By Patricia Thompson ’19
“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” I came across this quote on Instagram shortly after creating my first account in seventh grade. At the time, I didn’t really understand it. I stood at 5’2” and weighed about 120 pounds, so although I wasn’t stick thin, I was far from overweight. I loved to eat and I couldn’t imagine ever depriving myself of the pleasure of eating two plates of food with my mom at our favorite Indian lunch buffet. I knew eating disorders existed – my childhood best friend had been hospitalized for anorexia at the age of 11 – but at the time, they seemed far away from me. I couldn’t understand why anyone would become so obsessed with being thin that they would starve themselves. Little did I know, I would soon find out.
Sometime early in the summer before eighth grade, I went out to dinner with my family at a Mexican restaurant. While eagerly partaking of some chips and salsa before our meal, I panicked when I suddenly felt a chip crumb lodge in my throat. I started frantically drinking water, trying to wash it down. But the crumb was firmly stuck, and as the water pushed it down, it scratched the lining of my throat painfully. Even after I had swallowed the crumb, I continued to imagine it was there because of the pain I still felt in my throat. I couldn’t eat my enchiladas that night. But I hoped that the pain would soon pass, and that when I woke up the next morning my throat would be completely healed.
When I sat down to eat scrambled eggs at breakfast the next day, however, I noticed something funny: when I swallowed, it felt as though the eggs became stuck in my throat. This problem continued throughout the day. Any time I tried to swallow, I felt the food get stuck. Eventually, I became scared to eat anything. Days stretched to weeks and my parents began to panic, taking me to urgent care and eventually to see a specialist. I was told I had acute esophagitis, which meant that the lining of my esophagus was highly inflamed, making it difficult, as I had experienced, to eat normally. I was told to stick to a steady diet of yogurt and smoothies in order to give my throat time to heal.
Whether or not my esophagitis healed quickly is hard for me to say. What I do know is that my fear of eating continued long after my throat was better, staying with me all summer. I constantly imagined food getting stuck in my throat or re-tearing my esophagus. By the time I returned to school in the fall, I had overcome this fear and returned to my normal eating habits. But by the end of the summer, I had already lost a lot of weight in a very short amount of time. I returned to school weighing 91 pounds.
And people noticed. The girl I sat next to in biology asked me if I had lost weight, then said “You look great!” While I was standing outside waiting to be picked up one day, a guy reached out and poked one of my shoulder bones, saying, “Your bone is sticking out!” And I noticed too. Laying in bed one night, I remember running my hands over my hip bones and feeling how they jutted out like they never had before. My jeans started looking baggy on me, and I convinced my parents to let me buy new clothes. Suddenly, I thought that skinny jeans looked really good on me. When I looked in the mirror, I marveled at how much my body had changed. The minimal cellulite I had had on the backs of my thighs for a couple years was gone. Becoming thinner had suddenly changed how I was perceived, by myself and others. I was complimented for losing weight, even though I had spent all summer struggling with a health issue and its psychological ramifications.
Because I had returned to my normal eating habits that fall, however, I started to put weight back on, which freaked me out. I feared that all the praise I had received and the confidence I had gained would end if I returned to my old weight. I started obsessing about what I ate and how much I exercised. I would lay in bed at night and beat myself up over any perceived failures; a single cookie seemed like it had the potential to make me gain five pounds. I ate enough that I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder, but for a while I lived with a constant obsession about keeping weight off.
What changed for me that fall was how I determined my self worth. My self-confidence became tied to external approval, which was, in my mind, reliant on being thin. Suddenly, I understood the meaning of that quote I had stumbled upon so long ago – nothing does taste as good as skinny feels when you’re constantly being praised for losing weight. When my dad hugged me and told me worriedly that I felt very thin, I took it as a compliment.
This experience was damaging to my self-esteem because it showed me that accolades and praise are given to women who are thin and therefore match our societal conception of the “ideal” body. Although I think we have come a long way as a society in terms of our acceptance of body diversity, our understanding of the ideal feminine body remains very narrow: tall and thin.
It is not only men who perpetuate this standard of female attractiveness. Women, too, are guilty of upholding this standard, sometimes in subtle ways. I vividly remember sitting in a hammock with my friend in her backyard when I was ten years old, and noticing how the ropes pressed into my thighs, making them look like they were sticking out through the gaps in the hammock. I said to my friend, “Look at how big my thighs are!” I didn’t even really realize what I was saying, but she quickly replied, “Oh, I know, look at mine! My mom always calls them my ‘thunder thighs.’” I don’t know if there is a better illustration of what’s wrong with our society than two ten-year-old girls sitting in a hammock and talking about the size of their thighs.
By telling me she was also insecure about her thighs, my friend was probably trying to comfort me. By asking if I’d lost weight and saying I looked great, my biology partner was probably trying to support me. But ultimately, what these comments do is contribute to a culture of comparison, in which women pass judgement on each other’s bodies just as much as men do. Since my extreme weight loss a few years ago, I’ve been working to develop a healthier relationship with body image. I appreciate my body for what it can do. I take care of myself not to conform to any standard but because being healthy makes me feel good.
I can’t say I’m happy with my body all the time. I am still working on accepting and loving myself. And learning these skills is not easy, because we live in a culture of constant comparison. A friend eats three slices of pizza, then says “I hate myself.” Another says, “Does this dress make me look big?” Or, “Why is she so pretty?” Or, “I wish I had long legs. Your legs are so much longer than mine!” These little comments reinforce the constant policing of women’s bodies and perpetuate the idea of a “perfect” body that we all must constantly strive for. In reality, healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. As women, we need to stop tearing each other down and comparing ourselves with one another. We need to learn to not only accept all body types but also find beauty in all body types. Only then can we challenge the standard of a “perfect” body. Only then can we accept that our imperfections are what make us human. And only then can we ultimately find peace with ourselves.