It is a common belief that eating disorders begin in adolescence, and while this is true for most, this was not the case for me. I had made it out of adolescence without an eating disorder, but once the dust settled on my rocky childhood and I was out on my own, I began to process my upbringing. It was then that I began a decade of obsession and dieting, entering into a shameful cycle of quietly binging and compulsively exercising, a cycle that I simply assumed was a by-product of being a young woman.
Only now do I see how the cycle was a product of my past, a latent response to surviving years of abuse and struggle. I could not control my past, and I could not control my future, but by God, I could control the person I would become. And that person would be skinny, as opposed to how chubby I was as a child and teen. If only I could shed the pounds, I could also shed my shameful past and be free to enjoy a healthy future.
So I focused on becoming the person I longed to be – a thinner, more élan version of myself. Each day, my life was gauged by the weight on the scale and the size in my closet. Size 6? I am a champion. Size 8? I have work to do. Size 10? Failure. Utter and complete failure. Upon waking, I did not greet the day with gratitude, rather, I would wake to tally the daily calorie count, my exercise routine for the week, how many calories I had burned the day before, and scheduling in my head when and where I would burn extra calories that day.
In the periphery there was the rest of my life: love, jobs, friendships. Thanks to my focus on food, calories, and exercise, I was a self-contained island in a world of potential hurt. If I avoided connecting too deeply to anything, I could avoid being hurt altogether. I had something else to focus on instead, something that didn’t hurt me, and something that I could control. I had learned early on that everything was impermanent, and that the pain of loss was always just around the corner.
Faced with uncertainty and fear, I focused instead on what I could control, and that was entering in my daily calorie counts into the application on my smart phone. Apple: 60 calories. Toast: 110 calories. String Cheese: 80 calories. Running: 30 minutes, or 300 calories. I was always working towards a weight and size I felt best represented the better part of me, always needing to lose 5 more pounds. If only I can get to a size 4, everyone will see what a strong, beautiful woman I am. Only then would someone see my value. Only then would I find love, and therefore, a purpose. I did not realize at the time that my obsession with food and calories was really my way of maintaining control of my life, and a way to feel a sense of pride in myself that I couldn’t seem to find anywhere else.
My life was spinning out of control, but I was shrinking beautifully. I was engaged to an alcoholic who traveled on business and came home with sketchy accounts of his trips. When he returned home, his addictions turned from alcohol to surfing the break across the street from our apartment in San Diego County. We had moved to Southern California from San Francisco to satiate his need to surf, which I resented but did so because I was in love. So I left my job and the people I loved in San Francisco and moved to Carlsbad, a sleepy surfer town far from any kind of city life I longed for. I planned a wedding for us that we later cancelled. Several months later, we eloped in Hawaii, forging ahead on a bad idea.
Things worsened at home, and I shrunk into myself, becoming a solitary creature, taking long walks on the boardwalk that bordered the Pacific Ocean. I cooked nearly every meal, light vegetarian food with little fat and calories. I began jogging instead of walking, because I could burn more calories that way. My 5’9 frame soon shrunk down to a size 4, and my weight hovered around 130 pounds, which was considered underweight for my height.
My friends did not express concern; instead, they congratulated me on looking great in a bikini. I reveled in the attention, and only now realize that this attention helped distract me from the bigger problems looming overhead. I was fully on my island, my body my only focus and my only solace.
Of course, this weight was impossible to maintain when I became plagued with bursitis, which left me on crutches for three months. My mind loved the smaller me, but my body had begun to break down. Slowly I gained weight. I reached a peak of a size 10 and weighed in at a whopping 150 pounds. As I began to heal, so did my obsession with losing the weight, and getting back to that magical size 4. I consumed women’s magazines by the dozen to find ways to be “healthier,” which really amounted to ways to lose the weight and look emaciated. The magazines were brimming with images of a thin ideal I hoped to meet – size zero women with taught arms, abs and legs that I looked at enviously as I spent more and more time on the treadmill.
Perhaps, if I had actually confided in my doctor or psychologist at the time that my life was guided by calories, fat and compulsive exercise, I might have been diagnosed with an eating disorder. Though it is just as possible that instead I might be diagnosed with a “normative obsession,” which is what psychologist Judith Rodin originally dubbed the millions of women and girls who have an obsessive fear of becoming fat. This is something that women everywhere struggle with, and because it is not perceived as life threatening, it is therefore is considered less of a threat. It is even considered normal.
Women everywhere are obsessed with their weight and their size, as is evidenced by the increase in plastic surgery treatments like liposuction, and the $59.7 billion dollar dieting industry (Rao, 2010). My obsession was nothing more than what women everywhere struggle with on a daily basis. It is estimated that 13 million people are “effectively on a permanent diet,” and two in five women are dieting “most of the time” (BBC News, 2004). Nearly every magazine in every grocery store touts headlines with grandiose promises to reach your ideal weight, size and shape. You too can lose those last few pounds, with just a few moves promised in the glossy pages.
Why is it that women everywhere gauge their success and their worth on their bodies, not their minds? Why is it that more people are not more concerned that over half of the population are obsessively starving themselves? Naomi Wolf writes, “if anorexia is defined as a compulsive fear of and fixation upon food, perhaps most Western women can be called…mental anorexics” (Wolf, 2002). Thanks to the normalization of thin women everywhere we look, we see nothing wrong with women starving themselves into smaller sizes. What would happen if we saw this trend in men?
Wolf goes on to describe a fictitious disease overtaking the male population, and ponders how society might react if two out of five men in the Western world were emaciated and gaunt, puking up their power lunches by shoving their fingers down their throats. How would people react if men were starving themselves as much as women do? Wolf contends that our “cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience” (p. 187). When women constantly focus on their weight, it leads to a “collapse of self-esteem and sense of effectiveness,” cancelling out the liberation women have fought so hard for (p. 187).
As someone who has obsessively dieted for a decade of my life, I can attest to looking back and feeling like I only “half-lived” many of those years. I can remember every diet, and every thin phase I have had. I cannot, however, remember names of several lovers and friends, their faces small glimpses in a foggy memory. I did not push myself to succeed or attempt to change the world. If I only half-lived my life while obsessing about dieting, what does this say about the rest of the female population that is currently dieting? If over half the population is living to only half of their potential, as they “normatively obsess” about their bodies, what is happening to the world around us?
Imagine if, instead of obsessing over weight, food, and exercise patterns, women were instead pondering philosophy? What if, instead of telling ourselves that we were not good enough because of an extra five pounds, we treated ourselves kindly, encouraging ourselves to pursue our dreams? What if instead of spending all of our money on cellulite creams and surgical procedures, we instead saved that money and invested in our education instead? What if women everywhere let go of this need, this desire to be thin, and instead focused on the internal voice that could potentially lead our country to new heights, new innovations, or new cures for disease? Is this “normative obsession” not life threatening? Not just to our own lives, but to the world around us?
Today, I still struggle with my “normative obsession.” While I no longer diet and exercise compulsively, at times I find myself slipping, inadvertently counting calories, taking tallies and managing my exercise schedule for the week. Now I catch myself and check in to what is happening in my life, recognizing that my need for control in other aspects of my life is spilling out in the way I approach food and exercise. Healing did not come easily, and is still top of mind.
I found healing through whole foods, transitioning my focus from calories and fat to food that was fueling my body, rather than depleting it. I also found healing through a grounding yoga practice done in moderation. But mostly, I found healing through taking a chance on myself, and going back to school. Through my belief in myself, I realize how much time and energy I’ve wasted on pursuits that have never fully suited me. Instead of counting calories, I now focus on dissecting the media and its role in how women obsess with looking a specific way. And now my goals are aligning with my inner self – to do good and leave a footprint that may be a little heavier, but certainly more impactful.
BBC News. (2004, February 4). BBC Health. Retrieved July 18, 2012 from BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3454099.stm
Rao, J. (2010, June 18). CNBC News. Retrieved July 18, 2012 from CNBC: http://www.cnbc.com/id/37492840/It_s_The_Year_of_The_Value_Diet
Wolf, N. (2002). The Beauty Myth. New York: Harper Perennial.