Recently I was asked for a photograph to accompany a story, and not the usual tiny head shot, but a more visible image that was appropriate to the theme of the tale I was telling.
The picture needed to include me with the man I’m seeing. And I fretted over it, but not only because I prefer to play the wizard behind the curtain, allowing words and ideas to take center stage, but for other reasons.
Besides, once we know what someone looks like – or think we know – aren’t we influenced in a variety of ways no matter how hard we try not to be?
Don’t we respond differently to the tall man over the short one, the pretty woman over the plain one, and of course – the thinner subject over her pudgier counterpart?
Don’t we all judge by appearance?
What You See is Not Necessarily What You Get
Visual impressions matter, don’t they? We dismiss the serious side of life for those who beam a 100-watt smile, and we’re challenged to imagine romance or adventure for those whose faces are heavily lined by age.
If I offered up a photograph taken of me some 15 years ago (and 40 pounds heavier), your impression would be quite different than if you saw me today. For that matter, if I presented an image at a scrawny 92 pounds as my divorce raged on, you’d probably consider me frail, even sickly.
At the time, my own perception alternated between “at last, I’m thin” and the more tangible realization of my physical and emotional fragility.
As for the photograph I needed to run with a little love story at Purple Clover, I poured through files on my hard drive. My guy looked great in every shot. But me? That was another story. The first thought that came to mind was this: Which picture makes me look the thinnest? My next thought: Do I choose one in which my body looks trim even if my face looks puffy? Do I go for angular cheekbones over swelling hips or vice versa?
Ultimately, maturity prevailed. I chose the picture that was the most us – smiling and playful.
Lifelong Battles with Body Image
Given my lifelong battles with weight and body image, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that going through picture after picture, if the subject is yours truly, I see fat people. Me – fat, though I know I’m a normal size for my height, my sex, and my age – and I don’t experience this same phenomenon when looking at others. If anything, I prefer both men and women with “real” bodies, and a little substance on their frames.
Yet despite beating back the bad behaviors and self-sabotaging esteem issues that follow, the shadow of overweight periodically reappears. I may or may not see myself clearly at those times, but I know that I feel better when I’m thinner. I feel stronger and more confident. I feel more deserving of good things in my life – and that’s the kicker that is off, very off. We should always feel deserving of good things in life, and treating ourselves respectfully.
To my surprise, eating disorders don’t necessarily abate as we grow older. In fact, this Psych Central article highlights the continuing issues that women face when it comes to food and unhealthy eating behaviors.
Women, Eating Disorders, Statistics
Certainly concerning, Psych Central writer Therese Borchard cites the following statistics:
95 percent of those who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25; 50 percent of girls between the ages of 11 and 13 see themselves as overweight
These are frightening figures, especially considering the devastating health impacts that can result, not to mention the preoccupation with weight and appearance that lodges itself in the mind and persists for decades. How is it that we haven’t made more progress?
And yet –
… an increasing number of middle-aged and older women are suffering from eating disorders, as well… Statistics may lie about just how many women develop eating disorders later in their lives because the illness often goes undiagnosed by doctors…
Ms. Borchard goes on to cite a study which:
suggests that the desire to be thin never fades. Some of the women may actually be experiencing recurrences of eating disorders they suffered from in their teens, 20s, or 30s… Others may have had continuous problems throughout their lifetimes…
My Body, My Selves?
I ate erratically as a child, following in the footsteps of an obese mother who chose food as her source of comfort, exacerbating the unhappiness associated with her size. Along with the binges, there were diets in secret, miles walked in the pre-dawn hours (to work off food from the day before), days in which I starved myself entirely, and periods that were relatively free of anything other than “normal” eating.
When I dieted or starved myself, whatever I lost was regained – and more. May we all join hands and sing a chorus of Yo-Yo Diet?
Fortunately, healthy food was consumed regularly at our 1960s and 1970s dinner table, and I brought that preference for well-rounded and nutritional eating into later stages in life. But with it I also carried other patterns into stressful times – bingeing, extreme exercising, and fasting – behaviors that persisted for 30 years and possibly longer. Meanwhile, I remain suggestible to less than healthy habits, particularly when sleep deprived.
Although I gained a great deal of weight during my pregnancies and had difficulty losing it, I did – eventually – though only the “Divorce Diet” knocked all of it off, and more. In a few years time, I returned to that “normal” range where no one would call me thin, but nor would they say I was fat.
How Many of Us “See Fat People?”
I still have days when I look in the mirror and I see fat, I feel fat, and I am as desirous of being thin as I was at 16 or 26, or 36 following my first pregnancy. If I eat so much as a potato chip or two, or for that matter, indulge in a delectable few bites of dark chocolate, then I’m mired in guilt, self-loathing, and right back where I was 15 or more years ago.
It’s as though the erratic eating is institutionalized in my psyche and my body, in my personal body politic, and try as I might to chase it away with good habits and the reality check of my “skinny” jeans, only in another culture – France – does the preoccupation with my body size disappear entirely.
We know that the stigma of being fat (and the fat self-image?) lingers, even after losing enormous amounts of weight. Remember the research data referenced in The Fat Fake-Out?
Will I always be subject to the not so fun “fun house mirror” when it comes to body image? For all the progress I’ve made, I wonder.
Some days, the shadow of those negative fat feelings returns with a vengeance. It darkens my perspective on everything: I am the fat child, the fat teenager, the fat 20-something or 30-something who feels invisible and unworthy of love. Other days, there is no shadow, and I celebrate those days and reinforce them through good habits, not to mention getting out of my own head – and backing away from the mirror.
But I wonder how many more women feel as I do – embarrassed to admit that while they may have beaten back their eating demons, they’ve never conquered them entirely. Like me, they’re hungry to shuffle through pictures of themselves and not judge based on whether or not they “look fat.”
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