This week I kind of freaked myself out. I was looking in the mirror, which I do all the time because I am particularly vain, and I was thinking that I look really beautiful. Again, this is not that far fetched for me. Body dysmorphia aside, I think I’m pretty hot much of the time. And then the next day, a friend whom I had seen on a video conference told me that I was looking really beautiful. But then I realized why I, and perhaps others, may have been thinking I was so beautiful. It’s because I am particularly thin right now. And that made me uncomfortable.
So I did something I almost never do. I asked my husband. You should have seen the look on his face. You’d think that Admiral Ackbar just snuck up behind him and yelled, “It’s a trap!”
Of course, it wasn’t a trap. But he was wise to tread cautiously. Obviously weight and size are loaded in this society in general, especially for women, and super extra especially for me. And my husband had to live through my most debilitating body dysmorphic episode ever after I quit smoking and gained 30 pounds, even with my food boundaries firmly intact. He knows first hand that nothing can reduce me to tears (and insanity) as quickly as some unwelcome belief about my weight, real or imagined.
He told me very clearly that he actively avoids looking at my size. That he knows no good can come of it. And that ultimately, it really doesn’t matter to him.
And if my obsession with my weight and body were, as I truly believed for basically all 35 of my single years, about being attractive to men, especially the one I am in love with, then this post would be done. But it’s not, and it’s not.
The truth is that I have mixed feelings. I do like what I see in the mirror, whether I have been conditioned to think so or not. And obviously, I am not the only one, if a friend was seeing and saying the same thing that I was. And I truly hated being fat, whether that was also conditioning or not.
Wallis Simpson is credited with saying that a woman “can never be too rich or too thin.” But she said this before the 1970s and 80s, which is when cases of eating disorders began to escalate. (It is worth noting I think, that this is also when cases of obesity began to escalate.)
Now we know that a woman can, indeed, be too thin. A person can starve themself to death. Vital organs can shut down. Perhaps Wallis Simpson couldn’t imagine a world where a girl would have a heart attack in her teens because her desire to be ever thinner led to the weakening of all of her muscles, including the ones to keep her alive. Perhaps she had too much faith in a human’s survival instinct. (I have opinions about whether it is possible to be too rich as well, but as this is an eating disorder blog, I will keep those to myself.)
But on the other side, I think that there are reasons that being thin, or at least not being fat, is considered attractive. I mean that I don’t think it’s entirely about societal conditioning; I think there are also evolutionary reasons.
My dad sent me an interesting podcast a few weeks ago. In it, Gary Taubes, who wrote a book called “The Case Against Sugar,” talks about how he believes that there is a fundamental flaw in the way the health and medical community views weight. (I feel the need to note that Taubes clearly states that he is making a case, but that there have not been clinical trials and scientific studies that have proven this idea. He is simply making an argument, and he would like to see this idea studied. I will also say that in my very much not scientific, but particularly personal experience, I think he is on the right track.) He says that we talk about obesity and weight in terms of a balance of energy – calories in must be equal to calories out – but that what the calorie comes from doesn’t matter. He argues that, in fact, what we eat matters because foods have chemical and hormonal impacts. In this podcast he said something that really struck me: “People don’t …accumulate 100 pounds of excess fat because they eat too much, they do it because their body is telling them to accumulate fat. And that’s going to be a hormonal, enzymatic problem.”
I happen to think that over millions of years of evolution, we humans “understand” various things subconsciously. Not in thoughts and words, but in basic “gut” reactions. And I think it is possible that humans find fat less attractive because it indicates some form of ill health, some problem with the functioning of our hormones/chemicals/biology.
I know (rationally) that I was not fat because I was lazy, stupid, greedy, or shameful. I did not want to be fat. I wanted to be able to stop eating. I went to nutritionists and did workout tapes. (Yes, I said “tapes.” That’s how old I am.) I joined programs with weekly motivation classes and pre-packaged food plans so you didn’t have to think for yourself about what to eat. I worked my ass off to work my ass off and it never did go anywhere. I could not manage to not be fat.
And while I limit the amount of food I eat now, I still eat a lot. Pounds and pounds every day. Including full-fat greek yogurt, whole milk, pork rinds, bacon, and sausage. But I am not eating most sugars (except for some natural sugars in the form of some whole fruits and vegetables) or things that turn into sugar, like grains, starch, and other carbohydrates. And the elimination of those foods has meant that for the past 11+ years, I have never been fat again. And I think that chances are good that eating sugar was always the culprit; sugar was signaling to my body to store fat.
But if it were only a matter of a healthy, properly functioning body, versus an improperly functioning body, then I wouldn’t be so freaked out about the fact that I like being thin. I’m freaked out because we have taken “thin” too far. And I am afraid that I will mix up what I am constantly told I “should” look like, with what I look like when I am in a healthy, properly functioning body.
From the 50s through the 80s, famous beauties generally had a BMI of somewhere between 17-20.5, while the average American woman had a BMI between 23-25. As a young adult, I had a BMI of about 45. (Yes, I know that BMI is a flawed system, but it is a “standardized” system, so it is helpful in illustrating my point.) So when I was growing up, the real knockouts were somewhere between a modern size 2 and 6. Today, a model who is a size 6 is considered “plus size.” So a woman with a BMI of 20.5 is considered fat by today’s (fashion industry) standards, while the average American woman currently has a BMI of 27.6 and is a size 14.
My point is that I don’t want to get caught up in liking or not liking my body based on a fundamentally flawed definition of acceptable weight made up by an industry that makes it’s money by telling women that they are lacking. I don’t need Karl Lagerfeld, Donatella Versace, or Mark Jacobs to tell me that my healthy, strong, fully functional body is not pretty enough, because clothes “look better” on a girl who is about to experience renal failure. (Seriously, f**k them.)
But mostly I am afraid that I will get brainwashed by them. You see, I don’t want to listen to them; I don’t want to come to believe them; I don’t want to let them in my head. And I am afraid that if, when I look in the mirror, I like my thin self better than my less thin self, I will make myself sick physically, emotionally and spiritually. It’s not that I don’t want to like what I look like, I just want liking what I look like to not be so tied up in weight. I want to be able to be happy that I am thin. I have changed my entire life so that I could be happy in my body. But I also don’t want to have to take it that seriously. Perhaps ultimately I should think about my weight the way my husband thinks about my weight, which is to say, not at all. But for a girl with a lifetime of food and body issues, perhaps that’s asking too much…