Not your hair, not your muscles, not your voice. The greatest compliment a woman can hear (at least according to some)? “You look like you’ve lost weight…”.
For girls or women with anorexia, staying thin becomes an addictive compulsion. Every waking minute they’re thinking about what they will eat, or what they won’t eat. Sidestepping concerned friends or family, avoiding questions about their vanishing body — a body that they constantly evaluate and distort its reality. Scheming about how they can stay in ultimate control of their weight, thereby proving their own worth.
They will call themselves “healthy eaters.” They’ll swear up and down they eat “plenty,” as they sip water after running five miles. Or complete their daily Cross Fit. They’ll find other women who share their thinking, as they drink a glass of wine and eat lettuce leaves for lunch. They can feel a giddy superiority when not eating, and a sinking despair if gaining a half pound.
The denial of their disease can be rigid and ferocious.
And their lives can be secretly miserable.
Breaking out of this highly irrational self-image is extremely difficult. Because anorexia isn’t about food. It’s about a need for control and self-worth.
Some never seek treatment. Others do. For the latter group, some are able to claw their way out of the vicious cycle of mental distortion and medical starvation. Others may lose that battle, and suffer most of their lives with the consequences of the condition.
Gwynne came to me months ago to talk about her anorexia. She’d wanted to come forward publicly for a while, passionate about getting a message out to others experiencing the silent agony of staying thin.
She wanted to talk not because she’d beaten her disease. Quite the opposite. She’d tried over and over to dim its voice inside her head. Complete success had evaded her.
“I don’t know if you want to use my story,” she told me, hesitating a bit as she spoke. “I’m not a success. I wouldn’t want anyone to be like me.”
I thought for a second.
“But you’re honest with yourself. You call it for what it is. You aren’t hiding from the truth. In my experience, that’s one of the hardest things to do.”
Gwynne had found a diary that she’d kept when she was much younger. She sent me excerpts. In them, I heard the despair of a young woman, completely overwhelmed with fear, loneliness and intense pressure.
What I found even more profound was Gwynne’s writing in the present, as she scoured her psyche for answers to questions. She has generously allowed me to share them with you. You may find yourself in what she writes, whether or not you have clinical anorexia or not. Because she speaks with the voice of women who don’t talk to one another honestly, who accept what glossy fashion magazines dictate, who weigh themselves everything morning — determining whether it’s a “good day” or a “bad day” given the number on the scale.
I’ve written about my own anorexia, and the remaining “eating-disordered thinking” that I suffer. I can start out my day with a trip to the scale, and find that day ruined if I’m not very careful.
Maybe we can learn from her.
Gwynne — On the emotional stagnation of anorexia — of not maturing into a confident person.
I am now 55. I imagine this as an age where I ease up on my career and focus more on my own interests. Instead I find that I am driven by the same fears and desires that I had at 16, 26, and 36 and so on. My body has aged and yet my desire to remain under 95 lbs. no matter what stays the same. Why? What do such obsessions bring me? And, where are the other women of my age group – no longer young, certainly not aged – who are struggling with similar conditions? What happens to young anorexics when they live and get older? We certainly don’t make it into the popular media or consciousness. Is it just assumed that we have recovered? Is it taken for granted that we no longer worry about such trivial, vain topics as body weight? Are we so invisible that we are above – or beyond – the capability of comparing ourselves with models and feeling envious? How did I disappear? Wait, I still need attention. Am I still refusing to grow up and face the fact that I am not the center of attention? When is all of this supposed to happen?
On believing you’re in control, but actually, your anorexia — your inner extremely critical voice – is in control.
At what point does a woman look at herself and say that it doesn’t matter if she is fat or thin? At what point does a woman look at a menu and order what she wants, rather than what she thinks she should eat? What if said woman is so used to rigidly following a plan that she no longer knows what she wants to eat? How did I get to be a 55-year-old woman who doesn’t know what she wants for lunch, let alone whether or not she wants to eat lunch?
On extreme loneliness and shame.
I teach at a university. I watch other women and it’s hard for me not to believe that they struggle with weight and food issues. But I feel as if I cannot ask them. Such questions are taboo… Imagine that I was having lunch with several friends about my age and I asked them how they chose what they are eating for lunch and how they felt about it? Would they understand my question? Would they answer honestly? Would they make me feel ashamed that I am asking such questions? What if my worst fears hold true and I am alone with these struggles? Would it really feel better to know that other women suffer similar anxieties and that it is taken for granted that this is part of life?
On what we are unconsciously teaching girls who are absorbing our reality.
How can an older woman help a younger girl achieve “girl power” if the woman is faint with hunger? How can the young girl not pick up on the discrepancy between what the woman says and what she does? Who is teaching our daughters how to be women? Have we improved on our own mother’s methods? Or are we simply reinforcing the same stereotypes without acknowledging it? Can a woman on a strict weight regime teach her daughter much of anything?
On the intense pride of achieving ultimate control while simultaneously knowing the desperation behind her own painful secret.
How many times do I like to portray myself as someone who is just naturally, effortlessly thin, in order to make others jealous? If I get honest I’d have to give up that pleasure. On occasion I have tried it, and it usually backfires. Recently a woman in front of me in a coffee shop complained how fat she had let herself get, and then complimented me on being in such good shape. I took a breath and told her that I had long struggled with eating disorders and was still struggling. Her reply was that I looked great, not “disordered.” She ended up trying to assure me that I was just great the way I was. I ended up feeling more desperate, and I don’t believe she felt any better about her own weight or struggles.
So what do women need to do?
We’re not likely to stop buying fashion magazines or watching movies with waif-like Hollywood actresses. The culture will have to change radically to balance out the myriad of skinny models with more normally bodied ones.
Perhaps change is more likely to occur with friends. With daughters. Within book clubs and Bible studies. In yoga class or between work meetings. Women admitting what body image problems they have, what they believe about what society tells them, and supporting one another in their worth — their true worth.
We can hold each other up.
Thank you Gwynne for asking the questions we should all ask.
And for revealing your own vulnerability. That is your strength. That is your courage.
That is your success.
Note: This post talks about women, but anorexia can be experienced by males as well.