I remember it very vividly. I’m in fifth grade when I notice the way my belly sticks out. I can’t say why I see it now and never before, but I can’t un-see it. And I hate it. Round, plump. Childlike. Determined to make it go away but still blessedly unfamiliar with the language of dieting, I try to simply suck in my breath, tucking my little extra belly into itself. I find that it’s a delicate balance to suck in enough to look flat, but not so much you get short of breath. Sometimes I forget and I notice the roundness protruding when I glance down. It requires constant vigilance.
I’m twelve when I start my first diet.
I’m thirteen, trying on bathing suits with my mother. I come out of the dressing room and she says (sadly) “Yep, you have my thighs.”
At fourteen I lay in bed in tears, clawing at the circle of pudge around my belly, and vow not to eat for a week. The only thing that can make me hate myself more than I do in that moment is when I eat dinner a day and a half later.
Sixteen: I craft elaborate ‘zero net calorie’ diet and exercise plans with the help of a fun new weight loss app on my iPod Touch. I say, “I’m getting healthy,” instead of “I’m getting skinny.” I’m hungry all the time. I learn a lot of nutrition facts, like how many calories are in a stick of gum.
Nineteen: I’m at a friend’s graduation party. I can’t say no to the carrot cake. And I try, I really do, but it’s like an out of body experience – I actually watch myself accept the cake, say thank you, and attack it like a ravenous hamster with a tiny burrito. As soon as I regain control I’m in the bathroom retching over the toilet. It’s the first time I’ve done that.
So yeah, I wouldn’t say I have An Eating Disorder, specifically, but my eating has pretty much always been disordered.
My experience is not important because it’s unique (it’s really, really not) or even especially dramatic (it’s not). It’s important because it is the context in which I view my body and it’s very painful. It shapes the lens through which my image passes every time I look in the mirror, or see a photo of myself. It is the filter through which every compliment or criticism passes. It’s the residual guilt I feel when eating carrot cake, and the unshakable compulsion I have – to this day – to walk around my own house with my breath half held in for maximal tummy flatness.
I’ve basically accepted that the factors that influenced the way I grew into my body as a young girl are not going anywhere. The fashion and entertainment industry is going to continue insisting their army of size zero, 5’6”, light-skinned women are a reasonable and healthy representative sample from which to shape our collective global understanding of The Ideal Female; fat shaming will continue unabated from all quarters; fad dieting will continue to find easy prey in women whose very insecurity makes them most vulnerable to the destruction these diets invariably cause.
What I find difficult to swallow is when shame and pain about my body is triggered by those closest to me.
Coming home for a family reunion and hearing from twelve different smiling relatives that, “Sweetie, you look so thin!”
Mutual friends taking it upon themselves to tell my boyfriend that they’ve noticed how good I’m looking recently – always just a little too quick to add, “like, not that she didn’t look good before… just, well, like, you know, she’s lost a little weight or whatever.”
Having my lunch evaluated by every goddamn coworker who passes by the office kitchen as I’m eating – “wow, so healthy – good for you!” – their voices tinged with the kind of congratulatory admiration usually reserved for the recently sober.
I know that in many ways it probably seems logical that a woman with lots of image issues wants constant reassurance that she is achieving her aspirational body. And there is certainly a voice in my head that whoops gleefully every time I receive a weight loss related compliment. It is the same voice that still reminds me daily how disgusting my cellulite is and still suggests regularly that maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to just, you know, stop eating for a while.
I often spend a significant part of my day arguing with that voice, trying to convince it that no one actually takes note of the subtle roundness that grows and melts away in my face and hips as I fluctuate ten pounds here, five there. But I never sound very convincing, even to myself, and the instant a well-meaning uncle asks approvingly if I’ve been working out lately, the voice becomes so smug and self-satisfied that it doesn’t even have to say I told you so.
What I wish more people (and men, especially) understood is that for many, many women a compliment is not simply a compliment. It is an unneeded reminder that our appearance is under constant surveillance. It is too often a reinforcement that the constricting beauty norms we have spent so long trying to eschew for kitschy benchmarks like “health” and “self-love” are in fact the first – and maybe only – thing that anyone really notices anyway.
And underlying this is a much darker fear: that our adherence to a very narrowly defined ideal of beauty is the one thing that will be allowed to define us as women, as individuals, as people. That our accomplishments will never matter as much as the amount of space between our thighs, or a letter on the tag of our underwear.
I cannot begin to communicate the horrifying helplessness of this fear.
If you want to compliment the women you love (and compliment them you should) I would challenge you to ask yourself, what is it, really, that makes these women beautiful? What makes them unique? Is it her eyes – the bright flecks of gold right at the edge of the brown? The way that the lines at the edge of her mouth make it seem like she’s been smiling all her life? The warmth of her laugh? The strength of her convictions?
All I can say for damn sure is it’s not a number on a scale or a tag or a calorie log or a BMI index. These numbers are the cage we’ve been told to live in all our lives; we need not be reminded of its dimensions.