Three years ago, I was fifteen pounds lighter than I am now. I was also considerably fatter back then.
Allow me to explain.
“Fat” is your mindset when you struggle with body image. It has everything to do with where your thoughts are focused and very little to do with quantitative reality. “Fat” is constant obsession— looking in the mirror, examining your stomach, thighs, or whatever you have deemed a “problem area.” It’s being excessively aware of the feeling of the waistband of your pants right below the softer skin of your navel. It’s being terrified of Thanksgiving and other holidays involving large quantities of food—leading you to dread celebrations meant for moments of family and friend bonding. “Fat” is often linked to body dysmorphia, disordered eating, and a general loss of perspective in what the human body is actually meant to look like. “Fat” evolves into an obsessive, emotion-numbing, brain-washing, life-altering state of being if one isn’t careful.
This is not intended to be an article about how pervasive disordered eating is— though if you weren’t already aware, here’s a little review of the statistics. Sixty percent of college-aged women suffer from some form of disordered eating, and men are beginning to be diagnosed at progressively higher levels. Anorexia is the 3rd most common chronic illness among adolescents. And, perhaps most eye-opening, in a recent study of 18-25 year-old women, over half of those surveyed would prefer to be run over by a truck than be fat and two-thirds would rather be mean or stupid.
But, as I said before, that’s not what this article is about. I want to talk about where we go from here. I want to talk about the misconceptions about eating disorders, what it can feel like to have one, and some of the empowering insights that can lead to recovery. This is a rallying call to those out there who are personally affected by that voice in the back of your head. These thoughts are not you. You are too beautiful to let these thoughts become you. To let missed gym time make you feel guilty for choosing to see friends instead. To be distracted from studying for an orgo test because of the two cookies you ate with lunch.
This is for all people who struggle with this issue—not just women, not just white women or women in sororities, but people of all races, gender identities, socioeconomic statuses, shapes and sizes. I am writing this for you. This disease is confusing, unrelenting, and so closely tied to one’s sense of identity. I hope to convince you that, if you choose to trust yourself and the recovery process, a different world is possible.
To begin, I want to address some stereotypes. Disordered eating is not some superficial struggle, but a deeply internal battle. It’s a coping mechanism—not unlike alcohol, drugs, and other addictive behaviors— that, in reality, usually has very little to do with food. For me, it resulted from dealing with the pressure to live up to the conflicting expectations placed on me, in more areas than just appearance. It was my way of communicating: I don't know what you want me to be, so I'm just going to make myself as small as possible so there are no parts of me left for you to pick apart.
Disordered eating is not a choice one makes—it is a mindset that takes over. I urge you all to read "Canary in the Coalmine," an anonymous submission to Develle Dish, to glean a better understanding of what it can feel like to suffer from this disease. One of the things this creative piece best conveys is how disordered eating can often be an attempt to exert control over something we have direct access to— what we put in, expel from, and do with our bodies— as a way of tricking ourselves into believing we can have the same form of control over all aspects of our lives.
It’s not always about attention, either. My own disorder was almost the opposite. It was more of an attempt to do all that I could to just not have attention drawn to my body at all, because I felt as though the only kind of attention my body could bring was negative. Courtney E. Martin, who spoke this past Monday for Celebrate Our Bodies Week explains in her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters how women are often brought to view their bodies as “a vital commodity that might betray you at any moment; a zit might erupt overnight, a tampon might leak, a flaw might be revealed.” We are led to believe that our bodies are the source of our struggle, rather than the outside forces telling us they aren’t good enough. We reject our own flesh before rejecting this backwards socialization.
This is where Women’s Studies and feminism were vital in helping me to overcome disordered eating, an approach Courtney Martin encourages, as well. Gloria Steinem explains in her book Revolution From Within, “[H]ierarchies try to convince us that all power and wellbeing come from the outside, that our self esteem depends on obedience and measuring up to their requirements.” In this situation, that requirement is being certain weight. Steinem urges us to see that true self esteem actually results when we believe our own bodies have “a center of power and wisdom within” and we recognize that we are the greatest assigners of our own value.
For the longest time I tried to convince myself “I am not my body, I am not my body” as a way of overcoming anorexia and over-exercising. When I finally realized that, in doing so, I was still giving my body over to an ideology that was causing this body dysmorphia and subsequent harm, I understood why I’d never been able to fully accept the phrase in the first place. To be free, I need to claim my body back from “them” (culture, media, and other institutions trying to take ownership of my body). I needed to recognize the power this corporeal vessel held and take it back for myself.
I am my body. I am not their body.
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It is only through our bodies we get to experience life. By separating myself from my body, I was diminishing my experiences, becoming numb to the most direct way of embracing life (touch, taste, and general embodiment). I am the only person in the world who will ever experience first hand pleasure from my own eye slits and through the touch receptors on my fingertips. My body is for me. Think of what it does for me. It deserves to be cherished as a gift, not rejected as an encumbrance.
A switch happened when I realized my “fat” frame of mind was just making me feel like I was living one day waiting for the next, waiting for when I would be skinny enough for everything to be perfect. And let's be honest, perfect is pretty unfulfilling. It leaves no room for growing, making mistakes, or simply being. The time our life begins is not when we become skinny enough, perfect enough. It begins right now.
Cara Peterson is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Thursday. Follow her tumblr http://thetwenty-something.tumblr.com. She was also the Co-planner of Celebrate Our Bodies Week (Feb 16-20).