Comfortable in Your Own Skin

Here's a look into what body-shaming can really do to others, from the words of a NASH student.

Society+often+struggles+to+accept+all+body+types%2C+which+leads+some+to+eating+disorders.

Photo by Grace Waldee

Society often struggles to accept all body types, which leads some to eating disorders.

Jeannie Schleppy, Staff Writer

I had someone say to me the other day, “You’ve gained weight in all the right places. You look great.”

As a young woman in today’s world, we as females are constantly being looked at. We are always being judged on our bodies, and although there has been more acceptance of different body types over the years, body shaming itself is an ongoing problem in our society. The fact of the matter is that a destruction of self-worth is created when others comment on how we look.

I had the opportunity to interview a student here at NASH who was kind enough to share their story on body shaming, as well as their eating disorder. And while they wish to remain anonymous, their story represents women everywhere.  

 

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a woman in today’s day in age? Do you think we have to look a certain way?

Historically, the appearance of a woman has been vital to their success because, before women could work, they had to attract a man who could take care of them. The idea that a woman’s worth is based on her appearance is archaic, and many people think we are past it, but we’re not. It is systematic and ingrained in our society. From advertisements to clothing sizes to compliments we give ourselves and each other, valuing women based on their appearance is a real problem and as a result, it’s not surprising that the average girl thinks she needs to go on a diet by the time she is only 8 years old. Women should look at what makes them feel confident and comfortable, and the idea of making yourself look a certain way for someone else is frustrating and problematic.

Can you tell us a little bit about your story with your eating disorder?

I was diagnosed with anorexia the June after my junior year, but I had been restricting for several months prior to the diagnosis. It’s honestly very easy to pick out the day I began restricting — it was actually due to a compliment one of my friends gave me. It was well-meant, but it hit me hard, and I began eating 1,200 calories every day, which is the nutritional requirement for a two-year-old, to give you some reference. 

That was in February. By May, I was eating under 200 calories every day and was losing weight rapidly. It was what I wanted, so I was happy. I received compliments. Every time I weighed myself, which was several times per day, I felt proud. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong, and I mostly felt fine. 

Losing weight became an addiction and it blinded me to the side effects: losing hair, losing my period, my fingers turning blue when I got cold, and feeling tired and dizzy constantly. I was sick and I honestly didn’t notice. One of my friends noticed at summer camp because she recognized my symptoms due to her own battle with EDs (eating disorders). She confronted me, and after I admitted I was restricting so severely, she called my parents. When I returned home from camp, my life looked like a hatred of food, as I was basically force-fed by my parents and doctors, and weekly therapy sessions during which I was weighed and assessed. 

The therapy was very physical, and I was required to gain 15 lbs (I had lost 30 lbs, but still this was remarkably distressing as anorexia causes an intense fear of weight gain). For a while, I was prohibited to exercise because it interfered with the process of recovery. I have improved and am able to plate my own food now, but I still must eat under supervision and be weighed weekly. The difficulty of eating remains, and I worry the enjoyment of food will never return. The only physical side effect remaining is severe stomach pain after every meal because, when you don’t eat for a while, your stomach literally shrinks.

What do you think your biggest struggle with your eating disorder is?

Honestly, the fear that it will never go away. There was a time that I ate food when I got hungry and enjoyed it, but I don’t even feel hunger cues anymore and eating is so stressful for me. I struggle to eat in front of people. The fear of weight gain also remains, and I struggle with my body image considerably. I mostly fear that I will regress without the help of my parents once I go to college and will have to be sent home because of weight loss.

What is something that people don’t understand about eating disorders?

Eating disorders are not a choice any more than addiction is. It’s maybe a choice at first, but it progresses into something you can’t control — that you can’t stop. Another thing people don’t realize is that eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. Not every anorexic weighs 80 pounds and not everyone who weighs 80 pounds is anorexic. Our bodies are all built differently and healthy looks different for everyone. Also, telling people with eating disorders, “just eat,” is no more helpful than telling a person with anxiety, “just stop worrying.” It is a mental illness and not something that is easily repressed.

What have you learned from this experience?

I’ve learned that losing weight doesn’t fix your body confidence because body image isn’t a body issue, it’s an image issue. Even at my lowest weight, I still hated my body and wanted to lose even more weight, despite the serious health consequences. I’ve also learned that exercise should be a celebration of what my body can do, and not a punishment for what I ate. I’ve learned a lot about myself and my faith. I am not strong, but God is. I couldn’t have made the progress I have without the hope with which my faith provides me and the trust that God is protecting me, as well as the idea that my worth is found in Him and not in how I look.

What do you think the biggest problem with body-shaming is? Why do you think it happens and continues?

I think the biggest problem with body-shaming is how it’s often disguised as something good, and it’s not always so blatant. People comment on each other’s appearance constantly — men and women alike — when it is literally the least important thing about us as people. Despite this fact, it continues partially because of the media and the promotion of an ideal body, as well as the overwhelming volume of dieting rhetoric we are hit with on a daily basis. We label some foods as good and some foods as bad. We say that losing weight is always good and gaining weight is always bad. We let our feelings about ourselves dictate what we do, rather than our brains, which know that how we look doesn’t matter that much. Additionally, there is an extreme weight bias in the health field. I read a study that said the majority of doctors (despite their size or weight), when presented with the same problems by two patients –one slim and one overweight — the solution for the overweight person was 100% of the time to lose weight, while the slimmer person was given real medical advice.

What advice do you have in regard to dealing with this?

First off, if you think you need to go on a diet, you don’t. Diet culture is brutal, ineffective, and largely promotes eating disorders. If you are struggling with food in any capacity, tell someone. It is normal to have ambivalence about recovery. It is scary, but necessary. If you have a friend who you think is struggling, talk to them about it — you could be saving their life. Mostly remember that your worth and beauty are not based on your appearance, but on the contents of your heart.

How can we as a society stop this?

As a whole, we need to stop complimenting weight loss. Best case scenario, you are reinforcing the idea that ‘thin is better’ and the value of a person’s body size. Worst case scenario, you are fueling someone’s eating disorder and complimenting a physical or mental illness. Rather, compliment someone’s heart, their intellect, how strong they are, etc. Let’s just be better at reinforcing what matters.”

******

Eating disorders are very real issues that people face in their everyday lives. It’s not all just rainbows and butterflies. There is a lot going on behind the scenes, and you never truly know what another person is going through. After this interview, I realized the impact that words have on others. Even if something is meant to be a compliment, you never know who you could be hurting. 

That is why it is so important to be kind to one another, and to build each other up, rather than tearing each other down. We need to stop body-shaming and learn to accept each and every body, rather than having a perceived image of an ideal one. It is vital to love one another, and to be sensitive around the topics of our bodies. If you take away one thing from this student’s experiences and words, remember that you are beautiful, strong, and amazing, no matter what anyone else tries to tell you.