This topic came up in a chat today, and I realized that I had this huge rock of frustration inside me about body image (not due to anything anyone in dt said in chat…just a reminder). So…if you’re not much for rants, you may not enjoy this one. Sorry folks.
Let’s get a few things straight at the beginning. I am not a weight loss fanatic. In fact, I have never, not once, been on a diet for the purpose of weight loss. Though female (and how discouraging to have to put that ‘though’ in there), I do not even know my dress size, much less care. A life-long tomboy, I think I might have emerged from the birth canal wearing Levis and a backwards baseball cap.
As a gay woman (if you didn’t already figure that one out), my emotional response to bumper stickers that declare "No fat chicks" is a sense of gratitude that my straight sisters have such easily spotted a%#$ detectors. If fact, if given a choice between being a little underweight, and a little overweight, I’d go with over every time. I’m built on a small scale, a little shortish and a frame small enough that children’s hats and sunglasses fit me better than the adult versions. I like to feel a bit more solid, so some weight is helpful. Additionally, the smaller you are, the more likely people are to try to dominate your physical space, a subtle psychological power game, but one I’m sensitive to.
Not quite the picture of your typical Anorexic, right? Well, I’m not anorexic (those of you who spotted the oxymoron in the title probably already know this.) But I was diagnosed as such by a mental health professional, and believed it to be true until I got a good look at the DSM-IV (the ‘bible’ of mental health disorders) entry on the condition, which stipulates as criteria for diagnosis an intense fear of gaining weight and becoming fat, and a refusal (not an inability) to maintain a healthy body weight.
What I really am is a depressive. One of the quantifiable symptoms of depression is appetite disfunction (as many of us know). It can go either way, leading to over- or under-eating. In my case, most frequently undereating. I’ll borrow from a family friend who explained what this feels like far more eloquently than I am able to: imagine you’ve just eaten an enormous Thanksgiving dinner. I mean absolutely huge, where you ate far more than you should have and currently feel so full that it’s physically disturbing. Now imagine someone sits you down in front of another Thanksgiving dinner and insists that you eat it. I woke up feeling that way every day. It took an enormous amount of effort for me to get through consuming half of a roasted red pepper. Eating was an act of willpower and determination, not a pleasure. I don’t know if this is the experience of anorexics or not, as I’ve never had the opportunity to ask the question from someone who is correctly diagnosed as such.
I hope, after all this exposition, you can understand my reaction when I returned to my home town after the first major depressive episode. Before leaving, I was about twenty pounds overweight, if my doctor is correct about what is a good weight for me. This was a direct product of my lifestyle; working full time and going to school full time, it was rare for me to see my home in daylight. Except for one day off a week, all of my food was what could be delivered to me at my job: pizza and chinese food. I didn’t look fabulous, as you can imagine. It didn’t bother me overmuch, I viewed it as what it was: a temporary result of a temporary lifestyle. Or, the necessary sacrifice to get my degree with a minimum of debt.
Thing is, if I looked bad before leaving, I looked terrible when I got back. I had lost sixty pounds in four months, leaving me forty pounds under weight. Malnutrition had jaundiced my skin and taken the luster from my hair. While not quite skeletal (I think) I was damn close.
And do you know what? Every single one of my female coworkers told me how wonderful I looked! The first time this happened, I was shocked speechless, literally. I didn’t thank her for the compliment, or whatever is supposed to be the correct response to this statement. I stared open-mouthed until my coworker began to beg me to share my weight loss secret with her. I had been dreading this question (although I imagined it being ‘My god! You look horrible! What happened to you?’) since the moment I had decided to return home. I was ashamed of my depression, and didn’t particularly look forward to sharing.
I stuttered through a prevarication. "I, uh, was ill."
She smiled sympathetically but then said, to my further shock. "Well, I hope I get whatever it was."
Well, I wrote her off as an insensitive, unobservant idiot. Until it happened again…and again. I then realized that these women were serious. Though they didn’t know about the particular hell of depression that led to this weight loss, I’m now convinced (due to the second episode, when I lost sixty pounds from my ideal weight, but was honest about the cause) that they were willing to suffer acutely in order to look like a jaundiced scarecrow. Universally, I got a message of sympathy for my illness, but always it had an undertone of envy and a huge portion of positive reinforcement for my starved body. I find it strange that after discovering that my skeletal appearance was due to debilitating illness instead of the result of a chosen weight loss goal, they’d still repeat the comment about how great I looked. Do cancer patients have the same experience?
I can hardly imagine what effect this cultural programming has on folks who have real body issues. So, I guess this rant is really a plea. Please, think about what you’re encouraging when commenting on other folks’ bodies. When’s the last time you congratulated someone for gaining healthy weight?
Rant over. Thanks for listening.