Out of bounds: The myth of the skinny anorexic
I am a fat anorexic.
I was put on my first diet by my parent when I was 11 years old. I hit puberty early and started my period that same year. I was not fat, but as any parent knows, the medical system starts tracking kids’ height-weight ratios super early, and even in the early 80s, that meant being constantly scrutinized for a body that might someday be out of bounds. (I think my kid’s pediatrician started tracking their BMI at about 5. Just think about that for a sec.)
Our bodies need EVERYTHING when we are growing. The last thing we should do is put developing kids and adolescents on diets, but this seems to be the time when adults are most likely to start monitoring and depriving kids of nutrition.
As a sociology/psychology scholar, I know a lot of backstory to this that as an 11-year old, I did not have access to. Womens’ hard-won rights to autonomy over their reproductive systems did not include the right to present however we wanted to — we were still supposed to be slim, tall, white, and full of hard angles (but have really big boobs and hair). The early 80s was the domain of Phyllis Schlafly and a regressive backlash against feminism that taught me and my peers that everything was fine and that we didn’t need to be loud like our moms, those obnoxious women’s libbers. The pop culture of the era celebrated women’s newfound agency over their sexuality by constantly separating women into sluts — those who invite rape, and virgins — those who deserved to be loved and protected. Anyone who didn’t meet the physical requirements of beauty was a punchline or a token (or often both). Nobody I knew questioned diet culture or even identified it as a thing.
I don’t remember having food issues until about age 7 when my parents started criticizing how and what I ate. This was after my male pediatrician warned my mother that I might, someday, be fat. We now know most of the research on what constitutes fatness is deeply flawed, and I was never a fat kid, but it didn’t matter. I internalized the idea that I was by the time I was 10 and experienced increasing body dysmorphia as I grew towards adulthood.
Even before that, as early as I can remember, my mom would go on diets and cruelly critique her own body. She had a lifelong membership with Weight Watchers and would eat weird snacks like buttermilk blended with frozen strawberries. I didn’t understand why the person I loved most was so mean to herself, but in my young mind, I must have absorbed that there was something virtuous about it. My mom would talk about how she went on Weight Watchers after she had my brother and reached her goal weight of 98 pounds. When I was later diagnosed with an eating disorder (anorexia), it may have been this claim that kept her from accepting that I had a dangerous problem. If I was 117 pounds compared to her 98, I couldn’t possibly be anorexic. The toxic diet culture of that era told us all that we were fundamentally flawed, and self-starvation was the only way to compensate for it.
Eventually (meaning by age 11), the monitoring became intense, specific critiques of my body and body parts that seemed to go on for hours. If I protested that I liked my body and didn’t want to change it, I was told I was deluded. I was an embarrassment. I wouldn’t find love. Nobody would hire me. I was also accused of gaining weight to “protect myself” from others. This is not so fun when you are 11, or 13, or 15…My body was small, but I had curves that did not fit the ideal of the 80s. Short legs, small waist, round hips and butt… ironically the kind of body that women get injections to create now, I was made to believe was out of bounds. It took up space it wasn’t entitled to, and that — that was dangerous and immoral. This message wasn’t just from my parents, it was all around me — in media, in the women and men in my extended family, and don’t get me started on dating culture in the 80s.
I started putting myself on restrictive diets in high school, culminating in a Slim-Fast regimen that was about 800 calories a day and consisted of two meal replacement shakes and a low-calorie frozen meal. I also went on Weight Watchers with my mother at least twice (once after the anorexia diagnosis).
I graduated from high school early and spent a year at a community college getting some credits. When I was barely 17, I moved to San Francisco to go to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I lived in an apartment with two roommates who also attended school there (there were no dorms). I was alone and scared and determined to be as skinny as possible. I got a lot of attention from men at my school that reinforced my need to be as physically perfect as possible. I directed a lot of my fear and anxiety about living in a new city and starting college into fear of gaining weight. By this point I was suffering from extreme body dysmorphia; I saw my increasingly tiny body as huge and ungainly. By the middle of my first semester, I was eating an apple for lunch and feeling panicky if I ate anything else except meal replacement shakes. I started having dizzy spells and seeing bright spots in the periphery of my vision when I stood up.
I took myself to a walk-in clinic. They asked me what drugs I was doing and why they were cocaine several hundred times. Since I wasn’t doing drugs, they eventually turned me over to a nutritionist who asked me how much I ate per day. When I told her my limit was 800 calories, she explained that I didn’t have any body fat and I needed more food than that to live. She also told me I could still “tone up” if I wanted to. (Ugh.) I didn’t believe her, because my maximum weight for my short body, as prescribed by Weight Watchers, was 113 lbs. I was 117. Therefore, I was still unacceptably fat.
I never saw her again. She tried to call me and even sent me a letter stating her concern, but I blew her off. I did start eating more normally and started gaining weight. What I didn’t know, for a long, long time, was that the weight cycling I had done in my early through late adolescence had convinced my body that I was in real danger of starvation (because I was), so losing weight became much harder, and gaining it became easier. (This is widely known scientifically now, but health care providers still prescribe weight loss instead of diagnosis and treatment of patient symptoms, which has resulted in the untimely deaths of people who weren’t diagnosed with things like cancer until it was too late.)
The culture in which I grew up taught me several totally false things about food and eating:
- Hunger is weakness
- Vanquishing hunger is strength
- Weight gain is weakness
- Weight loss is strength
- Eating until you are full is gluttonous
- Staying slightly hungry all the time is healthy
- My body is too weak to know what it needs and doesn’t need
- My mind is too weak to control my errant body
- Only skinny people are anorexic.
I continued to struggle with body dysmorphia through my 20s. I gained weight steadily, punctuated by bouts of weight loss from restriction. I never thought that I might still be anorexic because I didn’t look like an anorexic anymore. I realized that I had been dangerously thin at 17, but none of that applied to me now because I wasn’t thin. But my body knew the truth; it knew that I was always a step away from self-imposed starvation. My body wanted me to live more than I wanted to starve it to death.
In my late 20s, I decided that diets could get fucked and I was going to stop yearning for a body I didn’t have. I found a gym and a trainer and started to learn what healthy, gradual exercise felt like. I think it was the first time I really started to inhabit my body. I bought cute plus-sized clothes and dumped my fatphobic boyfriend (and my fatphobic career).
My 30s were the years of the good fatty, a trope that body liberation people are intimately familiar with. I was okay because I was a good fat person — I exercised, I dressed cute, I presented as feminine, and I was healthy (whatever that means). I was what we now call a “small fat” — a person who can shop at mainstream plus-sized stores and some stores with extended sizing. I didn’t have many role models, and I certainly wasn’t ready to confront my own fatphobia, but I wasn’t actively starving myself either. My weight stabilized, mainly because I was hyper-fixated on it being stable. I used exercise mainly to control weight gain, but I still restricted periodically; it was just “lifestyle change” instead of diets. (Yeah, right.) Still, I was happier and far more confident than I had been in my pre-teens, teens, and 20s. I had a career, I dated a lot, met my now-husband, changed careers, and towards the end of my 30s, had a baby.
I kept a blog during my pregnancy, a time when I felt particularly liberated from body dysmorphia. Ironically, when I reread the blog, just about every entry has something in it about my weight. No, not weight-obsessed at all. I didn’t gain body fat during my pregnancy, and I lost a lot after it. My body used up a chunk of its reserves for baby building, nursing, and pumping. I felt great (other than the PPD and constant exhaustion), and dare I say, virtuous. I could eat like a horse and still lose weight. BECAUSE I HAD JUST MADE AND WAS FEEDING A BABY WITH MY BODY. It wasn’t virtue, it was continuation of the species, Mary.
So when I weaned and started to gain back the weight I’d lost, it sucked. Still, I had become more aware of the body positive movement and its early leaders. However, it wasn’t until well into my 40s that I realized that I had never stopped restricting. Ever. The BOPO movement became more intersectional and more critical of the good fatty trope, which was also very white, feminine, and heteronormative. I was by that time working on my PhD and becoming more aware of critical theories. I also started following some people on social media who were at the intersection of the eating disorder recovery community and the body positive community, and the intersectional and Black feminist community.
That was a rude ass awakening. I realized I had far more in common with the ED recovery community than I had ever considered. Fat women, particularly queer or black or other combinations of intersectional oppressions were treated like shit and assumed to be secretly binging instead of engaging in obsessive restriction. Skinny=anorexic. Fat=binge eating. Fat women were denied medical tests and medical care because all their problems were blamed on fatness and its falsely-associated lack of self-care and self-control. I’ve been on the receiving end of some of this bullshit, but not too frequently because I have the privilege to choose my providers and I also avoid going to the doctor like the plague because I don’t want to be harassed or shamed.
I have never been a binge eater. The further I got away from diets, the less I overate at all. As I started to read about Health at Every Size approaches and Intuitive Eating, I realized that I had been sold a whole ass bill of goods about the value and strength of my own body. And that the very diets that I forced myself on over and over until my 30s were responsible for my easy weight gain. Not only that, but I realized that I often revert to restricting behaviors when I am stressed or feeling out of control. I would skip meals and then wonder why I was gaining weight? The answer; my body wanted me to live more than I wanted to starve it. It still does.
I’m now 50. I’ve realized that food restriction has permeated most of my life, and I’m still prone to it if I’m not careful. Even working from home for the last two years, it’s still too easy to drink coffee instead of eating lunch, and then wonder why I feel like shit in the evening. When I signed up for a grocery delivery service, I realized that this low-level anxiety I always have had about food scarcity started to go away. I could always find something in my fridge to eat that would taste good and make my body feel good.
I have internalized so many negative, false narratives about how my body works. I’ve gained weight during the pandemic. I’m 50, perimenopausal, and it’s harder to exercise regularly. But for the first time in my life, I haven’t completely freaked the fuck out about it. I have bad days, but mostly I’m okay. I’m not a small fat anymore. I can still find clothes that fit me and look cute. I’m white, present as feminine, and therefore have a lot of unearned privilege, so I have an unfair advantage over the people struggling with an abusive system that marginalizes them from multiple directions. And I still hate living in a fatphobic society that believes in a set of pernicious lies about fat people.
- We are not lazy or weak.
- We are not dumb.
- We are not more or less healthy, as a population than anyone else (in fact research shows we live longer).
- We are discriminated against persistently for no reason other than bigotry and peoples’ own internalized fatphobia and projected existential fears (see my dissertation).
- We are loveable and attractive.
All the horrors I was told about how my life would turn out were straight-up bullshit. If I died tomorrow, I could say that I had lived a meaningful, love-filled life.
When Tess Holiday came out publically as having anorexia, more puzzle pieces clicked into place. So many of us are fat because our body-mind relationships were damaged at a really young age, and our bodies compensated by gaining weight to counteract our habitual starvation. Some of us would be fat anyway because fat bodies are part of the normal range of human bodies. But many of us damaged this vital link so young we will never know what our bodies would have been like without episodic starvation paired with deep self-loathing. However, regardless of what my body looked like, it still would have been monitored, critiqued, and judged based on things I have no control over and have nothing do to with my health, attractiveness, or value as a human.
Between our parents, grandparents, society, and the media, there was no way to learn to see fatness as part of the normal range of human bodies. The constant monitoring of bodies, particularly female-presenting bodies, is insidious and incredibly damaging. I had so many random adults “warn” me about my body before it was fat, or when I just wasn’t skinny. My high school choir director. Almost all of my voice teachers (fatphobia was one of the reasons I left opera). Some random dude at my conservatory seemed personally offended when I wasn’t anorexic-thin anymore. Another who I did an opera scene with who was supposed to lift me up and was disgusted that I, a human woman, weighed 150lbs. Many doctors, in spite of the fact that intentional weight loss has been proven to be 1) almost universally unsustainable, and 2) Not particularly conducive to better health, other than it may reduce medical discrimination and mistreatment. (It does nothing to reduce medical racism, transphobia, or healthism).
One light at the end of this tunnel of crap is that younger people are figuring it out way sooner than I did. Skinny and fat, black, white, brown, queer and disabled — we are all recognizing that our culture’s obsession with our appearance is just thinly veiled social control. We don’t need it.
The craziest thing I’ve learned is that having an abundance of nourishing, tasty food available is the best antidote to my anorexic restricting behaviors and their effects. The less I skip meals, the happier and safer I feel. The more excited I am to move — to walk or dance or stretch. The oppressive weight of other people’s perceptions doesn’t do nearly as much to my psyche when it and — my body — feels safe and loved.
My kid, bless them, can spot fatphobia from a mile away. They know that judging people based on how they look is something to work through and release, not justify and cling to. Fun fact: I’ve never put my kid on any kind of diet, or critiqued their body or their food. Their diet may look nuts to broccoli-obsessed parents, but my kid does what I never had a chance to do: just listen to their body and not judge it for what it wants. We don’t force food. My husband and I eat a really wide variety of food, and slowly but surely, the kid is integrating more stuff into their own nutrition. They have an unbroken relationship between their hunger, eating, and how their body feels.
If I can raise just one person who isn’t weight-obsessed and fatphobic, I will have done a damn fine thing. I know other parents like me who are jettisoning diets and weight monitoring for their kids, the way many of us are also jettisoning oppressive falsehoods about gender and sexuality. Some of these kids are going to be unbelievable badasses. Hopefully, they will help the kids whose parents haven’t unpacked all the bullshit and are continuing to pass this generational abuse on to their kids. My kid witnesses casual fatphobia at their middle school all the time — from 11-year-old girls to 60 something-year-old teachers. But at least they recognize it for what it is, rather than internalizing it as some kind of valor.
I’ve had decades of therapy but I am still pretty fragile when it comes to pervasive fatphobia. While I haven’t “dieted” in many years, I slip into restriction without realizing it, though I recover more quickly than before. Luckily, (and deliberately) I have surrounded myself with people who also recognize how damaging diet culture and fatphobia are and don’t trigger my shit. There’s no way to escape it completely, but the saner the people around you, the more obvious the crazy is when you encounter it.
Undereating is not a virtue. Eating is not a sin. Feed your body.
The Body is Not an Apology by Sonia Rene Taylor
Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings
Health at Every Size by Lindo Bacon
Podcast: Maintenance Phase
What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon