By Hannah White
“I’m following my meal plan, but I still hate my body.”
For those recovering from an eating disorder, this is a daily refrain. The typical response from a professional, however, is often infuriatingly vague. Wait it out, we’re told. Stay the course. Body image comes later.
Body image comes later.
But why? Why do we have to wait? Why do we have to spend months, even years, living out our “recovery” beneath grimy layers of body shame?
Logically, I suppose, the trajectory makes sense. Physical symptoms are typically the most urgent symptoms, and a healthy mind requires a healthy body — a body no longer abused by bingeing, purging, or starvation. Yet the time lapse between restoring weight and coming to peace with that restoration can be incredibly, achingly long. An unhealthy, disordered body image feels and functions like unfinished business, like a door left just slightly ajar. And unfortunately, the urge to relapse has a way of slipping through the smallest of cracks.
Body image issues, in our society, too often slip through the cracks, too. After all, as specialists will tell you, eating disorders are about so much more than “just the weight.” The impulses behind them range from past traumas to obsessive tendencies to anxiety to depression to peer pressure, and beyond. But no matter the roots, no matter the symptoms, I’ll argue that a large part of our common struggle is about the weight – and it’s no less legitimate for being so.
I’m not ashamed to say it, now: I still want to be “skinny.” I like the way skinny looks; I like the way skinny feels. I like all the things that skinny’s not: fat, slovenly, ungainly, excessive, self-indulgent, conspicuous. I like not being those things. But my idea of skinny isn’t reality; it’s sickness.
I realize that anorexia is a manifestation of my anxieties, that the desire to weigh less reenacts the depressive’s desire to disappear. All of that is true. But this thing, this obsession with numbers and scales and belly fat and arm circumference and thighs that don’t touch and chins that don’t double — this thing is true, too. Even when I was doing best in recovery, last year, I had darker feelings lurking in the back of my mind. When compounded with other mental health issues and personal crises, my fixation on my body’s imperfections became too much to bear. I slipped, because of the “deeper” issues, but also because of the surface ones.
The apparent superficiality of bad body image is one of the reasons why eating disorders are so misunderstood. If she wasn’t so vain, one might think, she wouldn’t have a problem. There’s a reason that “anorexic,” as an adjective, gets tossed around so frequently, usually to describe the most shallow and try-hard girls in school. There’s a reason that “anorexic,” as an adjective, showed up on one of my college-course handouts as a synonym for “thin.”
The problem, however, is that this kind of body image isn’t just bad, it’s disordered. It’s self-perception skewed into extremity, into the grotesque. Every desire I confessed in the past few paragraphs is blatantly detached from reality, so much so that my peers and I cannot tell what is healthy from what is sick. Our body image is blown out of proportion in a way that we often can’t see, not until it’s too late. Every day I think, I want to be skinny. Never in my life have I wanted to be anorexic.
Why does being skinny matter so much to us? Why is the desire so hard to let go of? And why does it take so freaking long to be rid of it?
We live in a world surrounded by triggers, by products and ads and family and friends constantly on quests to “watch our weight” and “get active” and “fight obesity” and “shed a few.” We are urged to lose our baby weight, taught to shave off pounds with Photoshop, comforted that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” America’s societal dysfunction around issues of body image is rarely the sole cause of an eating disorder, but draped in the guise of good health it can become one of the most nefarious. In a context in which fitness is glorified and obesity condemned, the stakes of weight gain in any form can feel incredibly high.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers to all, or any, of my questions, but what I do know is that body image can’t be relegated to a footnote. Body peace isn’t just the final piece of the recovery puzzle; it’s one of the most crucial pieces.
Unhealthy body image, then, must be treated not only at the roots but at the surface: at the genuine, media-endorsed fear of a changing body. Weight gain, even as the basis for recovery, goes in the opposite direction of everything our society tells us, and it can get lonely up there, in the top half of our weight range.
Body image comes later. Generally speaking, that’s a proven fact. But let’s stop being patient about it and start being proactive. Let’s show each other that it’s not superficial to be scared. Let’s show each other that we’re not, in fact, alone.