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Here’s the moment I began to hate my body: I am twelve years old, standing next to one of my friends in front of the mirror in the locker room after track practice. She, like the other girls in our school who were routinely called beautiful, was stick-thin. Comparing the size of our thighs, I realized that I was not. Suddenly, I became convinced that my physical form was inferior to hers; my legs began to seem like a personal failing. From there, I undertook the project of correcting what I saw as wrong with my body; mainly, that I wasn’t medically underweight.
Food, instead of something to enjoy, became a collection of macronutrients. In some ways, this line of thinking had already been drilled into me by my mother, a registered dietician. However, her well-meaning advice about eating a balanced diet had been twisted by my own self-loathing into something much more sinister; a bowl of chocolate ice cream was now reduced to 30 grams of sugar, 14 grams of fat, and more calories than I wanted to think about. And if I ate that bowl of ice cream, it would mean almost overwhelming guilt; I had poisoned my body, and there would be consequences.
By the time I had entered high school, this way of viewing food had been reinforced by years of exposure to online dieting culture. My Instagram feed was filled with references to “clean eating”, my YouTube recommendations were filled with videos titled “what I eat in a day”, and “how I lost 20 pounds in 6 months”. I was obsessed with eating a diet free from any “unclean” foods, convinced that if I were just a little skinnier, I would finally be worthy.
For the most part, my efforts were applauded. After all, there’s nothing visibly wrong with someone who regularly eats salad, so it took me too long to realize the truth: I had an unhealthy relationship with food.
At the time, “unhealthy” was probably the last word people would have used to describe me; I was known for eating healthily. This image was heavily reinforced by the presence of my mother, who frequently gave nutrition talks at my high school. Outwardly, I was a role-model. Internally, I felt awful, all the time. When I was particularly stressed, I starved myself.
Eating disorders are a disease; to be afflicted with one is to have caught a contagion, and the virus is everywhere. Current media messaging tells us eating a balanced diet is the way to nirvana; our supermarket checkout aisles are stocked with magazines filled with tips for eating better (read: losing weight) from beautiful (read: skinny) celebrities.
I see the symptoms of the illness in my friends all the time: passing out after eating only half a salad the entire day, or taking punishingly long runs in order to lose an invisible amount of weight. Ironically, if divorced from context, a lot of the things these girls do would be viewed positively, perhaps even as self-care. This only underscores that our ideas of what being “healthy” looks like can obscure what is actually self-harm.
These narratives pretend to promote a “healthy lifestyle”, but are almost always actually about weighing less. Behaviors that are clearly harmful (drug addiction, intermittent fasting that borders on starvation, bizarre “cleanses”) are tolerated, so long as the person doing them fits a physical mold. Case in point: The periods when I was most unkind to my body — and when, as a result, I was the thinnest — were also the times when I received the most compliments. My physical and mental health were always secondary to how I looked.
I wish I could tell you that I educated myself on the body-positivity movement, or went to see a therapist, or did some other kind of personal work, and that’s how I got better. But that wouldn’t be true. I no longer skip meals, and for the most part, I’m much happier with my body. Still, I think there might always be a part of me ready to punish myself.
We are often encouraged to think about the food we eat. Americans, after all, have a junk food problem, and maybe a little more mindful eating would improve our health outcomes. But I would like to think about what I eat a little less, and I encourage others to do the same.
Rebecca E. J. Cadenhead ‘23 lives in Canaday Hall. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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