Last week was National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (#NEDAwareness), and it called attention to a few topics that are very close to my heart – body image and body shaming. I was debating whether or not to write this, and the week somehow passed by without me getting a chance to share my story. I didn’t write it last week, and I regretted it, so I’m going to do it now.
Most people are too uncomfortable to talk openly and truthfully about weight. When I got sick last spring, the weight loss crept up on me quickly, stealthily, and dangerously, bringing with it a host of other cognitive and emotional changes that made me feel as though my life was spiraling completely out of control. Extreme mood swings, hair loss, intense fatigue, coldness, leg cramps, and insomnia, to name a few, were regularities on top of the intense gastrointestinal symptoms I was experiencing that started it all. I saw myself dropping weight uncontrollably, and I was terrified that none of my doctors knew what was going on. Test after test, appointment after appointment, and neither my doctors or I could wrap our heads around how I was eating so much food and still dropping so much weight despite all of my efforts to gain it back. I was afraid. None of my doctors could figure out the cause of my original gastrointestinal pains, but now they also couldn’t help me handle this new threat to my health. Meanwhile, I knew other people noticed my quick weight loss as well, yet no one said anything.
For months I felt completely alone. I felt like my body was disintegrating and like I had no support. I felt like people were avoiding me, and I had no one to talk to. My family and close friends were not saying anything to me about it, and they changed the subject when I tried to bring it up. All I wanted to do was scream, “IS ANYONE ELSE NOTICING HOW MUCH WEIGHT I AM LOSING?!” I wasn't sure if they didn’t notice or if they just didn’t care. The truth was, it was neither – they just didn’t know how to talk about it, and they were scared to bring it up. But that’s how it felt. I was so desperate to talk to anyone about it, so desperate to feel like I wasn’t totally alone in my fear.
I did, however, get reactions out of other people, and those reactions scared me.
On one hand, I heard that some of my old friends were asking people if I had an eating disorder. People were taking screenshots of photos of me and sending them around to each other, trying to figure out if I had anorexia. This included both people I had never met and some people that I had previously been extremely close friends with.
On the other hand, some people would say, "Wow, you look amazing! What have you been doing to lose weight?" That brought tears to my eyes. Every day was different, and it was confusing. One day I had someone praise me for "looking like a model,” and the next day one of my closest friends started crying because she was so worried about my weight loss. The thing is, I had to force that friend to engage in a conversation about my weight with me to begin with. Still, those who were closest to me wanted to avoid the elephant in the room. Walking around Los Angeles, I was approached multiple times by different photographers asking me to model for them, handing me their cards. This never happened to me when I was at a healthy weight for my body size.
What does this say about our society? How can I clearly look so unhealthy and malnourished, yet still have my body type praised by some? I remember the first time someone asked me how I lost the weight, wanting advice. I felt sick to my stomach. All I could think was, YOU DO NOT WANT THIS! Is a size 0 worth the daily pain, the loss of cognitive abilities, and the constant fear for your life? It terrifies me that society has glorified such an unhealthy state-of-being, that so many people are so concerned with their weight, and that people would sacrifice their health in order to look a certain way. And who is it to please? Themselves, or others?
The body shaming was something I had never experienced before. I expected the comments and stares from strangers, but I didn’t truly know what I was in for until I experienced it firsthand. Strolling around downtown, I noticed people looking at me differently. I could feel the prolonged stares and double glances. I always wondered what their first thought was. What exactly are they assuming? The looks were uncomfortable but not as emotionally difficult as the comments. “Go eat some meat, girl!,” I’d hear a guy shout from behind me. But what bothered me the most was when they would look at me, immediately nudge their friend, and whisper something, still staring. Just say it. Say what you’re thinking.
Brief comments or stares on the street were one thing, but I was taken aback at some of the more dramatic reactions I got from strangers. While out for lunch with my mother at a beautiful restaurant in New York over the summer, a man at the table next to us sent over a bottle of champagne. And by next to us, I mean 1 foot away from us. It seemed odd at first, but we went on with our lunch. The man was with his mother, and he offered to take our picture for us. After doing so, he tried to take some with his own phone, but we quickly asked him not to and went on with our meals. As my mother and I chatted, I could hear the man talking to his own mother. I heard the phrase “skinny blonde bitch,” and my ears perked up. Immediately I suspected he was talking about me, but then I thought, You're just being paranoid. As I listened more closely, my suspicions were confirmed.
"Look at that skinny bitch, Ma. She's so skinny."
"Sweetie, don't say anything."
"No, Ma, look at her! She needs to eat some goddamn food. She's just a skinny blonde bitch -- I mean jeez, look at her. Someone needs to talk to her!"
"Leave it alone, dear!"
"I can't. I mean look at how goddamn skinny she is, she needs help! I’m going to send them a few more plates of food."
I was shocked that this man took such an interest in me. Why was it worth his time to make such derogatory remarks toward a woman sitting clearly in earshot, knowing absolutely nothing about her situation? Did he want me to hear? I was being attacked on three different levels. First, he seemed to think it was acceptable to refer to a random female stranger as a bitch. Second, I was being labeled as a "blonde," something that was definitely not new to me, but still frustrating. People are not defined by their hair color. Third, I was being targeted for my weight. He seemed to think he knew what was best for me (eating more food), and planned on handling that by sending over more food to our table. In reality, he had no idea why I was so skinny. He did not know my health situation, nor did he bother to observe the hefty lunch I had just inhaled. He was ignorant to the fact that I actually do eat like a horse. I would have gladly welcomed a concerned inquiry about my health. In fact, that’s all I wanted from anybody. The sad part is, the judgment should not have happened in the first place.
While these experiences bothered me at first, I realized quickly that random people’s assumptions about me didn’t matter. What mattered to me then, and what matters to me now, is that I know my own story, and so do those who care about me. However, the body shaming slipped in there, too. Even the few who had asked me for the story and knew what was going on sometimes made comments that ripped at my heart a little bit, even if they didn’t mean to do so.
A family member bought me a T-shirt in a size XL, so naturally I was drowning in it. I made a joke, "Just my size!" and he snapped back, "Well maybe if you ate a damn cheeseburger or something you wouldn't look like a stick."
Yeah, that stung. It wasn’t the comment itself that hurt, but it was the fact that this person knew how desperately hard I was working every day to put on weight as quickly but as safely as possible. This person knew how scared I was – frightened that my doctors and I didn’t know what was happening to me or how to stop it, terrified that I could have a heart attack at any moment or that my organs would fail on themselves, and desperate to save my body. Did my own family think that I wanted this? If it was as simple as eating a few cheeseburgers, I would happily take that remedy.
Since that time, I’ve come a long way in my health journey, and I am on the path to reaching a weight that is healthy for my body, whatever that may be. My experiences in the past year have made me a completely different person, both inside and out. Through everything, I have become extra aware of and extra sensitive to people’s comments about others’ bodies as well as their own. As a college female, it's common for me to hear girls talk about dieting, working out, feeling "fat", wishing they were "skinny," or saying they can't eat the calories in something. It saddens me to hear these comments, because all I want is for them to love their bodies and see the beauty in themselves and others.
What hurts the most is that all of these beautiful people put themselves down and feel like they're not enough, when they are. If I've learned anything, it’s that my emotional health and physical health are the most important things in my life. The way your body looks is useless if you're not healthy, and nothing is as important as being a kind, compassionate person. People might strive to "look like a model" or have the "perfect body," but what does that even mean? If that body type is the body type I had when I was at my lowest weight, I cannot emphasize enough how much I would never wish that upon anyone. I felt weak, sick, anxious, unhappy, irritable, and scared. My life was in danger at that weight. Is a "skinny" body worth more to you than your life?
I am so grateful for my experiences because I have a new compassion for anyone struggling with any type of illness, body shaming, or body image issues.
If you’re worried about someone’s health, please speak up. Offer them help. Talk to them – not about them. Do not avoid them. Making that person feel less alone is the most important thing you can do, and being concerned for someone’s health but not opening up a conversation with them about it is dangerous. Approach things in a loving manner, and I’m sure that person will appreciate you reaching out. To this day, it saddens me to know that some of my best friends from high school are telling others I’m anorexic instead of asking me about my health and finding out the true story. If I did struggle with anorexia, but everyone who was concerned avoided the topic, would I have gotten help? Would I still be here today?
Unfortunately, judgment is part of human nature. We all do it, whether we mean to or not, but we can start making changes by taking the time to stop and think about our assumptions and recognize others’ feelings. The last thing I want is to make anyone feel guilty for not having reached out to me when I was struggling the most. I don’t blame anyone for that. I know how hard it can be to talk to somebody about a taboo subject, but I think we should all try a little bit harder to not be afraid anymore.
Speak up. End the body shaming, toward both others and yourself. We all make mistakes, and we all are nervous to address certain things, but we can change that to help people who need it most. Appreciate your family, friends, health, and happiness. And don’t be afraid to reach out to someone you’re worried about. You might just save that person’s life.