This article first appeared on Adios Barbie and is reprinted by permission.
Editor’s note: This post discusses recovery from restrictive eating disorders in which weight gain is a necessary part of the recovery process. We recognize that not all eating disorders are restrictive and not all those with eating disorders are underweight.
I hate it when people blame eating disorders on the media and society. It feels like they think we’re all ditzy idiots who get swept up in the pretty faces and sleek thighs we see on-screen and decide to inflict a life-threatening illness upon ourselves so that we can be “just like them.” My experience is that in the depths of the disorder, the media is less relevant than ever, you feel so remote from everything. Instead, it’s that hazy space between illness and wellness, the gray area of the later stages of recovery, where media and social messaging start to cause damage.
Where thin privilege can stall the journey.
In the later stages of recovery, when you’re not so immediately recognizable as ill. Where the effect of the illness is more of slow suicide than instant risk. Where taken in snapshots, your life looks for all intents and purposes “normal,” and only if someone was with you all day would they notice that you don’t eat quite enough, walk a little too much, are a bit too anxious. It is at this stage that it’s really hard to fight those images and ideas and relinquish the disorder.
When being fat is somehow seen as the worst thing to be, the way to be the “best” would seem to be its opposite: skinny. No one is safe. Slim celebrities are criticized for having any flesh at all. Fat sitcom characters are told to get a room. Those who are fat are told they are out of control, while those who are slim have “discipline” and are revered for it. Follow the #fatmicroaggressions hashtag, started by blogger Melissa McEwan, to see just how many ordinary people have experienced overt fat-shaming.
The existence of fat-shaming serves very real monetary benefits for the diet industry, as companies profit from weight loss programs, diet pills, and the feeling that we are “never enough,” no matter how much weight we lose. These messages communicated by the industry and the media have made diet and weight talk so pervasive within our social and cultural systems that it is difficult at times to recognize it, let alone challenge it.
Our cultural fatphobia and the way being thin is lauded and praised means that some of us shy so far away from fatness as to be dangerous. We buy into the illusion of the glamour and benefit of a thin body as something people want, and the means to get there are praised even if they are disordered. People trying to support me in recovery have made comments such as “At least you’re not fat,” “I wish I had your willpower,” or “You’re so lucky to be given permission to eat.” Eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice, and being underweight and suffering the effects of malnutrition is not something to aspire to.
This preoccupation with thinness is not just in the broader cultural landscape, but something prevalent in daily conversations and relationships. Starting your new year with resolutions to eat more and exercise less is contrary to what everyone else seems to be promising to do. We’re “good” people when we resist cakes or sweet goods in the office — I nearly said “treats,” another value-laden term, because when we’re just being “normal” we don’t deserve them. “Being good to ourselves” means having low-calorie foods. Salads are labelled “healthy” on the menu. Foods we enjoy are “guilty” pleasures. Going to the beach apparently requires a certain body type.
When suffering from an illness that often has roots in a desire to be accepted, to do the opposite of what most people seem to be doing is hard. “Have you lost weight?” is an acceptable greeting. There’s a temptation to give yourself breathing room in case you ever tip into that awful fat stage, erring on the side of caution, and that breathing room means staying underweight and disordered. Diet talk and weight talk are so prevalent that to go the other way and want to put on weight, to be gaining and not losing, is anathema to the majority of the western population.
Because we’re told that everyone wants to be thin.
There’s privilege that comes with thinness. People who don’t know any better (or do and are still idiotic enough to say it, in which case axe them from your life) will tell you that you envy your figure. There’s the privilege of being the healthy and clean-eating one that all the magazines tell us we should be. The girl who can buy anything she wants from a clothing store because it comes in her size. The girl who people say is healthy, because we have come to equate healthy with thin. Sadly, also the girl who will have more workplace opportunities than equally qualified overweight counterparts. The one with lower health insurance premiums, despite not being healthy.
I don’t want my weight to dictate my life. But the sad fact is that to other people, it appears to. And so as much as specialists, friends, and family encourage you to let go of that, it is a very real and very prevalent idea. To pretend it does not exist would be a lie.
As I was once told by an eating disorder specialist, “no one wants to be fat.”
But this cultural obsession does not mean that thinness is always a desirable goal. Far from it. Recovery means getting something back, reclaiming the life and the body that is yours, however long you have been apart from it. It means reaching a place of healthy balance, where you are thriving and full of vitality. It means living a beautiful, connected, messy, challenging, glorious, expansive, busy, chaotic, and very human life, with energy and engagement.
Surely that is the real privilege.
[Headline image: The photograph shows two people in profile facing each other. Both are light-skinned with long brown hair, and both are wearing white t-shirts and black pants. The person on the left is fat. The person on the right is thin.]