In the latest instalment of her column, Clare Egan reflects on disordered eating, body image and the value of being thin
Content Warning: This post discusses body image, diet culture, and disordered eating.[restrict]
As a child of the 90s, I absorbed one singular message about how my body should be: thin. At the time, the desired body shape was described as ‘heroine chic’, as if being emaciated due to drug addiction was something to aspire to. My mother talked constantly about her desire to lose weight. She lived by the rules of Weight Watchers, diligently counting points and calculating what she was ‘allowed’ to consume. She spent a significant proportion of her time thinking about what she was eating now, what she might eat later and what exercise she could do to allow herself to eat more. She had an almost maniacal abhorrence of food waste, a habit likely borne from her own mother’s hunger during the second world war. And she had very strong opinions about which foods were ‘good’ and which foods were ‘bad’. She referred to the ‘bad’ foods as ‘rubbish’ and treated them with the disdain they deserved. It was sobering for me, watching a person I thought was perfect ardently long to be smaller.
I now recognise this as diet culture, an ideology that I seamlessly internalised and later embodied when I stopped eating at age 12. This is unsurprising given my history. One study found that 30% of people who develop eating disorders have a history of childhood abuse. Teen girls developing eating issues is depressingly common. This book is based on hundreds of diaries kept by adolescent girls across an almost two-hundred-year period. It found that while nineteenth-century girls wrote about their goals, girls at the end of the twentieth century wrote mostly about their bodies. Looking back, I can see that my (relative) recovery was largely due to my emerging feminist identity. I began to locate the cultural pressure to be thin as a form of female oppression and in all my spunky, teenage indignance I couldn’t let the patriarchy win. Time and therapy also helped, together with a change in my living circumstances.
Like most people, the size of my body has fluctuated throughout my life. For a few years, after my mother died, I skipped meals to save money. I felt too economically vulnerable to feed myself well. Saving money was more important than satiating my appetite. At other times, I was too unwell to eat and lost weight. Or, I was too sick to exercise and gained weight. During a period when my body was larger, I wanted to understand if it was a ‘problem’. Offhandedly, I calculated my BMI. It said I was obese. I was terrified that the result would trigger a return to my disordered eating. It didn’t, because I knew that the BMI is a racist, inaccurate formula. I was protected by the fact that I had begun to challenge the toxic ideology that people who inhabit larger bodies are less worthwhile than people who inhabit smaller bodies, an idea which seems truly absurd when you describe it. I had developed the skills to unpick the ideological lens I got from mainstream media, public health messaging and my formal education which, from this vantage point, seems deeply fatphobic.
The change didn’t happen overnight. Over a period of years, I read Lindy West and Roxane Gay. I began to diversify my instagram feed. I found solace and recognition in a broader concept of beauty via this series. I watched these videos. I listened to this podcast. I began to understand body size from a historical perspective and see how the ideal fluctuates depending on the time period. I learned a lot from this piece which argued for a new paradigm that centered weight neutral healthcare. I discovered that repeated studies have found an unsurprising link between diet culture and eating disorders.* I questioned what I’d been taught, which, on the face of it, seemed somewhat suspect. Could losing 5-10% of your body weight really improve your health? My queerness has undoubtedly been an asset in this. We live in a patriarchal society and I inhabit a cis female body that’s culturally understood primarily as a thing to be looked at. My struggle to survive the male gaze is akin to a plant’s struggle to survive salt water. Queer people have always inhabited a space outside traditional gender and social norms and though this comes with enormous challenges, there are some benefits too.
These days, I try to keep my thoughts and feelings about my body pretty loose. I don’t dwell on it too much and I don’t weigh myself. But that strategy falls apart when I go out into the world. A woman’s body is never neutral. A woman’s body is everyone’s business but her own. I’ve gone on dates and felt the other person’s eyes graze over my ‘larger than before’ body. I’ve seen repulsion flash across their faces and blamed myself for using profile pictures that were a few years old. I’ve gritted my teeth when people comment on my size. They thought it was complimentary but it made me feel skinless and later enraged. As much as I can, I shelter myself from diet culture which has largely been rebranded as wellness culture. I am also protected by significant privilege. It is a privilege to live in this body that is, at least at the moment, in a period of good health and happiness. I am not currently disabled or impeded by a diagnosis either mental or physical. I have always been able to find comfortable, inexpensive clothes that fit my body. I have never been discriminated against because of my size. There are still days when I feel hideous and disgusting. But having survived long periods of serious ill health, most days I’m just glad to be here.
* In light of this, media outlets ought to carefully consider how they cover health, diet and fitness. These style guides are a useful starting point. There is also specific advice for reporting on eating disorders.