Ruth has been at war with her own body since middle school. She and her sisters reacted emotionally in different ways to the stress and trauma from their childhood home. One developed a substance addiction, and the other a debilitating panic disorder. Ruth considers herself the most “stable” of the group. But she feels self-conscious:
“I wouldn’t trade challenges with my sisters. We’re close, so we discuss our problems, our therapies, our messes. I would not want to battle addiction or have to live in constant fear of my own fear, the way they do. And I know what I’m about to say sounds shallow. But despite knowing how much they suffer, sometimes I feel jealous of them. They’re both thin and beautiful and appear to be put together. To meet them, you wouldn’t know their emotional issues, while my issues are constantly on display in my conspicuous weight fluctuations.
“I don’t know for sure whether my complicated food and body issues are connected to the ‘stuff’ we went through; I know there are plenty of people from loving homes who have similar problems. But what it feels like to me, is that my sisters get to keep their mess private, struggling on the inside. But my roller-coaster relationship with eating and weight make me feel like I wear my issues outwardly. Like everyone can tell I have baggage, and when it acts up. Not to mention that I have a range of seven different sized wardrobes cluttering my closet; I never know when I’ll need what.
“Most of the time, I’m really fine. I have a good job, a happy family, everything I ever wanted, pretty much. But this leftover issue of what I eat and how I look, takes up too much of my headspace and feels like a public broadcast of my unfinished childhood business.”
Ruth knows that she is medically safe and psychologically stable. She’s aware that she is far from unique in her complex feelings about her own physicality; and her sensitivity to the issue makes her hyperaware of others’ physiological fluctuations. She often feels inferior to folks in smaller bodies, and an awkward level of presumptive empathy to those in larger ones.
She’s particularly sensitive to, what I call, the “up-down look”- that feeling, subtle or otherwise, of someone visually sizing her up. It’s almost like they’re facially saying: “My, you’re looking bigger/ smaller than you did the last time I saw you. Wonder what that’s about…” It’s even more loaded because Ruth is in her child-bearing years, and has, on more than one occasion, had to field questions like: “So! When are you due?” when in fact, there was no one occupying her uterus.
Ruth vacillates in how she wants to “solve her problem.” Part of her wants to figure out the secret sauce to cultivating and maintaining the eating habits and body she wants. And another part of her wants to finally make peace with the body she has, and learn how to not worry so much about what she eats and how it looks on her. Between the societal pressure to be smaller and the newer societal counter-pressure to seem “body-positive,” regardless of how you feel, it sometimes just feels easier to stay home and hide. (With ice cream.)
At this point, I would imagine that at least 50% of the population could probably identify with at least some part of Ruth’s struggles to varying degrees (including me:). Even for those who don’t wear their “body issues on their bodies,” living in a society like ours can take a toll on this aspect of self image. It can be so exhausting trying to not only get comfortable in one’s skin and relationship to food, but also try to offer a calm, confident identity to the world.
Contrary to evangelicals on both ends of this issue; there are rarely simple fixes- for body or for mindset. For some, healthy lifestyle changes feel empowering, for others radical self-acceptance is incredibly healing, and for most, it’s an ongoing journey. It’s a very personal experience, but treating it in discreet, respectful, compassionate, nonjudgmental ways that leave room for individual feelings and approaches, is a good start.
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