Wednesday, September 10, 2008


"I fell for the American dream, female version, hook, line, and sinker. I, as many young women do, honest-to-god believed that once I Just Lost a Few Pounds, somehow I would suddenly be a New You, I would have Ken-doll men chasing my thin legs down with bouquets of flowers on the street, I would become rich and famous and glamorous and lose my freckles and become blond and five foot ten. I would wear cool quasi-intellectual glasses and a man's oxford shirt in a sunny New York flat and sip coffee and say Mmmm and fold my paper neatly and He would come up behind me and look at me with an adoring gaze. I would swing sexily into my red coupe, and the wind would blow through my hair as I drove into some great big city, stepping off the elevator and striding (with a feminine but authoritative step) into my office where everyone would be impressed with my every feminine but authoritative word. In the evenings I would go home and make magical gourmet meals and eat three bites, and He would look at me in the candlelight and I would be a superwoman 1980s goddess, yes indeed. As soon as I left my hometown and lost a few pounds."

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a book at my local used bookstore. I didn't know I was looking for it, but it pulled me in so thoroughly, I finished it in a weekend. It was called Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher. Partly it hooked me in a train wreck kind of way: I couldn't look away from its horror. But also, if I'm honest with myself, I identified with a lot of what Hornbacher said. I've never had an eating disorder, but I think most women in North America have disordered eating and fucked-up body images. Hornbacher is an extreme example, but she makes it pretty clear that, as a culture, we're pretty obsessed with thin.

When I was at the peak of my illness and anxiety, I didn't eat much. At one point I was down to only a very few 'safe' foods that I could eat - foods that wouldn't make me sick. I could only eat in strictly prescribed situations and times, mostly at home. Although I wasn't motivated by weight loss, I did lose weight. I got angry when people congratulated my weight loss, because, intellectually, it wasn't something to congratulate -- I was sick. But I secretly enjoyed being thin. I enjoyed that when I laid on my side, I couldn't let my knees touch each other because they were so bony. I enjoyed my jutting hip bones. And I remember times when hunger pangs meant power, they were good - they meant I had nothing in my stomach to piss out my ass, that I would be safe for a little longer. Hornbacher also enjoyed the emergence of her skeleton and the power that she wrought over her body, the power she felt in hunger.

* * *

"And when you decide you are tired of being alone with your sickness, you go out seeking women friends, people who you believe can show you by example how to eat, how to live -- and you find that by and large most women are obsessed with their weight.

It's a little discouraging."

* * *

"Now that I think of it, most of the women I worked with talked about diet and weight."

* * *

The cafeteria at my work offers several varieties of yogurt for sale. However, they are ALL zero-percent fat, the kind with ingredient lists the size of the container, all those ingredients to make up for the fat. I prefer my yogurt with more fat and fewer ingredients.

* * *

"Women use their obsession with weight and food as a point of connection with one another, a commonality even between strangers. Instead of talking about why we use food and weight control as a means of handling emotional stress, we talk ad nauseum about the fact that we don't like our bodies. When you decide not to do that, you begin to notice how constant that talk is."

* * *

I work in a woman-dominated field. Most of the women I work with are either dieting or actively managing their weight. Most of the time I don't participate, but occasionally I'm drawn into discussions. And several times various women have indicated an assumption that I must want to lose weight, that I'm struggling. Often the assumptions remain unspoken but they hang in the air, in a moment of silence, or a pointed question about my wedding photo - when did you get married? (When were you last thin?)

Yes, I'd like to lose some weight, I'd like for my body to become familiar again. But my self-worth isn't tied up in it. And I resent that others assume it is. And I'm just as willing to just accept my new(ish) shape as I am to try to change it. Frankly, diets scare me.

* * *

"When a study was done on a group of young, healthy men whose daily caloric intake was cut to just under a thousand calories, they began to: stash food surreptitiously, talk about food constantly, chew gum and mints perpetually, read recipes for dishes they couldn't make. As the study went on, they were frequently caught digging through garbage cans, sneaking into the hospital kitchen to binge. They began to purge, and -- interestingly enough -- they became incredibly worried about their weight, the shape of their bodies, and began to diet. They worried about getting dirty, got disgusted with their own biological functions, and didn't want to touch food anymore."

* * *

In university I once wrote a paper for Women's Studies comparing eating disorders and plastic surgery with female circumcision in other cultures. I got a lousy grade but I still stand by the comparison. A woman I know recently asked me if I noticed a difference in her skin. I looked closely, but couldn't really see any difference, or at least not one I felt comfortable noting. She confessed that she'd gotten a chemical peel and it really, really hurt, but she couldn't see a difference. And if there wasn't any difference, she definitely wouldn't do it again because it was so painful.

I reacted all wrong. I felt so badly for her, for how awful it must feel to hate your body so much that you would choose to corrode your face just to reduce your pores and look younger. But I didn't convey my compassion very well... instead I ranted about how that is self mutilation, how nobody seems to realize how violent plastic surgery is. How you don't solve body image problems by changing your body, how that just pulls you in further, pulls you into more and more extreme acts against your body.

I think the only thing she learned from the conversation was to never again tell me about any treatments she gets. About a week later, I did notice her skin seemed smoother, and again a few weeks after that. I guess it's working for her.

* * *

"Starving is the feminine thing to do these days, the way swooning was in Victorian times. In the 1920s, women smoked with long cigarette holders and flashed their toothpick legs. In the 1950s, women blushed and said tee-hee. In the 1960s, women swayed, eyes closed, with a silly smile on their faces. My generation and the last one feign disinterest in food. We are "too busy to eat, "too stressed" to eat. Not eating, in some ways, signifies that you have a life so full, that your busy-ness is so important, that food would be an imposition on your precious time. We claim a loss of appetite, a most-sacred aphysicality, superwomen who have conquered the feminine realm of the mind. And yet, this maxim is hardly new. A lady will eat like a bird. A lady will look like a bird, fragile boned and powerful when in flight, lifting weightless into the air."

* * *

In high school, one of my best friends was anorexic. She grew fur over her cheeks and arms while the hair on her head fell out in clumps and left bald patches. Her eyes were sunken and hungry-looking; she watched us eat like some kind of predator but I mostly only saw her eat apples. She ate them down to nothing but seeds and a stem.

I remember a girl in my chemistry class commenting that she wished she could be as thin as my friend. My telling her how sick my friend actually was didn't seem to revise her opinion. And, much as I never admitted it, there was a small part of me that, separate from worrying her heart would just quit, kind of admired how good her Guess jeans looked on her skinny arse.

* * *

"This is one of the terrible, banal truths of eating disorders: when a woman is thin in this culture, she proves her worth, in a way that no great accomplishment, no stellar career, nothing at all can match. We believe she has done what centuries of a collective unconscious insist that no woman can do -- control herself. A woman who can control herself is almost as good as a man. A thin woman can Have It All."

* All italicized text is from Wasted.


flutter said...

You are brave and beautiful.

Mad said...

I literally have to dash to the day care and so can't give this post the attention it merits. You are right. I also find that the weight obsession rears itself in negative ways around the blogosphere. I promised myself that I would check all that baggage at the door of my blog b/c of the way it can insidiously take over and dictate its own agenda.

I like to think I have a not-bad attitude to weight and my own body now--deep down, I'm not sure how right I am. What I do know is that I was a teenage bulimic and that the self-imposed issues of control and self-hatred are not easy to slough off. I worked hard to wrestle them into submission and I'll be damned if I find myself in that trap again.

Thank you, oh Thinky one, for a great post.

cinnamon gurl said...

Mad, that's one of her main themes actually, that girls think they can dabble in an eating disorder, but the reality is that you never really escape its legacy. That we have a culture that fetishizes the anorexic body - I caught sight of the new 90210 and couldn't help but notice that several of the girls look anorexic... In the original series, the girls were all slim, but I don't remember them looking emaciated (except for Tori Spelling). I definitely think it's getting worse for girls.

Anonymous said...

Takes my breath away. At conservatory (college for the arts) we thought not eating was "arty"; dancers would wear tight plastic belts as a constant reminder/binder.
"OMIGOD, you lost weight! You look fabulous". Why don't women support intellectual pursuits with the same fevered pitch?
I love your writing.

(Your) Anon

Heather in the 'shwa said...

Had to say how much I saw myself in this - i too had a best friend who was anorexic and when i visited her at Homewood i was skinnier than most of her friends on the disorder wing. I dismissed any tendencies as wanting to be fit (why i ran in 40 degree heat) and healthy.

Now with a soft and way more flubbery postpartum body (and post comfy-bum) my self esteem feels lower than it was then. I've always had poor body image and it's always effected my self image. This despite a husband who reminds me I'm beautiful every day and the wonderful little reason I have stretch marks, and a still pregnant-looking belly. It's up to me to fix it - both to lose weight (I'd be out of the healthy range for sure now and I really do miss being fit and having the energy I lack when I'm heavier) and to fix myself mentally. I do know, however the latter is much harder. I'll definitely be getting that book from the 'shwa library, thanks for the recommendation.

cinnamon gurl said...

Heather, just a little reality check: your amazing little guy is only a few weeks old. Your lack of energy probably has more to do with recovering from birth, feeding him, and sleep deprivation.

And oh, the rhetoric of health and weight. Personally I think health has nothing to do with weight and everything to do with lifestyle. It's correlated but not causative. I read recently that in fact "overweight" people consume about the same calories as slim people. Another book to check out is Fat!So?.

Janet said...

Amazing post. The societal obsession with looks and weight scares the crap out of me. Not for myself, I have never travelled down the eating disorder road. Although I was accused of having an eating disorder in high school by someone whose kids I babysat, not because of any behaviour I exhibited, but just because I was just a very thin teenager. That was weird.

Anyway, the reason it preys so heavily on my mind is because I have two daughters. And one of my daughers said to me the other day, as she was checking out how her new t-shirt fit in the mirror:
Why does this make me look wide?

She is only seven. My heart split right along the fault lines. Where the fuck did that come from?

Aliki2006 said...

This was amazing and hard for me to read. My sister was anorexic, and your writing brought it all rushing back to me--those dark and terribly frightening days, as I saw them through my own adolescent eyes, and as I tried to seem them through my dear sister's eyes.

Mommy C said...

I have written a note at the bottom of my post, explaining my position a little better, which I do not really think is a counterpoint. I also left you a comment there. But, I'll write a bit here, too. When we were in HS we weren't the Valley girls and we weren't the freaky goths. We were the norm, and three of our friends, at least, had eating disorders. That's heartbreaking. That means that there is definite message being sold to teen girls that they must be thin, and that they are buying it. Don't even get me started on the message of promiscuity that groups like "The Pussycat Dolls" are sending out.

When I complained about the fat girls in my teen hip hop class, it wasn't their body types that disgusted me, it was their lack of fitness. Allowing inertia to erode your body (and in it's prime, at that) is just as dangerous as having an eating disorder. If a girl is 60 lbs over weight when she is 15 (I see it everyday) how heavy is she going to be when she's 40? There's a heart attck waiting to happen.

Let me say that I am very proud of the girls in my class for taking charge of their bodies in a positive and healthy way. I commend them.

Does anyone remember the Nike "If you let me play..." commercials. Young girls would say things like, "If you let me play sports I will be less likely to have an eating disorder, or be abused by a spouse," and on and on. What happened to those commercials? It's not enough to say eat or don't eat. Care about being thin, or don't. We have to put down the Pizza Pops, or laxatives and lace up our runners. There is an activity out there for even the most anti-sports person in the world. And, isn't it so much easier to love a healthy body, no matter what shape it takes on? Activity is empowering, and that is what young girls need.

And, no I am not talking about becoming a roid ripping overtanned, shemail, by any means. Just a healthy active person. It is proven that daily exercise is also organically healthy for your emotional being.

Anorexia is a horrible disease, with virtually no effective cures. However, laziness only takes a kick in the ass. If a parent of an anorexic girl could cure her by sticking a leash in her hand and telling her to go for a walk, that parent would do it in a heartbeat. Todays teens will be dying off by the thousands in the next 30-40 years, and there parents could have done something to prevent it, right now. That, to me, is depressing.

cinnamon gurl said...

Mommy C, I respectfully disagree. I think the issue of obesity is a little more complex than just laziness. In fact, I know more lazy thin people than lazy fat people, as far as physical activity goes. I think that's just part of the fallacy, that fat=lazy, fat=immoral, fat=bad and thin=healthy, thin=achievement. Wellness isn't just about physical activity, it's about diet and stress and education and income (good, fresh food is expensive and requires time to prepare). Certainly parents play an important role in teaching a healthy lifestyle to their children, but education is key and many parents don't have the time, inclination or access to get that education. Along with "You must be thin" are messages of "you must be busy," "you must achieve," "you must go as fast as you can," and those messages do not support a healthy lifestyle either. We're inundated with convenience foods that have no nutritional value and leave the body hungry for nutrition. Our time is squeezed into ever tighter increments. It takes tremendous critical thinking and energy to overcome those pressures. And I think THIN is being sold to all women, not just teens, and it's not just from the media. It's passed down through the generations.

Also on the subject of laziness -- many times depression and self-hatred look a heck of a lot like laziness from the outside. Being a fat teenage girl sucks (I speak from experience) and pulls you into a vicious circle of self-hatred that is nearly impossible to escape.

Mad said...

It seems to me that obesity and anorexia can and often do have a lot in common in our society. They are both eating disorders that stem from a perceived lack of control over the circumstances that govern a person's life. (Notice that I say anorexia and obesity here and not fat and thin. I do think that some people eat themselves into a sense of false control in the same way that some people starve themselves.)

The problem with both disorders (and I'll add bulemia here too) is that they begin to mess with your brain chemicals and blood sugars in such a way that there is no easy way out. That's why they are diseases and not simply life choices.

cinnamon gurl said...

Mad, I just want you to know I'm on a bit of a mission to take back the word fat, make it less loaded and poisonous, in place of the word overweight (over being relative). The book I recommended in my comment above (Fat!So?) makes the point that fat cells themselves have never been proven to cause health problems; rather it's the same factors that lead to fat that cause health problems (poor diet, lack of exercise).

I would certainly include overeating as an eating disorder, but I wouldn't want to conflate obesity (the health problems associated with being fat) with it. I've never quite been sold on the psychobabble that assumes all fat people overeat.

Mad said...

I also don't assume for a moment that all fat people over-eat. Sorry if that's what my comment implied. I think our metabolisms set an ideal weight for us and if we eat well and exercise, that is the weight we will be--small or large or even excessively large.

But when the media, dietitians, what-have-yous talk about "the obesity epidemic" they are talking about lifestyle and societal issues that have led/are leading people to conduct their lives in such a way as to make them more than simply overweight. To my mind, a lot of what's going on at the level of the individual is a disorder tied to issues of control similar to the issues that spark the disorders of anorexia and bulimia.

Now, by all means, I do not mean to imply that all cases of societal obesity (I'll use that term to refer to people whose weight issues are not tied to their naturally regulating metabolism) are over-eaters with a disorder. I do think that such disorders are far more prevalent than most people are willing to admit. And why aren't people willing to admit it? Because if a girl is anorexic she will be labeled as having a disorder and will be encouraged to seek treatment. If a person is a chronic, compulsive overeater, she will, 9 times out of 10, be called fat and lazy. And that is a sad situation that silences people and reinforces compulsive behaviour.

cinnamon gurl said...

Thanks, Mad. I understand your point better now and wholeheartedly agree.