on being thin
It’s not a new topic. Women receive a million different messages a day encouraging them to be thin. From billboards on the highway declaring “Let your new life begin! Call 1-800-Get-Thin!” to air-brushed images of models and stars in magazines to the fictional and real-life interactions we see between people in which thin women appear to be more admired and desired.
But I don’t want to talk about the negative effect all this has on young women’s self esteem or how it’s a symptom of a culture that wants to keep women subjugated (that is, not right now). I want to talk about what it’s actually like to be that thin: To have desired it and now to be it.
Though they never resulted in real freaky-skinniness before – you know, that kind where a girl is all collarbone – my series of eating disorders (and I tried ‘em all, anorexia, bulimia, compulsive eating, body dysmorphia) began when I was 17. You see, my doctor – keep in mind this was my first visit grown-up visit to a gynecologist instead of a pediatrician – told me I was 15 pounds overweight. 15 pounds!!! Cue completely disproportionate response! It was as if she had turned on a light switch in my brain: I immediately began trying to lose weight as if my life depended on it. For years, I counted the calories I ate and subtracted from them the number I burned on the stair master, always keeping the net at about 1,250. I ate almost no sugar except in fruits and vegetables. I ate no eggs, no meat, no fish, lots of carbs but literally zero fat. I went to bed thinking about my weight. I woke up doing the same. I thought it about all during class, adding up the numbers again and again to make sure I’d got it right.
Later in college I drank diuretic teas. I tried a few times to make myself throw up but just couldn’t stomach it (a-ha, a-ha). The teas did their job though, I got rid of food faster than I could absorb its nutrients. But my face also did that weird bulimic thing where it gets all fat while your arms and legs look like twigs. Plus my stomach swelled up. Not pretty.
I also ran three days a week and did weights and an aerobic class two days a week. That is, until finally the bones in my feet started to crack – stress fractures from not eating a full-enough diet to support my body through what I was putting it through.
I had to back off exercise a lot after that (well, technically after one more of those and a broken wrist; I am stubborn). It also helped that I fell in love and so felt desired. I worried less about it. Then I graduated, moved to a new place, and started everything all over. To be successful, I felt sure, I must be thin.
I finally read a book that really helped me – When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies by Jane R. Hirschman and Carol H. Munter – and have continued on a long path of healing and dealing with what you could call a slightly complicated relationship to food.
But when life throws a curve ball at me, and my world goes out of whack, my relationship to food goes out of whack with it. I recently suffered a sudden and major loss, and in response, I barely ate for months. I was at the time already taking a hiatus from exercise due to complications from a calcaneous break I suffered 2 years ago, and I had every intention of starting back up in December, but then disaster struck . I was unable to resume a routine until just a few days ago.
During that time I didn’t eat. And I didn’t exercise. I lost all my muscle tone. Then I lost some fat. It wasn’t like before, when I was hungry and I denied myself food. In this case I wasn’t hungry. Couldn’t see the point or the bother of food and didn’t take any pleasure in it. Food, you see, is not about reward or punishment. It is about staying alive.
But the results of this diet were the same as those which so many of us usually try – denying ourselves food even when we are hungry. Check out the diets of supermodels, often described in the magazines: These icons of a culture that valorizes thinness do not eat. Maybe they exercise aerobically to burn calories, but they do not build muscle. You can tell when you look at them that they are practically breakable.
(I see scary-thin women in Los Angeles all the time whom I want to pull over to the side of the walk and say, “You know, you have to eat to live. You are starving yourself. You are killing yourself.” But I don’t.)
I didn’t do it on purpose, but now that I am thin, I want you to know that I hate it. Being this thin is terrible. You out there – you who aspire to this ridiculous standard under which women are supposed to look like little girls who want to be fucked – should stop wanting to be this.
I am not looked at with admiration or desire. Rather people pity me. I have not sensed in any way that I am more attractive to anyone. I am not more confident and I most certainly do not feel sexy. Even my cutest outfits look crappy because they don’t fit anymore. I feel weak, like I’d have a hard time defending myself if attacked. Sometimes after not eating for a while, when I do eat, it upsets my stomach. Worst of all, when I look in the mirror, I don’t know who I’m seeing. I don’t know where I went. Trust me, it’s not cool.
And not eating enough makes me tired. I simply do not have the energy needed to enjoy my favorite things, like hiking, rollerblading, and hopping up to do physical exercises with my students in class. You see our bodies require calories – energy – for daily human functions like breathing, circulating blood, thinking, and moving, to occur healthily. With a too-low-calorie diet, all the calories are used up supporting your life. In other words, starving yourself is not an effective way to lose weight. It is effective suicide.
Though I am making more and more progress everyday, I am still struggling with this, with overcoming my grief enough to take care of myself by eating. I’m starting with more fruit and lots of Amy’s soups with extra veggies thrown in and topped up with cheese. I’m gluten-free, and if I don’t keep a loaf of gluten-free bread around I don’t get enough bulk to keep me full, so I’m trying to do better about keeping it around. I’m taking the dog for longer walks and doing yoga. I figure that’s about enough to expect of myself for now.
If you struggle with aspiring to an impossible standard of thinness, or if your complicated relationship to food sometimes make you eat more or less than you need, join me in this effort: Instead of punishing your bodies, nourish them. Give yourselves permission to live. Eat.