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Becoming Smaller: Anorexia Culture and Finding My Voice
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Note: This post contains details about eating disorders and anorexia nervosa and might be triggering for people struggling with those conditions.
I remember very clearly the moment I decided to stop eating. I was in eighth grade, in the middle school cafeteria, and for whatever reason it seemed like a good idea to consume nothing but a 12-ounce lemonade for lunch. I told my friends I “wasn’t hungry.” As a straight-A student, this was perhaps not evidence of my best thinking.
That first lunch paved the way for many more like it. I stopped eating lunch completely, cutting my food consumption down to two meals a day. Then I started shrinking the size of those meals. Each reduction in my food intake offered me a kind of “high,” the heady thrill (as yet unfamiliar to a 13-year-old) of having absolute power over something. The high was temporary, which necessitated that I regularly lower my caloric threshold in order to achieve it. Pretty soon I was eating one “meal” a day. As my portions shrank, so did my appetite.
As I grew more adept at reducing my food intake, I learned by necessity to become more adept at lying. At lunch, I would tell my friends I wasn’t hungry because I’d “eaten a big breakfast;” if we hung out after school, I abstained from snacks because I was “eating dinner with my family soon” and didn’t want to spoil my appetite. It was best to avoid some social situations altogether: I turned down invitations to restaurants, promising my friends I’d meet up with them afterward. I constantly needed to create excuses for my lack of food consumption, which required that I devote huge amounts of energy to maintaining my various storylines — and the fear of being discovered, combined with my feelings of guilt about lying to my loved ones, filled me with constant, underlying anxiety.
Fortunately, I had the “perfect” coping mechanism for these and all other disturbing feelings: I would simply eat less. It was effective enough that starvation remained my primary method of coping — and one of my primary fixations — for the next eight years.
I have identified as “recovered” for about three years now but I continue to live with the lessons I learned through my experiences as an anorexic and as a person continually attempting to define herself as separate from a disorder. Anorexia taught me about myself and it also taught me a lot about Western culture — specifically, that our society’s ideals of health and beauty are relatively meaningless. I share my experiences (while recognizing that they are not the same lessons or experiences shared by all anorexics) in the hopes that they’ll encourage reconsideration of the assumptions about bodies that we as a culture often take for granted.
To this day, I am not entirely sure why I turned to starvation as a coping mechanism. Of course I have my theories, each of which is too involved to adequately address here. But for me, anorexia mostly boiled down to becoming smaller, in both the literal and figurative sense.
The literal interpretation is obvious: As I starved myself, my body grew smaller, and I began to inhabit less physical space. But this physical phenomenon is perhaps less noteworthy than what it visually represented in regards to the way I felt about myself: that there was something categorically “unworthy” about me, and that as a result I didn’t deserve to take up space physically or figuratively — to be loud, to be bold, to make an impact on the world.
Anorexia simultaneously convinced me of and validated my own nagging feelings about myself, and I found some form of perverse comfort in this solidarity. At the same time, anorexia provided me with an out. It offered me a kind of escape from my memories, emotions, and uncomfortable circumstances. It did so by demanding most of my attention and energies, and partly by allowing me to escape cultural expectations.
Subverting Health and Beauty Ideals
Being anorexic seriously complicates notions of choice and even, for those calling it that, free will. On the one hand, while I was anorexic I was in many ways controlled by my disorder. It determined when, where, and how much I ate (if anything); it determined which situations I was or was not “allowed” to participate in; it determined my feelings about myself, my body, my priorities, and my worth. I was, in many ways, powerless to stop it. But at the same time, anorexia gave me power. My anorexic body allowed me to subvert cultural expectations and stereotypes. In so doing, it allowed me to establish a concept of myself beyond the options presented me by society.
To an outside observer, when I was in the beginning stages of anorexia (before I became visibly emaciated), I fully embodied ideals of health and beauty. I ate “clean,” exercised regularly, and maintained a trim physique. (In reality, I ate only those foods for which I had memorized the nutrition facts and deemed acceptable in particular quantities, and I required an exacting commitment to physical exercise, performed for the sole purpose of burning calories.) I lost weight. I got skinnier. On some level (thanks mostly to social conditioning) I believed that, as a woman, growing thinner would make me more beautiful.
But a funny thing happened when I successfully fulfilled the ideals of “health” and “beauty." Rather than gaining acceptance for meeting cultural expectations, I found myself rejected by the same society that had imposed those ideals on me in the first place. My body wasn’t healthy, it was breaking down. I was constantly plagued with various physical ailments and suffered from anxiety, insomnia, and depression — hardly something people admire or want to talk about. And rather than “beautiful,” I found that my skin-and-bones appearance was often seen as shocking, even repulsive.
I remember very clearly a trip to the shoe store with my mother while home for fall break during college. I had pulled up my pant leg to view a pair of shoes on my feet more clearly, and when I turned from the mirror to ask my mother her opinion she was standing there, jaw dropped, a look of revulsion on her face and tears in her eyes. Later, she told me it was because my calves were so thin.
Obviously, my mother’s reaction was one of care and concern. But it was clear, from this experience and from others, that there was something unacceptable about my body. My eating disordered body was removed to a class of its own — “not normal” — in order to mitigate the challenge it posed to conceptions of “normal” bodies . In fulfilling the health and beauty ideals to an extreme, I challenged the very ideals themselves. I achieved the ideals and barreled right through them, representing the fact that there is no limit, and there is no perfection. People can be on one side of the line or the other (too fat or too thin, too this or not enough that), but it’s the rare soul who actually stands right on it — which is precisely why these ideals are so silly, and so nefarious. There is no one way to be healthy or beautiful. Rather, anorexia taught me that these terms are — and should be — highly individualized concepts, for which there is no one ideal.
Asserting My Own Voice
By diminishing the chance that I would be perceived as physically beautiful, I found I was in many ways able to escape the sexualization and harassment I had encountered time and again as a female in public. Paradoxically, I opposed this feminization through the very cultural processes seeking to enforce it: I submitted completely to the beauty ideal (which holds that to be thin is to be beautiful), to such an extreme that I broke it and emerged unsexed, unattractive, different — and therefore, to some extent, free from cultural norms and stereotypes.
Of course, the tragedy is that I was not free of my disorder. I escaped one system of constraint only to inhabit another. In a sense, anorexia was my attempt at asserting myself, at articulating my own self-concept instead of having a label slapped upon me. It was a laudable effort, but it certainly wasn’t best for my own wellbeing.
Somehow, at the age of 21, I started to realize this. I realized I needed to find a way to differentiate my own voice from that of the disorder. And rather than defining myself as different via an illness that actually subverted my individuality, I needed to deliver that individuality straight from the source.
It took another two years for me to identify as mostly “recovered.” Through years of hard mental work, I’ve learned to recognize and for the most part dismiss the disorder’s voice as being not in my own best interests. Most importantly, I've learned I am worth my own label. So are you.
Have you or anyone struggled with body image? Share your questions and comments below or get in touch with the author on Twitter @lauranewc.