Sometimes it doesn't seem that bad. Sometimes you don't even know about it. Sometimes it doesn't have anything to do with being skinny. Sometimes it results in death.
It's National Eating Disorders Awareness Week right now and I'm trying to figure out what to say.
When I think about eating disorders, I think of a whole spectrum of things relating to compulsive negativity and negative behaviors surrounding the relationship between food and physical appearance. I also think that talking about eating disorders is an opportunity to talk about cultural beauty standards and how we are all affected by them. In my mind, the term "eating disorder" somehow also encompasses, or at least leans against, body image issues that don't focus on food, but apply similar tools of self-cruelty.
I see women dealing with complex, damaging, negative relationships with food and their weight all the time. I have written so much about body image and weight and beauty, and I still feel helpless in a face of a friend's combative, compulsive relationship with her own body. I catch myself thinking compulsively about food in relation to the way my body looks in terms of sin and righteousness, in sweeping proclamations of good and evil. I catch myself hating the flabby, flailing, squishy parts of my body as though they are rotten. As though they are an alien parasite from a bad horror movie, infesting my good, clean, true, thinner body.
Oh god, I think, I hope no one saw my arm ripple like that, I hope no one saw a dimple in the fat for a second. What I mean, translated, is: I hope no one will see my shame.
I can think these things quickly, expertly, at a time in my life when I am happier than I've ever been. When I am proud of my body. When my body made a beautiful baby who is perfect for her delectable rolls of fat. I can think these things like dark flecks of paint appear across a colorful canvas, at a time when I am mostly not thinking about my body at all.
There have been times in my life when the dark paint covered much more of the surface.
I am better now, at noticing the way my little daughter cuddles against my soft arms. I am a pillow. I am comfort and security. I am sturdy. I am a mother. I am a plush, whole, unique woman.
We girls and women*, we are all whole and complex and unique. Our bodies take so many clever, intricate, striking forms. So many subtle forms. There isn't actually any one thing that defines us as a group. We're revelatory, exuberantly different, endless. The idea of compressing ourselves into just a few white-washed, sterilized images of beauty is realistically absurd. But it's far from absurd to get stuck on the way we look when we're informed from birth (loudly, but also sometimes too silently to even remember) that the way we look is arguably the most critical thing about us.
I've always thought of myself as healthy. If I thought about body image at all, I figured mine was reasonably fine. Maybe that's why I want to write about this stuff in the first place -- because if I can think that I'm probably pretty OK about these things and mostly appreciative of my body, and at the same time I can quietly, viciously, persistently continue to hate the fat that collects on my arms, then there is a bigger problem.
This is a bigger problem with very personal, very private, very individual symptoms.
I have watched friends starving themselves, exercising to frailty instead of strength, becoming obsessed with food without trying explicitly to lose weight, flinging criticism at their reflections, hating their physical details for failing to be closer to some perpetual, impossible ideal. I've called my own hateful analyses of my appearance "the truth" or "being real." I've ignored it. I've denied it. I've stood up and yelled about it. I've fought to love myself. I've told my friends they're beautiful. I don't know what else to do, but I do know there's more that needs to be done.
For my friends. For my mom. For my grandmothers. For all of the girls everywhere. For all of the women. For the boys and men, too. For myself. For my daughter.
We need to keep working towards healing this wound.
*And boys and men! They also suffer from eating disorders, though I'm not explicitly addressing that here.
A version of this piece appeared originally on Eat the Damn Cake, where I write about lots of stuff.