By Karly Stilling
“Had I not created my whole world, I would surely have died in other people’s.”-Anaïs Nin
A confession: I weigh more now than I ever have in my entire life and trying not to care about that fact is one of the hardest and most radical things I’ve ever tried to do.
I say tried because I’m not exactly succeeding. It’s difficult to undo the years of social conditioning that have convinced me that my worth is tied to my appearance.
I’m 36 years old, and my brain still thinks that my body should look like it did when I was fourteen: thin, awkward, and incapable of doing a push-up. The disparity between what my body is and what my brain thinks it should be has meant years of “trying to lose weight” and even a couple years of disordered eating.
I’m not going to go into the details of my history with disordered eating, partly because I was never very successful at it, but mostly because reading about eating disorders can be extremely triggering for those who are prone to the kinds of thoughts and behaviours that accompany them. I know that from experience; a key part of my disordered eating was seeking out writing that would inspire my behaviour.
I was young then and I barely had internet, let alone a smartphone, and I find it terrifying to think of the struggle facing those who are dealing with body dysmorphia today with so much harmful information at their fingertips.
A poem from those years:
nudity (naked, devoid)
the word haunted me (my greatest fear) and my fourteen year old mind didn’t think i could ever do it
i undressed in front of the makeup artist, terrified of my own body. he was gay but that didn’t stop me from shaking with fear as i slipped off my bra. he didn’t stop talking on his cell phone as he handed me a three hundred dollar dress (this green sash, a dress?)
he painted me carefully with lipstick and eyeliner i would scrub for hours to get off—an adult version of dress up, wearing my mom’s slip and heels, still a little girl inside
i felt like a mannequin—an object (ob—in the way, ject—to throw), but i didn’t object
other girls i knew then—one lived with an actor she met on the set of a pop music video i auditioned for too but didn’t get, another was miss canada international; i saw the article on her in the paper, she cried when she won in toronto. the other i saw on billboards for the local mall, ads in flare, one of canada’s top models (on drugs since fourteen)
i didn’t envy them—not really
i had more to offer (ob—toward, ferre—to carry) than to carry my body on display through the world
model (modulus—small measure)
(obsolete, archetype, mannequin)
A few months ago, a former coworker of mine did the Instagram ten year challenge. Her current photos show her smiling, the happy and healthy woman with the heart-shaped face that I know. In the others, she is dangerously slim and looks pale and unhappy.
I was surprised when I saw these photos but I probably shouldn’t have been. I worked with her for over two years and never guessed she had a history of disordered eating. She always seemed so happy in herself—which, I suppose, is the point: she’s in a good place now, but so many of us have these demons lurking in our past.
When did thin become beautiful?
For a long time, curves were sought after. Historically, a woman’s voluptuous figure meant wealth and fertility. To be fair, some ridiculous trends came out of this curve obsession: corsets designed to create tits and ass (and make a woman’s body harder to access), bustles to emphasize the rear. I’m told that at a certain point men started to hate bustles, but women continued to wear them because it made it harder for men to invade their space. Would come in handy on public transit, wouldn’t it?
Although there’s always been some way our bodies weren’t quite right, thinness didn’t become such a major obsession until fairly recently.
The concept of dieting and thinness as an ideal gained popularity throughout North America in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and by the time the calorie was discovered and the personal scale invented, we were being sold the thin ideal.
Then came the 1990s and heroin chic—and the era in which my adolescent brain internalised the ideals of female beauty. In 1993, when Calvin Klein launched their Obsession campaign featuring a nineteen-year-old Kate Moss, I was ten years old. I don’t want to say I was doomed, but what chance did my impressionable brain stand against this?
We’ve started to come back around to curves, thanks in part to the Kardashians. Big bums are back—but don’t worry, diet industry! Waists are still tiny, fat is still the enemy, “you look anorexic” is still a compliment, and Kim is still promoting appetite-suppressing lollipops on Instagram.
The deadliest mental disorder diagnosis you can get is anorexia. With a fatality rate of 10%, those suffering from anorexia are six times more likely to die than the average population. Those who are diagnosed in their twenties are eighteen times more likely to die.
“You look anorexic” is not, and never has been, a fucking compliment.
I was recently at a work event in Singapore where they brought in two belly dancers as the entertainment. One had the ‘ideal’ body, slim and toned, and the other looked more like me, a bit of jiggle to her tummy. A female coworker who knows that I’ve been feeling uncomfortable with my current weight leant over and whispered to me, “See, isn’t she beautiful?” I agreed, she was. They both were.
While we were all oohing and aahing over their performance with great big wings full of coloured lights, I overheard one male colleague say to another that while the dancing was good, “the one dancer needs to lose some weight, right?” and laughing.
In the last few decades, I’ve learned some things that I wish I could go back and tell my adolescent self:
Everyone’s body is different and what’s right for someone else’s body won’t necessarily be right for yours.
Food is life’s greatest pleasure so you had better treat it with respect.
Exercise is something you do for your body, not to your body.
Confidence makes a better impression than beauty.
The power of positive thinking works, but not the way you think. Stop substituting “I look ugly” with “I look beautiful”—that’s never going to help. Instead, substitute both with “it doesn’t matter what I look like, I am still worthy of love.”
The people who matter don’t give a toss what you look like.
Loving yourself as you are is a radical, revolutionary act in a world intent on telling you how and where you are not good enough. Do it with pride.
I’m still working on that last one.