In 2000, a study was published by Jennifer A. O’Dea and Suzanne Abraham at the University of Sydney, entitled Improving the Body Image, Eating Attitudes, and Behaviors of Young Male and Female Adolescents: A New Educational Approach that Focuses on Self-Esteem. (It's a long title, I know).
As the name implies, this study introduced a new method of school-based, eating-disorder prevention programming that focused on building students’ self-esteem, rather than on providing factoids about eating disorders. It was conducted on 470 students aged 11-14, almost two-thirds of whom were female. The traditional, information-giving approach, wasn't working. Instead of warning students of the dangers of eating disorders, student's learned about dangerous practices such as starvation, vomiting, and laxative abuse.
Conversely, the study suggests that a “self-esteem-based approach” is more effective than the “information-giving approach” because it engages students and increases their inherent satisfaction with themselves as people. The program “significantly improved the body satisfaction of students and significantly changed aspects of their self-esteem; social acceptance, physical appearance, and athletic ability became less important.”
This study pinpoints an enormous component of eating disorders: low self-esteem. Low self-esteem is associated with body dysmorphia, or body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). BDD is characterized by the obsessive idea that some aspect of one's own body part or appearance is severely flawed and warrants exceptional measures to hide or fix. Maybe you fixate on your stomach, your arms, legs, butt, neck, back, et cetera. The media, especially media curated for and distributed to women, does nothing to alleviate irrational fears regarding body parts.
A simple Google search, “how to get rid of love handles,” produces about 21,000,000 results from sources such as CNN, Healthline, Women’s Health, Dr. Axe, YouTube, Eat This Not That, and millions more. Some sources include a forewarning “It is a myth that you can spot reduce fat,” before jumping into tips such as: laugh more, take a 30 minute walk during your lunch break, have more sex, get a standing desk, do these 10, 12, 15, tummy tucking exercises, eat more greens, eat less, and clean your house. If you trust these sources, it seems as if almost anything can help you get rid of love handles. A 2013 article published in The Atlantic states that “Women’s Magazines Objectify Women Just as Much as Men’s Magazines Do.” And it’s true—there is an overwhelming focus on the female figure in women’s magazines, accompanied by headlines like:
“Look Leaner Naked: The 14 Day Workout” Cosmopolitan, January 2011
“Sexy Toned Arms! Get These Show-Off Shoulders in 6 Moves!” Women’s Health, April 2018
“Run Yourself Slim and Happy! Weight Loss, Energy, and Confidence Tips from American Idol’s Jordan Sparks” Women’s Running, May 2013
“Effortless, Sexy Hair,” “Glowy Skin in Minutes,” “Eat Clean, Lose Weight, & Don’t Lose Your Mind,” all from Marie Claire, March 2016
“Eat, Drink, Shrink: No Diet Ways to Fight Holiday Gains,” Health, November, 2016
These are only a small handful of examples. There are so many more—hundreds of thousands. You probably see them every day. You might not even notice them—billboards that feature women’s svelte, photo-shopped bodies. Conversations with your friends, or maybe even with strangers, when a common, safe topic is the shape and size and largeness and smallness of one another’s bodies.
You see it magazines, where beauty products and diet pills are splashed around like grown-up candy. Television shows, featuring impossibly tiny women in powerful roles like cop, doctor, detective, or politician. Television shows featuring normal sized women, or fat women, as funny housewives or sidekicks, never the ones solving mysteries or crimes. You hear it in radio ads for Botox, in music on every radio station—songs that praise big asses and tiny waists and women willing to suck large dicks all night, their mouths never growing tired, their throats an endless pit designed for male pleasure. Singers, actors, musicians, comedians, anyone famous—their bodies are always in the limelight.
Look! We are told. Kelly Clarkson gained weight, then she lost it by not eating tomatoes. Panic ensues. Should we not eat tomatoes? We are continually told that good, healthy food is bad. Potatoes are bad, because they are starchy. Wheat is bad, tomatoes are bad, legumes are bad. Mother-fucking bananas are bad.
A woman I once worked with insisted that bananas cause weight gain. She was convinced that exorcising this simple fruit from her diet would solve her diet woes. Not the Pringles she snacked on all morning. Not the liters and liters of soda she drank each day, or the bottomless pit of hunger that allowed her to never feel full, the bottomless pit of something she tried to fill, with everything but bananas.
I cannot judge this woman, because I’ve my own pit to fill—and I have tried all my life to fill it in some way. To get straight A’s, run the fastest, be the thinnest. I ached for the affection and affirmation of others while ignoring the simple truth that I am able to give love and affirmation to myself. There is nothing sadder than seeing yourself from a distance, the self-induced pain and isolation that becomes comforting, dictating your life even as you fight against it.
For most of my working life, I have routinely packed not-enough food for my lunch. A large part of my brain knew that it wasn’t enough, because it never was enough, and I was always, always hungry. A smaller, though louder part of my brain told me, “this is how you will lose weight,” and “it’s good to feel hungry,” and “you eat too much.” My lunch routinely contained between 300-400 calories. From 8:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m., the only other “food” I let pass my lips was coffee and chewing gum. I chewed a lot of gum, thinking it could ease the hunger a bit. I chewed so much gum that my stomach would bloat from the xylitol, and my jaw would ache from the incessant chomping. I drank so much coffee that I suffered from severe stomach cramps and diarrhea. I was always buzzed, talking fast, typing fast, thinking too fast for any thought to make sense.
For the record, 300 calories do not make a lunch. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich has more than 300 calories. 300 calories look like: 3 small bananas, one cup of oatmeal, or two servings of trail mix. 300 calories are certainly not lunch for someone who exercises as avidly and manically as I do. I know this now. At the time, 300 calories felt like so much. I was heavy with the weight of wanting more but wanting less. Ignoring my deep, burning desire for nourishment and desiring nothing more than to take up less space.
Taking up less space is something women are taught to do from an early age. Sit like a lady. Speak when spoken to, play this quiet game, do this quiet thing. I was 13 when I first understood that men like to look at women, though I did not like to be looked at. For this reason, I again desired smallness, thinking that if I could only disappear, no one would ever look at me again.
Because eating disorders don’t make logical sense, it was difficult for me to reconcile my emotional brain and my logical one. When I ran very fast and stood on a podium, when I was honored with an academic award, when I was called out in a meeting at work for a job well done, I enjoyed the attention. I craved it. In those moments, I wanted, so badly, to be seen. I loved to be seen and acknowledged for what I had done well, not what I looked like. Striking a balance between my logical and emotional selves was, and is, a daily task. The logical side of my brain knows that my emotional self needs space and air to flourish. My logical self needs my creative, emotional self to thrive. This has been one of my greatest, most empowering realizations.
One afternoon, after I consumed a lunch of carrots, rice cakes, and hummus, my hunger burned especially deep. I searched the office kitchen for something, anything, to snack on, and all I found was a dish of cough drops. I reached for a handful, bringing them back to my desk. All afternoon, I sucked on honey-flavored menthol drops, savoring the burning sweetness, willing myself to feel full. After a few hours, my stomach was bloated, and I felt less hungry, but exceptionally ill.
As I drove the few miles home, I let water ooze from my eyes. Not crying, I told myself. Not hungry. Full of hatred and bitterness and resentment for the body that had once been so thin, that I had once starved successfully, that I no longer felt was my own. The body men stared at, the body friends complimented. The body I stared at in the dressing room of H&M, disgusted when the pants I selected wouldn’t fit over my thighs. Ashamed that the size I had been years ago was no longer the size I was now. Furious that I had let go of my control.
This body, my body, was something I actively cherished—my ability to run, the strength in my legs, the stability I found in my core during yoga. This body, my body, was something I actively despised—the way my skin stretched around the scar from my hip surgery, the way my breasts were larger than that used to be, the way my stomach rounded after I ate, the way my thighs sometimes chaffed when I ran. The way I covered myself in dark clothing and bought too-large shirts, to hide the ugly parts.
P.S. If you or someone you love may be struggling with an eating disorder, contact the NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237. A comprehensive, nation-wide list of Eating Disorder Anonymous (EDA) meetings can be found here. A list of top treatment centers in every state, courtesy of Eating Disorder Hope, can be found here. So much love to each and every one of you.