At times when my head felt like a New York City Subway station, hustling and bustling in a disarray of random facts, thoughts, and future plans- I instinctively began listing my senior high school classes in order from first to ninth period. English, Math, Science, Social Studies, French…. I continued to do this for a while, even after graduating from High School. It seemed that somehow listing this now useless gaggle of words provided my mind with an inexplicable sense of tranquility. But eventually as these words became more and more futile, my mind needed a new coping mechanism for times of mental chaos. Soon enough, when my thoughts needed quieting, I began instinctively reciting a new list: my calorie count. Breakfast: 300, snack: 150, lunch: 500… And like all things, what began as an innocent coping strategy, grew into a moderate obsession.
I began competing with myself, seeing if I could get my calorie count lower than I had the day before. It became sort of like a game, and in order to win, I had to consume slightly less than the average daily calorie intake. I found myself feeling perpetual guilt for eating too much, or not healthy enough, and God, damn it why did I have to have that ice cream bar! If I ate too much one day, I’d try to even it out by skipping lunch the next. It seemed like everything revolved around my diet, and it was exhausting.
On paper, it sounds like I was on the verge of anorexia, but the truth is, my thoughts and actions were pretty similar to those of most girls around my age. It seemed like I couldn’t have a conversation with my friends that didn’t eventually turn into fat talk. Even the skinniest girls I knew were on food restrictive diets or “cleanses”. But, to be clear, this is not another commentary on the underrepresented expanse of almost anorexia. During my eating obsession, I never starved myself, I never binged and purged, and my health was never in jeopardy. I never even tried to conceal my eating habits. To all onlookers there was absolutely nothing alarming about my mannerisms; in fact, I probably seemed a lot healthier do to my increasingly frequent intake of salads over pasta. But even though I wasn’t physically harming myself, even though almost every single girl I knew was an avid calorie counter regardless of her weight (often to an even greater extent than myself), I knew that this was not something that should be considered normal.
Everything suddenly became clear after I watched a Poetry Slam video entitled “Shrinking Women”
In this poem, Lily Myers talks about how all the women in her life seem to “shrink” due to their restrictive eating habits, and blames this pattern on society for teaching women that they aren’t supposed to take up space. She speaks of the disparity between the way her and her brother were raised:
We come from difference.You have been taught to grow out, I have been taught to grow in. You learned from our father how to emit, how to produce, to roll each thought off your tongue with confidence, you used to lose your voice every other week from shouting so much. I learned to absorb. I took lessons from our mother in creating space around myself.
It was this poem that first opened my eyes to the connection between patriarchy and the warped relationship that so many women have with food.
In the Ted Talk “A Sexy Lie” Caroline Heldman makes the similar claim that boys are raised to view their bodies as tools to master their environment, while girls are raised to view their bodies as projects to be constantly improved.
This “dieting fad” is about more than just keeping up with the beauty standards of Hollywood; it’s emblematic of a deep-seated societal expectation that women stay quiet and out of the way. And this idea that women are not worthy of space has simply existed under the guise of “beauty”, so with the help of the media, “the shrinking woman” has managed to develop into a fashion trend.
As I became more and more obsessed with restricting my diet, I realized that I no longer saw food as a source of energy and life, but as an enemy. I began to lose sight of my body’s intrinsic value as vessel for my consciousness, as a miraculous product of millions of years of evolution, as a lens through which I can perceive and experience the universe, and saw it instead as an ornament, as the sole measure of my worth.
I wrote this all in past tense, implying that my body image obsessing days are behind me. But that just isn’t the truth. Even as I write about the warped perceptions women are taught to have regarding their bodies, in the back of my mind, I’m regretting that brownie that I ate an hour ago and thinking about what to eat for dinner in order to limit my carb intake. I can’t drown out that voice in my head that shouts louder than all reason, "You're not good enough. You're not skinny enough. No one will ever love you." No matter how illogical and full of shit I’ve realized that voice is, I can’t seem to exterminate it for good. But all hope is not lost, because I can feel the voice in my head shrinking as my real voice expands. You may not like what I have to say, but my words are here. In fact, right now, at this very moment, they are barging through your retinas, and taking up space in your visual cortex.
I’m still a work in progress, an unfortunate side effect of thousands of years of patriarchy. But I’m not giving up. I’ve found new lists to replace my calorie count: places I’d like to go before I die, my favorite books, things I have to look forward to. Because a person is the beautiful thoughts they think and the beautiful dreams they dream - not the amount of calories they consume.