(TW: Weight-related feelings and some mild behaviours described. No specific numbers.)
One of my friends in university was writing a psychology essay on the effects of the internet on young women suffering from eating disorders. She told me about forums and message boards she read as part of her research, where anorexia is encouraged as a “lifestyle choice”. Women and girls – and some boys as well – exchange tips, ideas and “thinspiration” for becoming dangerously under-weight, the strategies themselves being almost as damaging as the desired outcome.
I’m still not sure why I found this as fascinating as I did. Part of me would have wanted to become a therapist had I not decided to study math. Some other part had yet to outgrow my teenage obsession with “dieting” and my looks. Whatever the true motivation, I went online in search of these dark places. What I found instead was a community that would play an important role in my life for the next few years.
As it turned out, “pro-ana” sites are often shut down as soon as they are discovered, so they are hard to come across. On the other hand, I happened upon a small forum dedicated to eating disorder recovery, managed by a close-knit group of smart, interesting women. In addition to looking for support and companionship themselves, they would welcome and try to help all the troubled kids who stumbled in daily like hungry kittens looking for love and a kind ear.
I was drawn in by their stories and for weeks lurked around following their lives as if reading a novel one chapter a day. Eventually that started feeling rather creepy, and one day I came out of the shadows and said ‘hi’. I was honest about not having an eating disorder and they didn’t mind, I was welcomed with open arms. At the time I was adjusting to a new country and dealing with some personal crises, so I could certainly use the support and outlet, and the feeling of belonging helped during the lonely months of being a stranger in a strange new place. The website is long gone now, but I still keep in touch with some of the friends I had made there.
I was surprised by how much I could relate to the struggles of these women: almost all of the behaviours that characterise a potentially fatal illness are considered “normal” when practised in “moderation”. Many people use exercise to punish themselves for the food they eat, go on restrictive diets that cut out entire food groups with no medical need to do so, obsess about meals or develop weird rituals to trick themselves into eating less. I had done all that and worse, and for all I know I was nothing unusual, just a regular young person with garden-variety body image problems.
As a girl (and this applies to some boys too, I’m sure) the world teaches you that your appearance is a currency, a reflection of your worth. Many of the women I met online told horror stories of their family members continuously harassing them about their weight from early childhood. I had been lucky that my parents always put more emphasis on intellect and achievement, and not so much on looking cute or pretty. Nonetheless, I still had plenty of opportunity to learn the wrong lessons.
A little story to illustrate: when I was twelve, I took a ballet course where I was by far the oldest student, the rest of the class was eight to ten years old. As a child I was lagging rather behind on large movement coordination, so this actually worked very well: my age gave me enough of an edge that I was not the worst student in class. That felt amazing, and I even landed a small solo part in the year-end recital. However, being an almost-teenager, I looked quite big compared to the other little girls: I was taller and fuller figured, and although I wasn’t fat my thighs did touch in first position. I was blissfuly oblivious to this until about a month before the recital, when my mom pointed it out to me and suggested that I might want to slim down a bit before I go on stage. I took her advice to heart, and went on a diet of two slices of bread with liver pâté per day; I figured if I was going to starve myself I may as well eat only my favourite food. Sure enough, I lost some weight, and I was praised. Starving before major occasions then became a routine that I only shed decades later.
High school, even a wonderful one that I attended, is a caricatured cartoon version of society where messages like “thin = popular” are displayed in giant flashing neon letters for all to absorb. I was not a particularly slender adolescent (though not overweight in a medical sense), and I saw this as a great impediment to achieving social success. I remember walking home from school thinking of all the things I would do “once I was X kilos”. There was no reason why any of these things should have been weight-related: take the leading part in the school play, ask my crush out to ice cream. Also, X was a crazy low number for my height and build. Years later during a time when I ran and danced a lot and didn’t have enough money to feed myself, I hit X+3. My grandparents thought I was dying, my parents thought I needed help, my boyfriend thought I looked hot. I felt great in my skin, if only the fainting spells would stop.
Thinking of beauty as a means to life satisfaction, or worse, a pre-requisite, has an ugly underbelly: it breeds insidious mental processes (I believe the term is “maladaptive coping mechanisms”). If your looks are the strongest indicator of your worth, then you can reverse-engineer any other problem you might have into fretting about your appearance. After all, if beauty is happiness and you are unhappy, you must be ugly, right? Feelings of guilt, anger and shame are hard to process: before they can be resolved you have to face up to underlying issues that might seem too threatening, too ominous or insurmountable. It is much easier to dress all those scary feelings in the safe, familiar costume of feeling fat. Virtually every one of my online friends was a maverick of this process, and it came naturally to me as well. At some point I was so unhappy with my “belly fat” that I considered saving up for plastic surgery: true story. Now, I have no problem with plastic surgery in general if it makes someone happier, more comfortable or more confident. This is most likely the case when a person has some major issue with a body part which bothers them independently of what else is going on in their lives. I highly doubt that a tummy tuck would have resolved my quarter-life-crisis though, more likely I would have moved on to hating my arms.
So what did help in the end? Dancing did, on the balance, though it was a double-edged sword. Learning to appreciate movement through ballet and later via other forms of dance and sports shifted my focus from appearance to ability. There is enormous satisfaction in being able to move in intricate, controlled ways, and it’s hard to hate the very legs, abs and arms which make that possible. The obvious pitfall is that the dance world is rife with inflexible beauty and image expectations. Fair-skinned ballroom dancers spend hours spray-tanning or rubbing bronzer cream all over their bodies: exhausting. Latin dancers are expected to be absolute divas dressed in tiny shreds of stretchy fabric, and while I enjoyed the glitter and sparkles, I was never very convincing in the super-sexy-diva role. I tried pole dancing for a while: it is very athletic and I loved the acrobatics. But you have to do it in a bikini (you need bare skin to stick to the pole), and then in one class we were taught how to make love to: the wall, the pole, a chair, and the floor. That was a valuable experience but a bit much for me.
One day I saw a poster in a dance studio where I was taking jazz classes with Pink; it was advertising a six-week introductory aerial silks course. Dangling from the ceiling sounded interesting, so I signed up, and by week three I pretty much decided to run away with the circus: I found it seriously addictive. The circus community – at least on the amateur level that I have interacted with – is also incredibly accepting and body-positive; I have trained with people of many different shapes, and they were each able to make the most out of their particular talents. Plus, you are free to experiment with however you wish to present yourself: perform burlesque in lingerie or wear an octopus costume, it’s all good fun. Now you know where the third word in the title of this blog comes form!
Ultimately though, one must let go of the damaging mental gymnastics in order to feel beautiful. It certainly helps that I’m over my quarter-life crisis now — thankfully, as by now it would start counting as a mid-life crisis. With age I have gotten better at acceptance: I don’t need to be perfect any more. Like most people I have made some big mistakes in the past, and probably will make more in the future, but I no longer need to turn feelings of shame into feeling fat. I’m also not as competitive as I once was, so seeing someone else look good doesn’t make me feel ugly, as it sometimes did before.
It’s also easier to feel good about yourself when you’re surrounded with people who love you just the way you are. A boyfriend once scolded me for gaining weight, the precise language he used was “You have fattened up! Admit it!”. He also suggested that I shave more body parts and more often, and as a present gave me a book on how to keep myself firm as I age. I was not yet 20. My advice to young me and anyone else who needs it: kick such partners out immediately, with hard-soled boots to their bottoms. Before I offend half the internet: I don’t imply that one can not encourage or help one’s partner to, say, live a healthier lifestyle. Sure, it’s ok to appreciate when they make an effort to look their best, and even to express a preference for some of their looks over others. But saying “you are not good enough as is, I will love you when you are skinnier and sexier” is cruel, entitled and obnoxious, and nobody deserves to be treated that way by the person they love. When you love someone who respects you, it feels so much better.
The first time Pink told me that I looked beautiful I hadn’t showered in two days and was bawling my eyes out; I think I looked only slightly better than I did immediately after giving birth. That’s a comfortably low standard, I’ll probably be able to meet and exceed it for many years to come. I’m also pretty sure that Pixie thinks I look awesome, especially when I stick my tongue out and shake my head. That’s enough to make me feel beautiful today.
How did you come to feel beautiful, or what’s holding you back? Feel free to share in the comments.