It’s 10:22 am and my mid morning snack sits in front of me on my desk. ‘Just 100 Calories!‘ boasts the package of pretzels while sitting next to a reduced fat string cheese . It sounds like the quintessential dieters snack but I am not dieting, just eating. Somewhere over the years, I have become trained to gravitate instinctively toward choices that include promises of all things ‘reduced’, ‘non’, or otherwise exclusionary. However, that’s old news. What really causes me pause between my fury of typing and mindless munching , is that this particular bag says”the perfect pretzels for kids” that come in “5 fun shapes” right along side with it’s exultant “just 100 calories!”
I get it. Obesity is an country-wide “epidemic”. Or so they say. Sometimes, I feel like anything can be an “epidemic” if we spin the numbers the right way, but I’ve got no scientific or factual knowledge to counter the claim, so I digress. I just find it bemusing that we, as a country, have issues weighing in on both sides of the literal and figurative scale: eating too much or not eating enough. Because everyday, while we as a nation battle with childhood obesity, we also have a raging war with eating disorders: anorexia and bulimia or whatever combination of labels and diagnosis you want to call not eating properly or having a disordered relationship with food because you fear being fat and have poor body image.
I guess this probably caught my attention more than a passing thought, because it’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
I guess this probably caught my attention more than a passing thought, because somewhere on my medical file, in a small box, not often referenced, largely unnoticed and definitely not discussed, there is a note that states “history of eating disorder.” It is simply a note that was added to my file as a reference point after it came up in a fairly benign way that my eating had once been a point of struggle in therapy.
I’ve never been formally diagnosed or treated for an eating disorder, insofar that I was never sent to a treatment facility or ever bordered on death because of malnutrition. Even at my lowest weight in high school of 90lbs, my periods did not stop and my hair never fell out. However, I have obsessed and severely calorie restricted and at times, though I don’t like admitting it, I have purged. But without treatment for anything specifically surrounding my weight or eating habits, I really can’t flounce around the label of either anorexic or bulimic, nor emotional eater or over eater etc., with either pride of ownership or embarrassment. I am neither of these, technically. But I am all of these, technically; at one time or another, irregardless of documented medical diagnosis.
But who isn’t? When it comes down to it: isn’t this how most of the modern day female population thinks, feels and acts? And it’s not unequivocally how most of the modern day female population thinks, feels and acts? And it’s not unequivocally ‘my generation’ because I see it in so many girls and women with the same kinds of thoughts and behaviors. They say the average age for a girl to start dieting is now 8 years old. Fucking, eight. I see it everywhere and at nearly every age: the insatiable need to be thinner and alter our bodies to meet some preconceive notions of beauty or even worthiness.
I see it in the constant office conversations about weight watchers recipes (these chicken wings are baked not fried!) and the ubiquitous Facebook posts (Jane ran 7.2 miles with MapYourRun!) and seemingly insipid comments my girlfriends make (I’m totally being a fat kid today, don’t judge me!).
I see it in my 17 year old sister who complains her thighs are her real problem and demands every photo be taken ten times before we can settle on one that is ‘just okay’.
I see it in my 60 year old mother who can’t miss her daily work out and eats a yogurt for dinner in the name of “having had a large lunch” and yet despite her hard work, swats at her belly in disgust when we’re in the fitting room at Macy’s.
I see it in pop culture and the media, where while now celebrating ‘curves’, it still boasts an enormous obsession with being “beach body ready” (read: thin), “sexy”(read: thin) and “healthy” (read: thin). It is painfully clear through the media that women are seen as their bodies. Being smart, funny or talented is just a bow on what should otherwise be a neat, thin, package.
Several years ago, a therapist asked me what my life would look like if my eating issues went away. I started crying. And not for myself or my struggles, but for the fact that is was simply that hard to picture a life where eating did not silently hover over me 24/7. I could not think of a (sober) time where I did not mentally account for every, single, calorie- either in defiance (fuck you non-existent omnipresent presence: I’m getting pizza AND cheese fries and I’m going to enjoy all ten thousand calories) or in an effort of logic(if i have this pizza for lunch, I’ll stick to a salad for dinner, or better yet, won’t eat dinner at all and then I will be okay).
Moreover, I could not picture a time where I didn’t use food as a method for feeling something-happiness, depression, or to ease anxiety, or most of all, as a method of control in my otherwise chaotic world. I have been groomed to think of food as a vice and, more than that, to think of being thin as the ultimate goal if we want to have any kind of value, success or propriety in this world. The lessons started early and innocuous as my father’s comments on any larger woman’s weight (she’s bigger than a Buick!), or coveting the disproportionately tiny waist of my beloved Barbie and accompanying my mother to her weigh-ins with the local Weight Watchers groups.
By adolescence I found myself rather awkward, but receiving a lot of praise and attention for my particularly tiny, almost frail, build which I possessed naturally, until a late blooming pubescent development took over and I grew into a slightly larger size than the rail thin frame I was used to. I didn’t know who I was anymore without being the tiniest person in the room. If I didn’t have that attribute what did I have? So I dove into books on weight loss and and being a quick study, I easily hit a dieting stride. This stride included obsessively measuring food out, counting calories and keeping track of how many I had eaten for the day by writing the totals on the sides of my hands. Before long, I shrank in size and felt once again, worth something.
This strained relationship with my body, self worth and eating has waxed and waned over the years. I know this because I’ve worked and reworked different iterations of this post for three years now and each year I am in a markedly different place in my relationship with eating and self image. But how can anybody truly let go of the dieting obsessing when it surrounds us everyday? The ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality is romanticized with every person I hear talking about Cross-fit and every Jillian Michael’s DVD I exercise to or every calorie restricting/point calculating diet I hear about. The obsession with thinness is shoved right down my throat with every article published about another celebrities ‘surprising’ weight gains, or tracking their ‘post-baby bods’ and every TV show that only casts women with 2% body fat.
And as I reach a certain age where child rearing is starting to exist as a far, far, far (did I mention far?) off possibility, I can’t help but wonder what kind of world I would be bringing my child into. How can they escape unburdened in a world where the diet industry turns children’s pretzels, fucking pretzels, into a tool for calorie control? How will I teach my daughter that their success and worth does not ride on the coattails of the number on the scale, when even Oprah- arguably the most accomplished, seemingly self-aware and strong women of our time- is saying that “Inside every overweight woman is a woman she knows she can be”, as if tipping the proverbial scales makes you somehow less than.
With all my therapy, all my awareness, soul searching and women’s studies classes I admittedly still struggle. I still have days where I ignore the hunger in my belly or berate myself when I ate too much. Fat is still the nastiest word I can call myself even though I know it’s not empirically true and not the worst thing I can be. I know that this is false and wrong. I know this. But I also know this: I am, beyond a doubt, more than my weight. And while I can’t help but think of calorie calculations every time I eat and I would be lying if I didn’t say I feel some incredible self loathing when the scale goes up or that I don’t get some form of anxiety when I don’t have time in my day to exercise, I know this isn’t all that there is to me. I have conceded that some of societies rules and expectations are just too far ingrained in me to be removed. But others aren’t, and those are the ones I try and hang on to. So, I’m throwing out these stupid, ridiculous, fucking offensive, pretzels. And instead I’m exchanging them for one more small piece of self worth. And maybe in the far…far…far..off future, I can try and wipe the slate clean with a new life in the form of my child and teach them about love from the inside out; a love that is not dependent on anything to do with how their body looks in a particular piece of fabric or that the smaller they are the more valuable they become. And in doing so, we can heal the world as we heal one another. Because it’s not just a package of pretzels- it’s our fucking lives.
**[ For more information on the National Eating Disorders Awareness Group or National Eating Disorder Week visit: http://nedawareness.org/ ]**