At times it seems that I am surrounded by people, especially women, who spend an unbelievable amount of time fretting over how they are going to lose “those last 10 pounds”, or freaking out when the scale nudges upward by a pound or two. As a social worker, I obviously see this frequently with clients who have eating disorders and body image problems, but it’s also epidemic-level common among the “women I know” in my life.
When I hear healthy-weighted individuals complaining about the 5 lbs they “can’t lose” or having a meltdown because they put on 2.3 lbs in one weekend, my gut reaction is:
1) When you are old and wrinkly and flabby, you will look back on this moment and cringe at how much time you wasted worrying about negligible changes in your body and compulsively trying to control them. You are currently wasting the pretty.
2) Nobody cares or notices if your weight fluctuates by 10 pounds. And if someone DOES care or notice, it is only because they are vulnerable to a society that has taught us that this is a barometer of anything meaningful, when it actually measures nothing, and makes no difference except to keep us held hostage to a false idea that happiness lies within the next smallest pant size. They are victims of this, just as you are. Look for the people who elevate themselves beyond this.
3) I used to be (and still am, at times) one of you.
This is a picture of me about 8 years, and probably 25 lbs, ago.
And this is me at around that same time, collarbone game on fleek.
In my mind, these photos depict me at the height of my external beauty. I was probably a size 9, which at 5’8″ and traditionally a “big” girl, is smaller than I ever dreamed possible. I was hitting the gym, the mall, and the tanning salon like it was my job. I was going on SO many dates. I was living with my sister in a brand new beautiful house in the city, and was chipping away at my second master’s degree. I had made amazing friends, including a guy who turned out to be my (gay, of course) soulmate, and I was living the Party Girl Dream.
From the outside, it would have seemed like I had it all (except wealth, love, or a job. But whatevs).
On the inside, a vastly different reality had emerged. I was enrolled in an academic program that had flipped on its head everything I had ever believed about the world. I was filled with resentment toward a life that had lead me to a career that would position me at the front line of other people’s suffering. I was plagued with anxiety, depression, and paralyzing self-doubt, and desperate to be saved from it. I became a magnet for guys who couldn’t love me, but wanted to; guys I wanted to love, but couldn’t; guys who made me feel like I could have their love if I gave them my body, except: just kidding.
I cried, regularly. I felt hopeless, regularly.
Not long before these photos were taken, I had endured a heart-shattering breakup, which had left me reeling in psychic pain for many, many months. At that time, I was living half a country away from my family, in a tiny, stuffy apartment in the “ghetto area” of town, completing a master’s degree that seemed increasingly pointless with each passing moment. And all I remember of those months is crying, everyday. Waking up with the breath already knocked out of me, my heart pounding with a panic that can only be felt by something terminally trapped in a torture chamber. I cried without mercy: in my bed, in my car, in the classroom, in my professor’s office, at the shopping mall, on airplanes and at the gym. My life became an endless cycle of crying and driving around, around and around, driving alone, aimlessly searching for peace. But peace eluded me. Peace was the life preserver just out of reach.
Waking up each morning felt like how I imagine accident victims feel when they wake up and realize that their arms have been amputated. Kind of like getting stabbed to death, just as you open your eyes. Caught off guard by heartache, my life became a cliched country song. A million deep breaths would carry me out of bed and into the shower, where I would cry and ruminate and plead with god to bring me peace and watch my body as I slowly evaporated into a shell of my former self. I would go to my office at school and sit with my peers, forcing smiles and entering data into SPSS, an endless stream of tears spilling onto my keyboard. I would go to the bathroom and sob; my friends, ever so patient and kind, would follow me and gently suggest that I consider seeing a doctor.
After that, on my drives, I would sometimes circle the parking lot of the walk-in clinic, then pull out. The next day, I would try again; I might walk in, but then recognize a face from school or the mall, and walk out. I was filled with shame that something as silly as a breakup had knocked me so violently off my feet. Not just knocked me down: cracked my skull wide open and left my brain spilling out onto the sidewalk. That night, I drove away from the clinic, and parked my car at the mall, got out, and started to walk. Then, and every night thereafter, I walked. Through neighbourhoods and industrial parks and city streets, not caring what happened, half-hoping a car would veer off and knock me fatally into everlasting peace. Miles and miles of Ani DiFranco lyrics spilling into my ears and chest and soul.
Within days, I noticed that I felt physically lighter, as though my tears were finally melting away the body that I felt had betrayed me for my whole life. I had stopped eating, except for rare and fleeting moments when something reminiscent of hunger would poke at me, and a piece of toast or a cookie would find its way into my mouth.
Eventually, I felt compelled to weigh myself.
I had lost 30 pounds in less than a month.
My body, which had been a source of torment since childhood, and which I had convinced myself was the reason my first love had turned away from me, had in my despair morphed into something powerfully appealing to others. The terrible irony of feminine beauty tickled the dark edges of my psyche: the more I hated myself, the more men loved me. The less I consumed, the more others consumed me. They sidled up to me on the dance floor, kissed me passionately in the streets, and entered my number into their cell phones, under the contact name “Beautiful” (okay, that only happened once, but I feel it is mentionable).
The intoxication of being regularly noticed by handsome men was exceeded only by a frantic anxiety of losing it all. I became fixated on this weight loss and the appeal I decided it had bestowed; every morning, I would strip down and step on the scale, and effectively set the tone of my day. When the number was the same, I rejoiced; when it crept upwards, I crumbled.
I became so obsessed with maintaining this starvation weight that when it fluctuated, I would frantically text anybody who would listen (sorry, sister): I gained 4 pounds! I can’t believe I let this happen! What if it doesn’t stop? I hate myself. I’m a fat, unlovable loser. I will always just be fat. Nobody will ever love me.
The truth is, my body was in a fight for its life. It clung to those 4 lbs like condensation to the side of a water glass. I had become a form of myself that left my genetics doubled over with laughter; fighting it back became my lifeblood. Sometimes this was easy; when my “confused” ex-boyfriend would email me to check in or to express sadness and regret, I became breathless with hopeful anxiety; eating was not on my mind.
When I found out that he had quickly replaced me with/left me for his beautiful, thin, athletic and ambitious-seeming banker, my heart spasmed with jealousy and rage. Eating was not on my mind.
He contacted me: I couldn’t eat.
He ignored me: I couldn’t eat.
As time wore on, maintaining this weight became harder. My appetite slowly crept back in. I started experimenting with recipes, looking forward to Chinese food binges with my friends. I moved to a different city, where the above photos were taken. Love and heartbreak cycled in and out of my life; my weight cycled with it. Eventually, I graduated and found a career job in my hometown. Life slowed down. Dates became more rare. I turned happily inward. Got a dog. Started trying to replicate my favourite “city restaurant” recipes at home. Got my heart stomped on by one; broke the heart of another. Got another dog. Experienced pure love (with the dogs). Heartache crept in again. Eventually, I decided to try anti-depressants. Eventually, I started to feel happy, for possibly the first actual time in my life. I kept cooking, feeling good, and watched my weight slowly creep up, but didn’t care. Felt content. Felt secure. Felt loved. Loved myself.
Today, I am probably 15-20 pounds heavier than I really want to be, and this number will creep up and down with each passing week, just as it always has. I will vacillate between accepting it and fighting it, just as I always have. I no longer weigh myself daily, or ever actually, partly because I’m afraid to know the truth, but mostly because I refuse to walk down that road again of being held hostage by a cold metal block of hollow steel that knows nothing about me.
One thing I sometimes do to make sure I don’t gain a million pounds is periodically try on clothing that has zippers and buttons (aka not spandex, which is otherwise my uniform of life). Right now, many of my zippered pants and dresses don’t fit, because they were basically purchased during my “suicidal anorexic” phase (described above). I can squeeze myself into some, and others can only hope to meet my thighs in their dreams. This does get to me; I’m human. I want to wear my pretty clothes. I want people to look at me and think “Wow, she has her shit together!” and not “Hmmm… she has kind of let herself go.”
But what I am certain about now is that these judgments from others are simply a symptom of our diseased culture, not a reflection of any reality that should matter to me. My weight gain or loss has nothing to do with you; your weight loss or gain has nothing to do with me. And beyond that, none of it has anything to do with who we truly are, at all.
The reality of my body is that I just can’t have it the way I want without a major compromise in my mental health. Without sadness. Without anxiety. Without despair. Without eating like an anorexic person. And even when I do have the body I want, I don’t have it, in equal measure. There is flatness where there should be a curve; it jiggles where it should be taut. I’ve never looked good in a swimsuit, and I shall never. Never ever. No matter what I do.
But I love myself now, and I believe that is as beautiful as a hot body – maybe not in the eyes of every human, but at least in the eyes of the people I deserve, and who deserve me.