closest to me or to my therapist about it. The irony is that I've felt such shame within a society that is overt in its purporting of the ideal body and beauty, a society that directs there is much currency in our physicality.
I won't share more details about the workings of my eating disorder other than that I am recovering – it's important for me and for us. On the rare occasions that eating disorders are discussed or portrayed in the media, there is a tendency to glamorize the "how" of it in graphic detail and to isolate and contain it as an individualized problem instead of examining it as a systemic issue. The image of a beautiful and slender white woman regurgitating is portrayed through an almost pornographic lens. To examine the "why" of it creates the need to admit societal ills; it implicates those who have perpetuated myths of beauty and demands that they be held accountable. Siloing eating disorders to be nothing more than gratuitous shots of wealthy white women prostrating over toilets in some kind of atonement dilutes an illness into a project of vanity, instilling in us a very particular image of what an eating disorder looks like. As a bio-sociocultural disease, eating disorders can be caused by societal and environmental factors: media-driven thin body ideals, physical illnesses, and childhood teasing and bullying. Genetics is also a cause, but the normalization of thinness as the ideal and the stigma of acknowledging mental illness can make it extremely difficult to talk about eating disorders candidly. The lack of societal accountability masks eating disorders as a personal failure rather than a systemic one, a symptom of narcissism and not a reflection of a narcissistic society.
In the glamorization and perverse romanticism of eating disorders, another myth is created: that it is a by-product of boredom that exclusively afflicts wealthy, white, privileged women. Possibly the most popularly-cited example is Princess Diana, whose own eating disorder has long been manipulatively conveyed as an obsession with physicality and ignoring any of its psychology. In this way, eating disorders become nothing more than a desire to be thin, the cheat code for a weight-loss regimen, and are denied any critical interrogation as to what prompts one to hollow themselves out. In that way, no one but the individual is held accountable for what happens. It becomes a selfish, indulgent response fueled by one's vanity; no one delves deeper into how as a society, how family and friends and strangers contribute to this distorted perception of ourselves from the inside out. As with all stereotyping, there is great harm: by reducing eating disorders to the problem of privileged heterosexual white women and limiting its parameters to bulimia and anorexia nervosa, there is a total erasure of people of color, of differing class and gender and sexual idenity, the wide scope of this illness, and of those who may not appear to fall into the stereotype of what an eating disorder looks like.
The overuse of terminology the likes of diversity, inclusivity, and body positivity only signals the glaring lack of these principles that are still not reflected in any industry in any concrete way. Public figures and models who don't conform to conventional standards of beauty are so few and far between it feels like a distraction from culpability of any systemic issues, nothing more than an exception when it should be the rule. It is as if checking off a box as opposed to reexamining the system that people feel so beholden to, the controlling of mass perception of health, beauty, and wellness. Twenty years after my illness took hold very little has changed in terms of understanding all that a body can be and all the beauty it can possess. If anything, it feels like more toxic lexicon has been added to repertoire of measuring and judging a person's body and worth: we are trained to watch for and enviously desire bodies that "bounce back" from pregnancy, there are bootcamps for bride-to-be, and any hint of the slightest fluidity of a body summons disgust.
We're encouraged to talk about the beauty of our bodies and the beauty that comes from within it, but not the pain and alienation.. In the public forum, the demand is that bodies must be ebullient and never testimonies of struggle, of harmful internalization. Preachings of wellness and good health values rarely examine the importance of societal and communal support and the toxic effects of its absence. There is so much responsibility on the individual, yet we forget to look at how society also impacts the human body, from the environmental to the emotional. The collective cruelty exacted upon those who stray from conforming to the white supremacist patriarchal narratives of Western notions of beauty makes loving ourselves so impossible. A site of constant unwanted commentary and criticism, non-conforming bodies are treated as abject by a society informed by media, a disruption to order, and on these grounds are subjected to rejection.
I first began writing this several years ago and since then my relationship with myself, my illness and my recovery has grown and evolved.There are days when the very thought of ever recovering seems unimaginable in a world where there is so little body acceptance, despite the fact that what is upheld as the status quo is indeed an aberration. In those days, I don't fear losing control of my body, rather I'm afraid of losing whatever love I've cultivated for myself. But I am hopeful that if I can write to you today without any shame, that is the beginning of something – the groundwork for normalization, of communal unlearning and healing, the start of redefining beauty as indefinable.