(CW: eating disorders and body image discussion. Also an acknowledgement that everything I’m discussing here is from a position of extreme privilege compared to what many women have to deal with along these lines, etc. I know how lucky I am comparatively. These are small potatoes problems.)
I never wanted to deal with my fucked up relationship to my body and my weight and my disordered eating habits; I thought I could just continue to tolerate it and live with it until I died, and I would have, but then I had a daughter and I realized I had to fix myself so she didn’t model all of it, so for the past year I have been doing a lot of really hard and boring mental work. It is every bit as hard and boring and unrewarding as I always thought it would be, but it is also more complicated than expected, so although this is different and more personal than the sort of stuff I usually write, I want to share what I’ve learned so far.
My history is so standard, it’s not really worth going into. It’s the same story as most every white woman from the South: I was a pudgy teenager and then a moderately thin young adult and I wanted to be a very skinny woman (and truly thought that being one would fix all of my problems), so I starved myself for nearly two decades and along with that, I secretly binge ate, and I wrecked my metabolism and my hunger cues, and then I stopped starving and went into an absolutely manic extended binge for about five years, capped off with a global pandemic, deep isolation, fertility struggles and hormone injections, and pregnancy, throughout all of which I emotionally ate like it was going out of style, and now I am newly fat and also have a perfect little girl and am trying to fix my mental problems so that I do not hand all this down to her.
As soon as I had Edith, I got a therapist who specializes in eating disorders, and started to work on all this. As always with therapy, I saw the therapist for a couple months, and then got the gist and broke up with the therapist (although she was really great) because I really know what I need to do and I don’t need to talk about it, and now I am just doing it:
- Accept myself at the weight I’m at now and any weight I happen to be at in the future, and give up on the idea that my weight is a reflection of my worth in any way, and/or something that I will actively manipulate.
- Divorce my ideas about food from thoughts of good/bad, reward/punishment and let myself eat whenever I am hungry without telling myself stories about how I won’t eat tomorrow or whatever.
- If I do binge, don’t beat myself up over it or promise myself I never will again, or try to starve for two days to make up for it, etc.
- When I feel driven to eat compulsively, try to examine where that’s coming from and address the deeper need I’m having even if that’s hard or gross.
- Really try to accept that other people’s opinions or thoughts about my weight are not things that I can control or do anything about, and don’t let my fears of other people’s perceptions of my body derail me.
- Don’t put off doing things or seeing people with the vague idea that I will do those things or see those people when I “have my body back.” This is my only body.
- Realize that Edith will see and model even those things that I think I am hiding perfectly. Everything I do to myself and my body and everything I say about myself and my body, she will internalize and imitate. It is not possible to hide your internalized misogyny and self-hatred from your kid.
All of this is so hard and so, so boring that it makes me want to puke. But I can’t because I don’t do that anymore! (Little joke!)
I even finally told my doctor that I have a history of disordered eating and so do not want to be told my weight, and also will not be losing weight and so need her to help me be healthy at this size, which is something I never had the stones to do before, not so much because I was afraid of my doctor’s judgment, but because I felt that this sort of request was only appropriate for women who had had “real” eating disorders (like had been hospitalized) and was overly dramatic for my situation.
But what I really want to write about, because I didn’t expect this to be part of it and haven’t seen it discussed elsewhere, and it’s really kind of rocked me, is that doing this work has really brought home to me how much of my experience of the world and my life involves being an aesthetic object in it. I’ve never really thought of myself this way; I have of course had many girlfriends who were primarily interested in being a decorative part of whatever scene they were in, and sometimes I had fun with participating in that, but my primary self-worth has always been elsewhere and I didn’t think of myself as that invested in it. But now, I am having to re-learn how to exist in various environments and how to experience things like summer days, swimming pools, vacations, parties, winter scenes, etc. without looking the part. My habitual way of existing in the world has been more viewing myself as I am viewed than being in the world and experiencing it as something happening to me. And when I no longer am contributing to the aesthetic of an environment, I don’t know what I’m doing there, or how to enjoy it. Having a drink on a sunny patio is for me inextricably bound up with being a girl in a cute sundress. Going for a swim cannot be divorced from appearing in a swimsuit.*
And I think this is something that happens when you become a mom or just middle-aged generally; my friends and I all talk about the utter relief and weird dissonance of suddenly becoming invisible. But the big change in my body at this exact juncture is really compounding it.
There’s a sort of explicit metaphor for this with leg hair, because (as anyone who normally grows out their legs and has leg hair knows) our nerve endings are in our hair, so when you grow out your leg hair, you suddenly feel the breeze on your legs, which makes you realize that women’s ordinary experience of having summer legs is having numb legs. It’s more important to present a particular image to the environment than to actually be in and feel the environment. And with the extent to which having a child has blown my heart open in a way that it wasn’t before, I am feeling everything more these days, which is both good and bad, but mostly shocking, because I truly didn’t realize how utterly numb I was before.
Along with this is thinking about how much of my self-image relies on having models, and I don’t really have models for who I am now. Mostly when I am trying to figure out how to be present in a social environment, my models are now men. Frankly, I think about how I would exist in a space with other people if I were a middle-aged fat dad and then I do that: that helps me to really put aside the whole question of being a perceived object so that I can sort of learn how to just be a person. It also helps me stop worrying about how I compare aesthetically to other women (which is probably much easier for me to do than it would be for most women because I’m not trying to date ever again; I can’t imagine how impossible all of this would be if I were also still interested in being attractive to men). Then the question shifts from how I might look drinking a beer and/or what other people will think about me having one to just whether or not I actually want a beer and everything proceeds from that perspective.
It’s a hard shift to make and maintain, and I didn’t realize how much simply accepting my body would mean actively changing the way I view and exist in and experience the world. And of course, realizing this fills me with feminist rage and resentment, so then I have to also deal with that.
I kind of hate to admit it, but I do feel mentally healthier now that I’m working on this. I feel less conflicted about who I am and more authentically myself. I don’t feel physically healthier or happier yet, but I know that I will eventually.
Anyway, this is all probably not very well expressed, so I will share some a couple of resources that have been extremely helpful to me while I’ve been going through all this:
- Maintenance Phase podcast. Not every episode, and it’s kind of spun out by this point, but the early episodes were extremely helpful to me. Mostly it has helped me really internalize that weight cycling is bad for me and that starving doesn’t even work.
- The most recent issue of the excellent Pipe Wrench magazine, which is focused on medical fatphobia. Pipe Wrench is edited by my friend Michelle who is one of the most brilliant and funniest people I’ve ever met. Caroline Moore’s essay for this issue is so beautiful and absolutely broke my heart.
*I should note here that I am not intending to imply that you cannot both be a fat woman and an attractive aesthetic object. Of course you can, and young women are working on changing the general idea that you cannot be (and are doing a really good job of it). I hope that Edith’s generation will be more accepting of the genuine beauty of all different kinds of bodies, of every size, gender, race, and etc. Rather, my personal experience at the moment is that I am trying to figure out how to not feel like I have to be an aesthetic object in the world at all, because I don’t want to be one really, and I have always felt it was mandatory without really being conscious that I thought that. And my own body image and how I’ve tried to take control of it is inextricably bound up with my need to fit into an aesthetic that has been described and presented to me by a very particular social group.