“I will never look perfect if I don’t get my eating under control.”
“I couldn’t control how much I ate. I’m ashamed.”
“If I can’t achieve perfection, I have failed.”
“If people don’t tell me I look good, I must look like shit.”
“Everyone must be talking about how gross I look, or at least thinking about it.”
“It feels like being attractive is all I have to offer people.”
“If I don’t throw this up, I’ll gain weight.”
“If I were skinny, everything would be okay.”
I wish I could report that these are quotes pulled from some compelling piece of fiction, or at least from a surveyed sample of actual women with eating disorders. Nameless women, far away, disconnected.
Instead, these thoughts were withdrawn directly from my personal bank of anxieties and distorted truths. The fact that I have the capacity to discern this distortion only contributes to the struggle. It culminates into an indescribable frustration of my ability to use logic and reason to know the truth, but my mind’s active decision to believe and act on the lies.
I feel silly. I feel weak. What kind of privileged, college-educated, 25-year-old woman is so consumed by how people view her that she resorts to self-harm for the trivial purpose of looking “hot”? That shouldn’t be who I am. That’s for the other girls. Girls with daddy issues. Girls easily fooled by Photoshop. Girls who have been mistreated, lied to, and abused. Girls who don’t have people in their lives to tell them they are so much more than a body to be looked at. But, somehow, it’s for me, too.
Whether I’m throwing up, or chastising myself for it, the common denominator is shame. Shame that my body is evidence I haven’t worked hard enough to achieve my goals. Shame that I’ve eaten too much. Shame that I exert so much energy on an imagined problem caused by too much food, when the world around me starves.
I realize that by blaming myself, I am contributing to the ignorance of a misinformed society only just beginning to recognize mental illness as a disease. But in its twisted way, my mind tends to take a page from the book of Steinbeck’s Cal Trask: “By whipping himself, he protected himself against whipping by someone else.” Essentially, I fear the judgment of others to the extent that I’d rather attract their pity.
I cannot recall the first time I intentionally threw up. Sometimes I find it hard to believe there ever was a time when purging after I felt too full did not seem to be an obvious solution. There are days when my preoccupation with thinness seems like a prison sentence. Stepping on the scale in the morning can be the determining factor of how I will feel for the rest of the day. I have ruined entire experiences for myself by fixating on how ideal the women around me look, convinced that I am the biggest one in the room and everyone is talking about it. I look back on certain moments, days, or events, including my own wedding, remembering them based on how heavy or thin I felt at the time. My wedding, the day that I publicly sealed the sacred covenant between my husband and myself, surrounded by my loved ones, is reduced to the memory of my post-college “fat phase” and how much better than me my bridesmaids looked. Three years later and looking at our wedding photos still causes an inordinate amount of self-inflicted shame.
Eating disorders almost never emerge unaccompanied and are usually the offspring of their good friends, depression and anxiety. I personally identify with an anxiety focused on control, or the lack of it. This desire for control has contributed to what I consider to be positive attributes about myself, such as my inclination toward healthy competition and my tendency to strive to be the best. For most of my life, I was able to achieve just that.
From as early as I can remember, I have consistently received praise and recognition from others, be it about how I looked, how I performed in school, how I played sports, or how I conducted myself overall. I was constantly hearing, “We’re proud of you.” But never once was I asked, “Are you proud of you?” I learned to value myself only as much as the next “atta girl” and approval from others became my definition of success. My focus on aiming for the best took an unhealthy turn toward accepting anything less as a failure. I internalized this belief by focusing on controlling the one thing that could most quickly be judged: my body.
If my anxiety and desire for acceptance ignited a need to control my circumstances, then negative body image and the media helped to target the most tangible circumstance of which I could be in control. Magazines, television, movies, and societal expectations have and continue to take their toll on my confidence and mental stability on any given day.
This isn’t surprising when the body type portrayed as ideal in advertising is possessed naturally by only 5% of American females. Even worse, women are learning to feel badly about themselves at a younger and younger age. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 40-60% of elementary school girls ages 6 through 12 express concerns about their weight or about becoming too fat. Studies also show that roughly one half of girls in 4th grade are on diets.
I don’t remember ever not feeling self conscious, or at least very aware, about the way that I look. I do remember one of the first times my self-awareness began flirting with shame. I could not have been more than 8 or 9 years old and my mom, brother, and I were spending the day at the local community pool while Dad worked. In my family, summertime meant practically living at the pool or the beach. This also meant practically living in a bathing suit. I had been slightly chubby as a child, a trait my mother lovingly referred to as baby fat. I’m not sure what prompted me to finally realize that I wasn’t as thin as all of the other little girls at the pool that day, but I explicitly remember getting out of the pool and carefully wrapping my towel around my waist to hide the stomach rolls that would appear when I sat down. My mom noticed me fussing with my towel and when I explained why, she reassuringly asserted, “Nicole, every person in the world has rolls when they sit down, even the skinniest ones.” But it was too late for me to un-know what I had just realized. The glass had shattered. That was the year that I began to consciously suck my stomach in at all times, a habit that has since become unconscious and that I continue to practice to this day.
Near the end of elementary school and throughout middle school, my baby fat gradually melted away. Based solely on the shameless comments from those around me, I learned that I was evolving into what society considered a positive standard of attractiveness. While uncomfortable for me to discuss, the subject of my own appearance is unavoidable when trying to capture that which has made me who I am today. I became accustomed to uninvited compliments on how I looked, be they from classmates, relatives, or family friends. Not that I was complaining. What teenage girl would object to being told she looked nice? Oh, the overwhelming satisfaction I’d feel when Mom would proudly exclaim, “People at work saw your pictures and just could not believe how beautiful you are!” or when a friend told me that, according to her older brother, “Wow, Nicole got hot!” I did not entirely believe what I was being told, but did allow their words to give me a certain level of confidence. The positive opinions I received became a rigid standard, and the idea of breaking the illusion felt paralyzing. I started to look to other images that reportedly met the standard to which I was assigned, and considered myself a failure for being anything less than perfect.
I was an active extracurricular participant in high school and in my junior year I played a courtesan in our school’s performance of the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. To my dismay, the role involved a belly-baring costume, a concept that I dreaded lest others discover my so-called “attractiveness” was nothing more than an illusion comprised of sucking in my stomach and wearing cleverly selected outfits. I employed my best “sucking in” skills and hoped that the audience’s distance from the stage would deceive them into believing I possessed the proper form of a young teenage girl (my definition of proper being whatever I gathered from Seventeen Magazine). After the show, teachers and classmates alike showered me with compliments; not for my singing, dancing, or acting abilities, however, but for how well I pulled off my I Dream of Jeannie-inspired costume. Just the further evidence I needed to prove that of everything I have to offer as a person, maintaining my appearance will always be the most impressive.
I have only recently begun to learn the potential harm of seemingly innocent comments like, “You look so skinny!” or, “Have you lost weight?” We so often turn to appearance-based conversation by default, further enforcing the subconscious notion that girls and women are something to be looked at above all else. Not only do these looks-based compliments imply that one’s previous weight or shape was less acceptable, especially if weight loss was unintended and maybe even the result of an illness, but could also serve to enable someone’s potentially dangerous weight loss methods. The blog of non-profit organization Beauty Redefined puts it best:
So often, those looks-based compliments just perpetuate the belief that looks are most important in your life. Once you’re riding the high of all those compliments, you have to continuously work harder to impress people in your life to give you more compliments. If they stop complimenting you, you start to feel like you just need to work a little bit harder to earn their praise.
If nothing else, these uninvited comments on appearance can be insulting. Nothing enrages me more than when my husband introduces me to someone and the first words out of his mouth are, “Wow! How’d you pull that, John?” or “What are you doing with this guy?” Aside from the fact that this attempted jest is a blatant insult to my husband, what was intended as a flattering remark implies that I am a thing to be obtained and John won the prize. It implies that based on my appearance, it comes as a surprise that I am not married to an Abercrombie model, because what woman who looks a certain acceptable way has the depth to choose an intelligent, funny, sensitive man who treats her well, when there are so many doctors, lawyers, and professional athletes from which to choose?
I realize that in most cases nothing more is intended by these comments than a silly complimentary joke. A few years ago, I would have accepted these compliments as praise and felt a familiar swell of pride at my achievement. But it is time for me, for us, to refocus our attention and change the conversation. A small looks-based comment here, a casual joke there, may seem harmless (and for many people, may just be), but has the power to compound over a lifetime into an obsession with an unattainable standard and a self-esteem based entirely on acceptance.
I am ready to take my life back. I am grateful to have a husband whom, without judgment, is working hard to learn how he should approach my illness rather than being a catalyst for it. He knows that on the days when I feel bogged down by an unceasing influx of whispers telling me I am not good enough, that what I need to hear is, “You are smart and strong,” rather than, “You are beautiful.” Because of his tough love, I have finally begun seeking the help of a counselor.
For the first time, there is a light at the end of this dark and painful tunnel. There are good days and there are bad. There are weeks or months when I feel strong, not at all compelled to resort to self-harm as a means of validating my value. I know that I will never be cured, that it will take years of practice before my conscious battle against shame and lies becomes a habit. But slowly, I am learning to no longer be resentful at who I have become. I am polishing the silver lining to my sometimes-stormy cloud, appreciating that I can use what I am going through to help others and to raise awareness. Most importantly, I am grateful that my path to healing will enable me to one day raise strong, confident children who will not look to me, to others, or to the mirror to find acceptance.
I am funny. I am smart. I am creative, and strong, and sometimes a pain in the ass. I am sarcastic and impatient. I am honest. I am generous. I am compassionate. I am Nicole.
Most of all, I am a whole lot more than “hot”.