You only have value if you’re skinny. This is what I believed growing up. My formative years were spent hearing how my mother never wanted to be fat. I was raised hearing that fat people were unhealthy, lazy slobs, and they were no more than the brunt of the joke. No one, she made clear, likes a fat person.
These teachings were reinforced by a step-mother who told me, an already active teenager, I should work out more, and missing a few meals would do me some good.
Never mind the facts I was a healthy size for my age, I ate healthy foods, and I was active. I was not rail thin.
I assume this fouled teaching comes from the fact these women came of age in the time of Twiggy —during the 60s and 70s, when having hips or curves was something not allowed in our society. Regardless, other generations suffered because these women taught us that we should always scrutinize our bodies, and that our shapes and form were subject to public judgement if we didn’t fit the right criteria.
Pointing fingers at my mother, or making her feel less than because she had body image issues is hardly my point. In fact, I think she was as much a victim of the way society tends to try to regulate acceptable body types as anyone. Yet, the reverb from those decades that complicated the teachings of peace and love with skinny or not accepted is felt still today.
It was hard growing up in a household overhearing my mom constantly criticizing her own body. I looked at her thinking she was the most beautiful woman in the world. When she lamented how ugly and fat she was, I somehow transposed that onto myself thinking “I must be super disgusting, then”. I just knew I didn’t want to be all the things she said were horrible, but I also watched her hurting herself to be something she thought was the definition of beautiful.
During my teen years, I ran the gamut between trying on mom’s anorexia/bulimia for size, and trying to just be super athletic. I was also obsessed with the new wave of exercise programs on stations like ESPN during the mid to late 80s, and I really liked the look of the muscular, healthy women. Thank goodness. They were probably what saved me from full on anorexia/bulimia. Today, I am thankful girls can see the role models of Laila Ali and Rhonda Rousey instead of only models who are often making themselves sick to fit fashion industry standards.
By the time I was in my 30s and early 40s, I had outgrown the need to harm myself to be skinny. I’d spent years watching my mom take laxatives like candy, telling me stories like “I’ve had a hysterectomy, so I don’t have a uterus to support my intestines, and I have to have laxatives”—a story I believed when I was young and naïve. I watched her become sick and weak when she hadn’t eaten, nearly passing out. She never had energy, and was nearly always too tired to do anything. Mom was frequently sick, and I realized it was because she wouldn’t eat.
The irony in all this lies in the fact Mom always equated being fat with being sick, when it was her trying to be 100 pounds or less with a 19 inch waist that was making her sick. What mom never understood was the fact that body size and type does not in and of itself determine health. I know heavier people who are actually quite healthy and athletic, just like many of my very small-built friends. I also know many smaller framed people who are just as unhealthy as many overweight people—especially those who have lost weight in unhealthy manners.
Still to this day, mom equates being fat with being unattractive, sick, and lazy. She still makes jokes about heavy people when she sees them out. She’s also still anorexic. Her bulimia has seemingly stopped, but she still only eats very few calories a day aside from her soda intake.
Now that she’s older, the toll her eating disorders have had on her are striking. Mom has dental issues. She’s losing muscle tone all over her body, making her look older than she is. Osteoporosis is now a reality for her, causing her to have to be on prescription medication. In short, she’s frail and susceptible to sickness more so than other people her age, and there is no talking to her about it. She denies her illness, makes excuses for not eating, and still seems proud when the number on the scale continues to drop.I realize now, she doesn’t just hate the way she looks, she hates everything about herself, and that’s the worst part of all.
I feel horrible for her, but it’s also maddening to watch someone still committing slow suicide, even with loved ones begging her to stop. It’s infuriating to watch a woman in her mid-60s who still thinks if she gains an ounce she’ll be disgusting. What’s more, it’s very difficult to know she thinks I’m a fat slob because I don’t fit her ideal body type. Even at her age, she cannot see the falsity behind the idea that people are supposed to look a specific way. It hurts me to see her not realize how much of a beautiful, intelligent, fun woman she is. It hurts me that she has never realized her own value, and that her value, as well as that of others, is defined by more than curves and the numbers on a scale.
So many of us my age were raised by people who thought exactly the same way as my mom. We’ve battled our way through food guilt and the humiliation of not looking exactly like we’d been taught we should. Many of us fought one food disorder only to end up on the other end of the spectrum, using food as comfort.
Had our parents taught us that healthy eating and exercise are all that’s important, that eating a piece of cake or pizza is fine occasionally, and that no matter what, we’d always be loved and accepted, many of us would be far healthier and happier than we are. How can we blame them, though? Society never taught them, so how could they teach us?
According to South Carolina Department of Mental Health
- Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness
- A study by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reported that 5 – 10% of anorexics die within 10 years after contracting the disease; 18-20% of anorexics will be dead after 20 years and only 30 – 40% ever fully recover
- The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate of ALL causes of death for females 15 – 24 years old.
- 20% of people suffering from anorexia will prematurely die from complications related to their eating disorder, including suicide and heart problems
Eating disorders can be deadly. The psychological effects from believing the lies that lead to them can be long lasting, and lead to death. If you or someone you love suffers from an eating disorder, please seek help, and let us not forget, eating disorder affect all genders. Anyone can suffer this tragic disease.