By Hannah White
For me, it started with my arms. I was in kindergarten when a classmate called Amy—I remember her vividly—approached me from across the room. “You have hair on your arms, like a bear,” she observed. My eyes dropped as I looked from her smooth white arms to the light-colored hair on my own, and it became clear.
There was something seriously wrong with me.
The suspicion deepened when I began examining my face. Not only did my cheeks blush too easily, revealing my emotions like an ugly fluorescent light, but they were too round, too pudgy. I remember sitting on the carpeted floor of my childhood bedroom, pinching and pulling at my skin, hoping to somehow change my facial structure with a flick here, a prod there.
These areas of insecurity were followed—and ultimately overshadowed—by my nose, a large and ungainly thing of which I was well aware long before a girl on the school bus called me “big nose.” I’d spend hours in my room with a handheld mirror, staring at my face in profile and fighting back tears. For weeks at a time I struggled to see the rest of world clearly, as my eyes automatically focused in on the edge of nose in my peripheral vision. Someday I’ll get a nose job, I promised myself. Maybe then I can be pretty.
It was in high school, on the heels of one particularly unflattering family picture, that my body fixations moved downward to my stomach. I somewhere, somehow came across a magazine article that nostalgically recalled teenage years of “washboard stomachs.” Well, I was no washboard. Standing limply in my underwear, my belly jutted out in the world, unsolicited. It didn’t matter that I still fit into size xx at American Eagle. Instead of abs, I had a pillow of doughy fat, and the discovery was humiliating in a way that seemed to condemn my entire being.
It was the stomach that really did me in, the stomach that first got me started on magazine diet plans and bedroom crunches. It was because of my stomach that, in my senior year of high school, I made a new year’s resolution to give up desserts. And then to count calories. And then to start running. And then to—and on and on. If it wasn’t for that goddamn stomach, I sometimes think, I could have sidestepped my eating disorder altogether.
Or, better yet, I think, if it wasn’t for Amy. If it wasn’t for Seventeen. If it wasn’t for that bitch on the school bus in sixth grade.
But that’s not fair. My fixations may have been sparked by outside influences, but they were fueled by OCD—a disorder highly correlated to anorexia. Numbers, scales, workout regimens, oppressive images: these were all symptoms of obsessions that were themselves symptoms of something bigger. In treatment, therapists liked to remind us that “no one is powerful enough to give you an eating disorder.” No one, including ourselves. And the sad equality of the situation is that everyone fixates, sometimes, on something—even the most beautiful, toned, athletic men and women in the world.
Remember that scene in Mean Girls, the one where the Plastics stand in front of Regina’s bedroom mirror and bond by trashing their own bodies? We live in a culture where it is normal, even expected to be insecure—and where it is normal, even expected to scrutinize other people’s bodies, too. Just walk past a row of tabloid magazines and you’ll see celebrities being called out for being too fat, for being too thin, for getting plastic surgery, for not getting plastic surgery, for being too slow to get their “post-baby bodies” back. No wonder we’re so hard on ourselves.
No, you can’t “make someone anorexic” by commenting on his or her appearance. What you can do is unintentionally reinforce a mental schema that is different parts reactionary, hereditary, cultural, and ultimately vulnerable.
I truly believe that eating disorders are not about the body, not at all—but our bodies are the punching bags upon which deeper anxieties are acted out. Our arms, our cheeks, our noses, our stomachs—they are held up as psychological target practice.
Next time you find yourself preoccupied with some part of you, try to stop and think about what that preoccupation really means. We are all so, so much more than the fat on our bodies and the structures of our cheekbones. Remember that, and don’t let your skin become the scapegoat. Don’t let your identity get whittled down to just a junction of body parts.
Hannah White graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in European history. She is currently an incoming MFA student at Temple University and the 2014-2015 Kelly Writers House Junior Fellow. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, The Sensible Nonsense Project, Cleaver Magazine, Gadfly Online, Penn Review, Rainy Day, Thickjam, Apiary Online, and The MFA Years, among others. Follow her on Twitter @hannahleewhite.