All too often in Western societies, being thin is worshipped by women like no other physical attribute. The most thrilling compliment she can hear? “You look like you’ve lost weight!”
If you struggle with anorexia, staying thin becomes an addictive compulsion. Nearly every waking minute you’re thinking about what you will eat, or what you won’t eat and in your private moments, you analyze (in a completely irrational way) what you see as your flaws. You must stay in ultimate control of what goes in your mouth.
For anorexia has little to do with food – and everything to do with control and self-esteem.
Questions from concerned friends or family about your vanishing body are sidestepped entirely, hidden by baggy clothes, or shrugged off with a vague explanation that you’ve been avoiding carbs. You explain you’ve embraced being a “healthy eater.” You swear up and down you “eat plenty,” as you sip water after running your daily eight miles. Perhaps you’ve found other women who share your thinking; together you can feel a giddy superiority when not eating, and a sinking despair in gaining a half pound.
Denial can be rigid and ferocious and breaking out of this highly irrational self-image is extremely difficult, as is healing from any eating disorder. Part of the irrationality is that you believe you’re in control. You’re not. And some never find a way out. Eating disorders can remain a part of an adult woman’s lifetime, with even more of a need to hide because of its confusing and shameful presence.
Gwynne is one of those people. She’s approaching sixty and has never won her battle.
“I don’t know if you want to use my story,” she told me, hesitating a bit as she quietly spoke her truth. “I’m not a success. I wouldn’t want anyone to be like me.”
She showed me her diary from years ago, full of despair and confusion. What I found even more profound was her present-day journaling, as she scoured her adult psyche for answers to difficult questions. She’s generously allowed me to share them with you. You may find yourself in what she writes, whether or not you have clinical anorexia or not. Because she speaks with the voice of women who don’t talk to one another honestly, who accept what glossy fashion magazines dictate, who weigh themselves everything morning — determining whether it’s a “good day” or a “bad day” given the number on the scale.
I know her battle as anorexia has been a part of my own life. Maybe we can all learn from Gwynne, as she describes the irrational trap of staying thin… at all costs.
Five emotional agonies of staying thin…at all costs
Emotional stagnation and never feeling confident…
“I imagine this as an age where I ease up on my career and focus more on my own interests. Instead I find that I am driven by the same fears and desires that I had at 16, 26, and 36 and so on. My body has aged and yet my desire to remain under ninety-five pounds no matter what stays the same. Why? What do such obsessions bring me? And, where are the other women of my age group – no longer young, certainly not aged – who are struggling with similar conditions? What happens to young anorexics when they live and get older? We certainly don’t make it into the popular media or consciousness. Is it just assumed that we have recovered? Is it taken for granted that we no longer worry about such trivial, vain topics as body weight? Are we so invisible that we are above – or beyond – the capability of comparing ourselves with models and feeling envious? How did I disappear? Wait, I still need attention. Am I still refusing to grow up and face the fact that I am not the center of attention? When is all of this supposed to happen?”
Everything…. everything becomes about food…
“At what point does a woman look at herself and say that it doesn’t matter if she is fat or thin? At what point does a woman look at a menu and order what she wants, rather than what she thinks she should eat? What if said woman is so used to rigidly following a plan that she no longer knows what she wants to eat? How did I get to be a fifty-five year old woman who doesn’t know what she wants for lunch, let alone whether or not she wants to eat lunch?”
Living with loneliness and lack of connection…
“I teach at a university. I watch other women and it’s hard for me not to believe that they struggle with weight and food issues. But I feel as if I cannot ask them. Such questions are taboo… Imagine that I was having lunch with several friends about my age and I asked them how they chose what they are eating for lunch and how they felt about it? Would they understand my question? Would they answer honestly? Would they make me feel ashamed that I am asking such questions? What if my worst fears hold true and I am alone with these struggles? Would it really feel better to know that other women suffer similar anxieties and that it is taken for granted that this is part of life? ”
Feeling powerless over reinforcing the same stereotypes – that power lies in being thin…
“How can an older woman help a younger girl achieve “girl power” if the woman is faint with hunger? How can the young girl not pick up on the discrepancy between what the woman says and what she does? Who is teaching our daughters how to be women? Have we improved on our own mother’s methods? Or are we simply reinforcing the same stereotypes without acknowledging it? Can a woman on a strict weight regime teach her daughter much of anything?”
The rigid entanglement of private pride with desperation of having pain no one understands…
“How many times do I like to portray myself as someone who is just naturally, effortlessly thin, in order to make others jealous? If I get honest I’d have to give up that pleasure. On occasion I have tried it, and it usually backfires. Recently a woman in front of me in a coffee shop complained how fat she had let herself get, and then complimented me on being in such good shape. I took a breath and told her that I had long struggled with eating disorders and was still struggling. Her reply was that I looked great, not “disordered.” She ended up trying to assure me that I was just great the way I was. I ended up feeling more desperate, and I don’t believe she felt any better about her own weight or struggles.”
The solutions are tough. Culture has to change. Mothers, grandmothers, ballet teachers, athletic and cheerleading coaches need to realize what they’re modeling or demanding from their daughters and students. The disease is vicious and its tentacles can dig in and ruin a girl’s chance for true self-esteem.
My gratitude to Gwynne was immense when we first produced this post five years ago. It’s even greater now, as our culture grinds slowly toward acceptance of all. Her willingness to share her pain is a part of that change and I applaud her courage.
Note: This post talks about women, but anorexia can be experienced by anyone.
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Post updated on May 7, 2023.