Like Laura, I had an entirely different topic planned, but then, I had an interesting therapy session this week. I went in, excited and proud about the blog and applying to grad school. For once, I had good news to share. After all of the flailing was done, we did an exercise, where I had to answer a few questions and rate my self-esteem. Normally, when I do these exercises, I fall on the low end of the spectrum, and by low I mean practically non-existent. I rated myself average, which for me is a marked improvement.
She pointed out that from everything I said to her and how I answered the questions, she would say that my self-esteem should be, at the very least, above average. There were several factors playing into my decision – the number one being body image.
I recently had a conversation with a friend, where she was talking about wanting to lose weight. I pointed out that I was legitimately not allowed to go on a diet, and my nutritionist and I were working on “body acceptance.”
“I. hate. that. damn. phrase,” she texted me back. “I like my body! I like my body when it’s full of chocolate! But it’s always tired and run down.”
I told her I don’t like my body, which is the key difference. Just ask my nutritionist – every week, she tells me that my weight has remained stable, and every week, I glare at the scale. I cannot recall a time where I actually did like my body. When I was younger, I never really thought about it beyond being in constant competition over the years with my oldest friend as to which one of us was taller (she won, by the way.)
After that, there was the wonderful time in every child’s life, otherwise known as puberty, where I had the pleasure of inheriting my mother and grandmothers’ tendencies of being laid out for three to four days out of the month, in so much pain I could barely move. With that came hair in both mentionable and unmentionable places, and a body that pretty much skipped training bras and went straight to the women’s section in my local discount clothing store. I distinctly remember shopping for bras the summer before sixth grade and my mother slapping me in the arm because, “I’m not supposed to be doing this yet!” That was the first time I had a sense that there was something Not Normal about my body, but even then, weight was just a number, as were clothing sizes. Who cared what size I wore? Did it really make a difference?
I didn’t truly become aware about what a “normal” sized person was until the end of eighth grade, when a friend and I went shopping at a Junior’s clothing store and I could not fit into anything but a couple of oversize sweaters. I could barely get the largest size pants halfway up my thighs. That was around the time people started giving me diet tips – exercise more, eat more fruits and vegetables, count calories, try a diet program. Over the years, I tried them all. For every pound I would lose, I gained five more when I inevitably got frustrated with whatever plan I was on because I wasn’t losing weight fast enough. Eventually, at 26, I would be diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, aka PCOS, a hormonal disease in which one of the most common side effects is an inability to lose weight.
In our society, being overweight somehow means that you’re lazy. But tell the world at large that the reason you’re overweight is because you have eating and hormonal disorders, and most of the time, even your doctors will still insist that all you have to do is eat right and exercise. Like I haven’t already tried that.
Here are some not-so-fun facts, courtesy of eatingdisorderhope.com:
- 91% of women recently surveyed on a college campus attempted to control their weight through dieting. 22% dieted often or always.
- 95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years.
- 35% of normal dieters progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders.
- 25% of American men and 45% of American women are on a diet on any given day.
This is the message we are given by our society at-large – women, lose weight or you aren’t pretty enough. Men, work out or you aren’t strong enough. Lose weight, and your life will magically improve. You’ll find the love of your life! You’ll get your dream job! You’ll have better sex! As if being six sizes larger dictates that you can’t live a full and happy life. What society fails to mention is the prevalence of Body Dysmorphic Disorder among people who have lost large amounts of weight in short spans of time. Between 7% and 16% of plastic surgery patients meet diagnostic criteria for BDD (x). There’s even a term now for what happens when a person looks in the mirror and still sees themselves as overweight – “phantom fat.”
Part of my eating disorder that has always been most frustrating for me is the fact that, logically, I knew that bingeing wouldn’t make everything better, the same way I know that the way I look should have nothing to do with the way I see myself as a person. What does it matter if I can fit into a smaller size or a larger one? My weight is just a number. Sizes differ depending on store, brand, and sometimes even color. My weight does not define me.
The problem is, logic does not dictate the mind of someone with an eating disorder, even someone in recovery from one. I’ve mostly hit the point where, on the rare really good day, I can look in the mirror and say, “Damn, I look good.” Most other days, I have a strictly enforced “two outfit changes and you’re done” rule. I’m able to look in the mirror, think I look acceptable, and that’s good enough for me to get through the day without thinking too much about it. But some days, my entire closet ends up on my bed before I make it out the door in the morning, even though I know that the more outfits I try on, the more times I try to “fix” my hair or my makeup, the more upset I’m going to get. I constantly compare myself to other women – on the train, at work, when I’m with friends, with complete strangers on the street, and yes, even with the women who I was in treatment with.
Most people don’t realize that being in recovery from an eating disorder doesn’t mean that everything in your life is magically perfect, anymore than losing weight does. You don’t wake up one morning and have zero urges and love your body and never ever want to binge (or purge or restrict or over-exercise) ever again. I have urges to binge when I’m upset, when I’m angry or hungry or happy, or because it’s a Tuesday. Some days, the urges to binge are so strong that it’s harder not to give in than it would be just to go to the corner deli and eat my way through their stock of potato chips. I hate my body most in those moments, because I should be over this by now. I know better. Why am I not over this yet?
My therapist looked at me this week and said look at what you’ve accomplished, just in the past few weeks. Don’t you think that counts more than what size clothes you wear? The answer – logically – is yes. My brain isn’t quite there yet.