Thursday, February 23, 2006

You can never be too rich...

There have been lots of great posts on Body Image in the past few weeks, including a FANTASTIC carnival over at Mind the Gap with that theme. These posts have caused me to think a lot about my own upbringing, and my own continuous battle with body image, which is somewhat difficult for me to tease apart, but here it goes.....

“You can never be too rich, and never too thin.” My mom had this saying stitched on a sampler which hung over the vanity in her bedroom. My mom has always struggled with her weight; her eating habits would seesaw between fasting and binge eating. I can never recall my mother having anything more than a few sips of diet Coke for dinner, although she’d cook a large spread every night for my brother and I.

When I was 12, my mom was hospitalized after dropping down to 85 pounds. I remember visiting her in the hospital, eating chocolate pudding from her lunch tray while even then she refused to consume anything other than water and soda. “I want to show you something,” she said. I watched as she wrapped her fingers around her wrist so that her index finger touched her thumb. She moved the circle that her adjoining fingers created up and down the entire length of her arm. Even on the largest part of her forearm, her fingers could still touch. Years later she would confess that she performed this action dozens of times a day; it became a measure of her success. Her success as an anorexic.

As an adult, I think about that conversation with her, and feel repulsed. But as a child I thought differently, I thought that my inability to encircle my own arm with my touching fingers was an indicator of my inadequacies. This action was a measure of success for my mother, and in that moment became a measure of my failure.

I started dieting the next day. I remember standing on the scale following my first full week of calorie counting and felt empowered when the realization set in that I’d lost 5 pounds with so little effort. Over the years my efforts have increased, and so have my results. At first you revel in the compliments that you receive as you revel in the high that you get when you step on the scale and it reads just a little bit lighter than the last time. However, there’s a marked change that occurs, somewhere between the moment when you stop taking pride in your ability to control your food intake, and the moment when you start becoming ashamed of your habits. It’s the distance between the two where control over your body and over yourself is relinquished out of a desire to be thin. I have reached that state.

It saddens me to say that. It saddens me because I consider myself a feminist, a relatively intelligent, reasonable, person, yet there’s nothing reasonable about what I’m doing to myself, and no amount of feminist theory about body image can convince me to stop.

I’ve often read accounts of women who struggled with issues surrounding eating, or rather not eating, who often state that anorexia is about establishing a sense of control over one’s body. I can relate to this, however, the bitter irony is that a disease which manifests out of a desire for control ultimately results in a complete surrender of control, a helplessness, and powerlessness.

It’s an addiction and an obsession that may stem from a variety of sources. Although I think that young women diet in an effort to lose weight, it doesn’t escalate to the point of compulsive dieting unless there’s a desire to starve out some sort of emotional hunger. Food is a safer, more familiar, and more controllable element than emotions themselves. And it’s relatively easy to turn your every attention toward eating, in an effort to starve those emotions away. It’s a coping mechanism of sorts, albeit a detrimental one.

An eating disorder is not usually a phase, and it is not necessarily indicitive of madness. It is quite maddening, granted, not only for the loved ones of the eating disordered person, but also for the person herself. It is, at the most basic level, a bundle of contradictions: a desire for power that strips you of all power. A gesture of strength that divests you of strength. a wish to prove that you need nothing, that you have no human hungers, which turns on itself and becomes a searing need for the hunger itself. It is an attempt to find an identity, but ultimately it strips you of any sense of yourself, save the sorry identity of "sick". It is a grotesque mockery of cultural standards of beauty that ends up mocking no one more than you. It is a protest against cultural stereotypes of women that in the end makes you seem the weakest, the most needy and neurotic of all women. It is the thing you believe is keeping you safe, alive, contained - and in the end, of course, you find it is doing quite the opposite. These contradictions begin to split a person in two. Body and mind fall apart from each other, and it is in this fissure that an eating disorder may flourish, in the silence that surrounds this confusion that an eating disorder may fester and thrive.(Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, by Marya Hornbacher)

It’s a personal battle, but that’s not to say that we should negate the political connotations that contribute to the problem. It’s no coincidence that the successful anorexic’s body type resembles that of a teenage boy, it’s no coincidence that women’s “problem areas” oftentimes include their hips, stomachs, and buttocks, we diet and exercise to rid our bodies of the very things that constitute them as female. It’s no coincidence that women who are raped or abused engage in a cycle of behaviors to make their bodies physically smaller, so that they take up less space, so that they won’t be noticed, so that they won’t be gazed upon in a sexual way. It’s no coincidence 85-90% of Americans with eating disorders are women. Is this a feminist issue? Undeniably so.

Last weekend, my mom visited for the first time in a few months. I’ve lost a lot of weight since my back surgery, and am currently at the lowest weight that I’ve been in 10 years. When my mom saw me at the train station where I was awaiting her arrival, her initial reaction was to tell me how great I looked. She examined me for a moment before reaching down to measure the breadth of my arm, in the way that she had modeled for me so long ago. For the first time in my life, the largest part of my arm could be encircled by her adjoining fingertips. She smiled before offering a congratulatory “Good girl.”

There was a time when I viewed myself as abnormal for being what I thought was overweight, but now that I’m standing where I am, I don’t think that there’s anything more abnormal than the belief that one can “never be too rich, and never too thin.”