Body-shaming, love and anorexia
In my baby sisters last year of college, we were all worried we might lose her. Being four years apart, my sister and I have not always been best friends. Growing up there was a lot of fighting, mostly because we didnt relate to each other. But as we got older the connection between us has come to mean more. And when she doesnt know what to do, my baby sister comes to me.
So she came to me one Saturday afternoon. We had lunch, we chatted about nothing and then she took a deep breath and told me she needed to talk to me about something important. She told me she had an eating disorder. She told me she was starving herself. She told me that sometimes she binged. She told me that she purged. She told me that she wanted to stop but that it felt out of her control now. She told me she was scared.
It was the kind of thing that sneaks up on you but then you realize had been there all along. She had become quite thin, but she was a distance runner and had been preparing for races. She was moody and seemed frazzled but my sister has always had the kind of work ethic that requires a large amount of self care to sustain so perhaps she was stressed. The cracks were there, but with those words it was as though the floor sunk in.
The coming weeks and months were hard on everyone. Finding the right therapist for ED is a challenge, but so is finding the right fit for the individual. Keeping hope and continuing to find the balance between being supportive and being insistent proved challenging. Her body continued to shrink. I remember her visiting my parents house one day. She was wearing a blue tank top. All of the bones in her upper torso were visible. I hugged her before she left and then I sank into a heap of tears.
Her boyfriend (now husband) and I were in constant contact, which we artfully kept from her at the time fearing she would feel micro-managed. We both needed to support each other in our efforts and our fears, as well as be on the same page about how her recovery was coming along. My sisters body was shutting down.
I know that sometimes in frustration her boyfriend would become escalated. Why wont you just EAT? It is a hard thing to understand.
I know that it is an addiction. I know that there is disordered thinking. I know that what I saw when I looked at my sisters tiny frame and what she saw in the mirror were drastically different things. I know that scarier than all of her exposed bones ever were, was the way her eyes would look far away. You see, my sister is a joyous creature. She does starburst burpees in bars for fun, she has a million silly voices, characters and ways to scrunch her face to make you laugh. For awhile, we lost her spirit.
So my sister had a disease. And my family rallied to support her. And we were all trying to cope. And the community around my sister? Well, they went on attack.
My sister became the subject of regular harassment from the women in her life. Many sandwiches not so kindly suggested. You are too thin! came from everywhere. Her body became a place of judgment and her disease mocked as though it was a diet plan. The disease we feared would take her life became the thing people were mocking her about.
10 years in social work, personal experience and professional expertise gives me another piece to the puzzle that might not be self-evident. Survivors of sexual assault and abuse often suffer subsequently from eating disorders or disordered eating. The reason is that both are about power. At face value, an eating disorder looks like a diet and rape looks like a sex crime. But both are about asserting power over a body. So my sisters response to her teenage attack was to take the power of her body back by making every rigid choice about it. From this standpoint, I imagine being told to eat a fucking sandwich felt like an attack. I MAKE THE CHOICES HERE. Though incredibly damaging physically and spiritually, she was trying to assert her own power.
In my case, I responded in part to my sexual assault by overfeeding myself. I often talk in my writing about feeling invisible. Part of that was in how others treated me. Part of that was me trying to hide. Those were pieces I wasnt able to put together until I lost weight. I found myself feeling vulnerable and exposed. It wasnt until I felt visible that I was able to realize how I had used my abuse of food to hide. Its a pattern Im still aware of and struggle with in times of vulnerability and fear. Its a part of the voice in me that stands up and says, You will NOT tell me what my body is allowed to look like, be and do I AM IN CHARGE HERE. Its the gentle part of me that says, You will not shame this woman or that, and if you are worried about someones choices your love and not judgement is needed.
Every time someone makes a snide, thoughtless remark about a big woman- I feel the 19 year old inside of me who was oinked at, the 12 year old who was bullied in school, the simultaneous pulls to hide and fight back. And when someone makes a snide, thoughtless remark about a thin woman- in some ways I am sticking up for my sick baby sister when her jutting bones needed support, love, treatment, compassion and not rude/thoughtless remarks.
Its also the sister version of the Mama bear that appears when someone says She looks anorexic. Gross. Really? Does she look like she has a disease? Does she? Does she need help? Does she have support? Is someone in her life helping her? Are you actually concerned for the well-being of the person you speak of or are you simply remarking that you do not like the size of her body? There is no compassion in saying someones body looks gross. It is not helpful. It does not offer help. And if you dont actually think the person you are speaking of is suffering from this terrible disease, what a horrible way to use a disease as an adjective for a body type.
Ive no interest in minimizing mine or my sisters stories, nor do I mean to pretend that every one doesnt have a sad tale. Trauma presents in different ways, the aftermath presents in different ways. Its been eye-opening and really life affirming to talk with my sister about how similar our stories were, the emotions attached to them and the actions we took against ourselves in attempt to regain control. It looked different, we looked different, but at the core of each of our struggles was a common trauma. There are more layers to each my sister and mines body story, as there is with everyone. Much of my journey is laid out here. Hers included finding a therapist with whom she was comfortable and became her greatest ally. It included hanging up the long distance running. It included a lot of yoga. Shes back to the vibrant healthy woman we worried we might not see again.
Noteworthy things: our stories are not uncommon. Something like 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted before the age of 20 (this stat was oft cited when I was in college, not sure if that has since changed). Eating disorders effect an estimated 24 million people in the U.S. with 25% of college women reporting binging and purging. The distinction between an eating disorder (like my sisters) and disordered eating (like myself) is addiction. Some of those women may be taking those dangerous measures as a means to lose weight. Others may be worse off. Are they all reacting to some kind of sexual assault? Of course not. When I found myself purging over a toilet of the basement bathroom in college I thought I could make someone love me who didnt.
Everyones story is different, but Ive never met a person without a story. Our bodies are our own, in some cases its the only thing we have. The way we treat it, the size it is, if we make healthful choices or not is not as simple as some people are active, healthy and awesome and others are out of control and deserving of criticism. That quote Be kind, for every one is fighting some sort of battle, could easily be applied to every disparaging remark ever made about a body. Its more than Its none of your business but rather, you have NO IDEA what is really going on within another. And when you do, when someone you love is battling some demon that is resulting in some terrible health ramifications as in the case of my sister, you react with compassion and not cruel words.
My sister has never endured more cruel words about her body as when she was fighting for her life. In our culture weve long decided that womens bodies were for looking at and criticizing. For her battle and every ever-loving person whos ever fought a demon, even with their own mirror be kind. For you have no way of knowing of what you speak or how damaging your words can be.
How can we possibly know? How can we be held responsible for every person and their life journey? You are not. But if you know enough to do better, you offer kindness. You know a body is more than something to be looked at and criticized. Its someones home. And youve no idea whats inside.