“…intellectual belief without the corollary of emotional roots;
feminist power understood in the mind but not known, somehow, in the body.”
–Caroline Knapp, Appetites: Why Women Want
After my divorce, I slowly and gradually began to shrink. Some of this was conscious and some of it not. Some days I would teach all day on nothing but diet coke and then end the day with a massive salad rife with cheese cubes and light dressing or go to Wing Stop and get a 20 pack and share them with my daughter. And, on other days, I would go to steak restaurants with one of my close friends for happy hour and gorge myself on a steak special and alcohol and dessert, then rush home to take a laxative. At the time, I delighted in my ‘self-control’ and did not realize that I was in fact flirting with an eating disorder.
What I knew was that I could maintain my weight by doing these things, and I was single again. Being overweight was not an option. As a smart and educated woman, well versed in feminist rhetoric, it never occurred to me that I was in dangerous territory. It never occurred to me that as a mother I needed to stop neglecting my own health in such a way. And, I enjoyed being what I perceived as a skeleton wearing a skin dress. At times I was fascinated by how much certain bones protruded. I would marvel at the line of my clavicle; I would walk around the house cupping my hips, comforted by the prominent bone shelf that strained against my jeans. It felt like I was discovering my body for the first time and in some ways finally enjoying the feel of my own form.
However, at other times, I resented my protruding hip bones and how even at that size, I could not get a bangle over my wide hands. I would fantasize about getting a large file and using it to shave a few inches off of my bones here or there. Smaller was never small enough; I continued to take up more space than I wanted to. But, in other ways, I felt like I was being something I wasn’t; there was always a fat girl trapped on the inside, screaming to be heard, screaming to eat a little more.
That’s one of the things no one tells you; when you lose weight, your fat self doesn’t die. She hides in wait, like the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” slinking in and out of the cracks in the walls, waiting to be set loose again. The defense mechanisms, the insecurity, the self-doubt, the not wanting other people to look at you, that doesn’t go away. At times, I had to have been delusional; it was so easy for me to intellectually separate what I was doing to myself physically from what I knew mentally.
Eating disorders exist on a spectrum of severity, and I think that many of us fall somewhere on that spectrum whether we have completely sworn off certain food groups and eat ridiculously healthy to the point of extreme restriction (orthorexia nervosa) or we binge uncontrollably without purging (binge eating disorder) or binge on alcohol while eating very little (drunkorexia); the list goes on. No longer do eating disorders start and stop with anorexia and bulimia. Our food and weight obsessed culture, like it does with most things, has taken eating disorders to the extreme. And, most of us fall somewhere on the continuum.
For me, as time wore on, I began to isolate myself much like I had when I was at my heaviest. By this time, I was dating a few guys and would soon be on the brink of a new relationship, so it was easy to extract myself from my female friends. And, much like I tend to do at my heaviest; I kept my feelings to myself, not really discussing with my friends how these changes in my physicality were affecting me. I shook off the bad feelings like a dog in mud and charged ahead.
A few months later, I would be in a relationship with my current husband, having cut off my other flings. I was content with him and also with myself. I had stopped taking laxatives after binging and had gained a little weight but was still a comfortable size 8. I looked healthier and felt better about myself, no longer longing to shave my bones.
Eventually, my boyfriend and I moved in with each other. And, it was at that time, that I became aware of the sheer power of my own insecurities and mental hang ups. Once bitten, twice shy, I became possessive and jealous. Slowly at first, then with increased intensity the longer we lived together.
My then boyfriend, now husband is an extremely outgoing and egregious person, equipped with brutal honesty. He thinks it; he says it. In many ways the complete anti-thesis of my ex-husband, I craved his honesty and openness. As I was able to hide my jealousy less and less, he spoke up about how that jealousy made him feel distrusted, and how it was affecting our relationship, and he suggested I go to therapy.
Coming from a strong and stubborn Cajun people, I had never been to therapy before and saw its need as a sign of weakness. But, I also didn’t want to continue this vicious cycle of failed adult relationships.
For the first time, I sought out a therapist to talk about all the feelings that had accumulated. A pile of dead and rotting leaves, I could not continue to carry them around. While in therapy, I came to many realizations. One, I probably had a mild eating disorder and two, my insecurity had, in part, contributed to my divorce. The breaking point for me was this one moment when my boyfriend and I were arguing, and it took me back: all the way back to my first marriage and my ex-husband pleading with me to just trust him.
But, by then, I couldn’t. Too much had gone down. He had already left and come back and was on his way out again.
My ex-husband and I were broken in many ways; however, over the years, and with a great deal of therapy, I have taken ownership of my part in it. And, I saw in my new relationship an emerging pattern that was similar to that of my first marriage. What therapy had given me was the insight and self-awareness to figure this out before it destroyed what my new boyfriend and I had built together. Additionally, I gained incredible insight into how much weight and body image had controlled various aspects of my life and my relationships since childhood.
I realized that fat is just as mental as it is physical, and that is why eating and body image disorders are so damaging. A feminist at my core, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that my current husband saved me from myself the summer he suggested I seek clinical help. But, not all women are so lucky or easily reached.
While I was in therapy, I was also reading whatever I could get my hands on about feminism, eating disorders and female desire. I came across Caroline Knapp’s nonfiction narrative, Appetites: Why Women Want, which discusses the damaging aspects of anorexia and how she systematically starved herself down to 83 pounds in her 20s. Congruently, throughout the book, Knapp tries to extricate our complex need and desire for love from our hunger for various things, not just food, but also material things, career success, love, sex and so on. Knapp iterates that all of these wants and desires are not nearly as inherent as our desire for love which is inexplicably tied to our desire to lose weight and that as women we have been taught to take on a life of restriction. It is through that restriction that we gain self-worth and love.
For instance, in the book Knapp says:
“Love—the desire to love and be loved, to hold and be held, to give love even if your experience as a recipient has been compromised or incomplete—is the constant on the continuum of hunger, it’s what links the anorexic to the garden-variety dieter, it’s the persistent pulse of need and yearning behind the reach for food, for sex, for something.”
I perceive Knapp as saying that as women we feed our ‘hunger’ for other things with food. And by extension, we deny ourselves those same things as a result of the ‘hunger continuum.’ As much as our hunger and self-denial have to do with food, they have even more to do with our self-worth and what we feel like we deserve. For instance, while I was teaching at Grambling, I had this amazing friend, who was about 25 years my senior. My friend and I were chatting about food and dieting. And, she told me about how when she was in her 20s, her goal was to go to bed hungry. For her, going to bed with a hollow stomach was indicative of her self-control and her ability to deny herself. And, in order to deserve her maintained figure, she had to experience denial. She had to experience some sort of pain or hardship in order to deserve being thin. At the time, I did not see the correlation between what she was doing to what I was doing. I did not see the parallel.
But, now, ten years later, I ask why? Why should I have delighted in going hungry all day to reward myself with a salad? Why should I have to take a laxative after a night out with the girls?
Ultimately, I think it all goes back to objectification and how our complexity as women and people is in some way silenced by reduction, as merely a collection of parts as opposed to a whole. Daily, I strive to view myself as an individual: smart, funny, independent, beautiful and effective. And, every day I am grateful that my daughter has a healthier sense of self at 12 than I did at 26.
But, I am also terrified that my love and faith in her is not enough and that one day someone will tell her… “You would be so beautiful if…”
So often the catalyst, is conditional beauty.