Thursday, 24 September 2015

Figuring body comments

Every stage of my eating disorder has been accompanied by a running commentary on the appearance of my body. There was a great gush of approval when my weight loss began. Virtual strangers, eager to slim down, approached me and demanded I share my "secret". As my weight dropped too low, the praise was replaced with disapproving scolds and avoidance. Then the applause returned with an increase in weight, bringing cheers of "You look well!". The problem with these kinds of comments, is that it's impossible to know what sort of torment is going on behind the scenes. How I look is not how I am. Most people have good intentions - they don't mean to do harm, but casual remarks and assumptions based on physical appearance can damage. It's extremely difficult to deal with - just anticipating body comments is enough to stall my recovery.

Conversations that arise out of genuine care are different. It takes awareness, skill and sometimes courage to see past the exterior and broach a sensitive subject with someone. Those who managed to do so with me have been life savers. Sometimes people made remarks about my weight loss that I don't think truly reflected their thoughts - it was more a reflexive response to an awkward situation. It's easy to do - sometimes my mouth runs a few seconds ahead of my brain and I don't say what I mean. But many of those I regularly saw - at yoga class and in the schoolyard, bombarded me with comments about my body. They were oblivious to my discomfort and continued even after it was pretty clear I had a problem. It baffled me why they thought it was okay - the most vocal among them barely knew me.

Almost all the commentators were women. The men in my life are generally less verbal than the women, so it makes sense. With my girlfriends, there isn't much that's off limits. We talk about our physical selves readily - our bodies provide shared experiences that bond us together. We talk about hormonal woes, swap pregnancy and childbirth stories, and support each other through body image struggles. Most of the time, it's a good thing. It does mean, however, there is sometimes a lack of boundaries between women. Opinions and judgements are sometimes given whether you like it or not. In a culture where thinness is seen as desirable, some assume weight loss means the same thing for everyone, and rave about it as if it could only ever be good.

The world around us shapes the way we view and talk about bodies. Today, in the west particularly, beauty is bound up in consumer culture. The female form is on display everywhere, used as a tool to sell everything under the sun. Attractiveness itself is up for sale. Bodies are treated as objects, dissected into a multitude of parts and scrutinized at a microscopic level. Skin isn't the fantastically elastic organ that protects and contains us, but a series of 'problems' that we are urged to fix. There is dryness and wrinkles, sagging and pastiness, dark circles, cellulite and blemishes. Our bodies are assigned shapes (apples, pears, bricks and bananas...); our muscles tone, fat distribution, waist to hip ratios, and jean size are critiqued by various industries. These industries aren't there to care about the individual, they are there to sell a product or service. There is little appreciation for our uniqueness. Personal care is now public and commercialised (think of the hullabaloo about pubic hair!). Weight loss is everyone's business, and it's discussed fanatically over every media platform. When the physical self is seen as separate from the inner self, it's easier to pass judgement and comment. A person's feelings and experiences don't need much consideration.

This doctrine exists and plays out in the world I inhabit. When I first began losing weight, the deluge of comments that came in my direction were entirely positive. Some came from people I had never spoken to before - they didn't see boundaries and didn't see me - only the weight loss. Telling people it was due to stress (true in part) didn't dull their exuberance whatsoever. The talk and attention it elicited made me deeply uncomfortable, and I cringed away from it. The ill part of me, though, was glad. In my disordered mind, their words encouraged me to carry on - they affirmed my 'work' was paying off, but told me I hadn't done enough. I wanted my body to scream pain, and their enthusiasm told me it wasn't doing that yet. Nobody could have known the unhealthy state of my mind, but everything that was said reinforced my problematic body image beliefs.




I don't blame these women. We are affected by the same cultural maladies. The people who commented most frequently seemed uncomfortable with their bodies - openly criticising their arms, tummies and thighs. The irony is, that by verbalising their judgements, they perpetuate the myths that bind them.

Once my weight became unhealthily low, the flattery stopped, and things got much quieter. There were some comments with confused messages: 'You look amazing, but I'm worried about you are you eating?" There was communication by omission. It was in lost eye contact or absent smiles. Someone who might usually stop to talk in passing would avoid me. I could see the nervous flicker of their eyes over my body and it spoke volumes. I understood those reactions. It's hard to know what to do. Still, it made me feel awful.

Only the hardy continued. Some, not knowing how to deal with my situation, resorted to infantilising me. I am a fully formed, capable adult - the person I have always been, yet even a few old friends growled as if I were a child misbehaving. I remember one occasion that illustrates this perfectly. As I got changed for a yoga class one day, an acquaintance looked at me and tut-tutted "You're not eating you naughty thing." she said, and lightly slapped my hip. I was at my lowest weight and utterly wretched. I wanted to yell at her "Look lady, I'm not naughty, or a thing. I'm struggling with the will to live. Get your hands off me" She meant well, but it was reductive, patronising and reinforced one of the disorders underlying features: disempowerment.

Pity has the same diminishing effect. "Oh you poor thing" is a show of compassion, and comes from a good place. It's the kind of thing you might say to soothe a child, but as an adult it leaves you hanging in helplessness. Having an eating disorder doesn't make me weak. I have had an inordinate amount of shit thrown my way, and this is my particular way of snapping. No-one is bullet proof. I don't want pity, I want to people to understand how much strength it takes to confront deep-seated issues - many people live and die never dealing with their demons.

There was a period a few months ago when I ate a lot. I'd had a shift in my thinking and I was all fired up, ready to blast through the disorder with pure aggression. Putting on weight felt dreadful, but I forged ahead - that was until the comments started filtering in. As soon as there was a visible change in me, people rushed up to say how well I looked. They did so out of kindness, and were genuinely relieved to see my apparent improvement. What they didn't know, was that I tuned in to a special station of my own, which translated "You're looking good!" into "Your looking fat! Really fat! Fat, fat, fat!". I may have had some colour back in my cheeks, but I felt frighteningly out of control. In my mind I was a gigantic, blubbery failure. Their simple well wishes were so out of sync with how I felt, that I screeched on the brakes and stopped eating.

With so many ways to do harm, you might wonder if it's safe to say anything at all to someone with an eating disorder. As I see it, the key is to be genuine, open and respectful. Even if it is to say "I don't know what to do, I'm scared of saying the wrong thing", that's great - it starts up a conversation and is an acknowledgment of the difficulty of the situation. Questions are good, assumptions are not, and empathy is the golden ticket to healing.

If a meaningful, empathic exchange isn't possible, then the next best approach, I think, is silence. I don't mean avoiding or ignoring a person who is ill - I mean interacting the same way as always without mentioning the weight loss. There were people who looked me in the eye, joked and chatted away as if nothing were different, and it was such a comfort. It's not an easy thing to do. The prospect of putting on weight around these people is less daunting - I feel less self-conscious, less judged, and somehow more supported. It would be no good if everyone stayed quiet, but it is a far better alternative to casually made body comments, reprimands or pity.

The things people say wouldn't usually affect me quite so deeply, but at the moment my resilience is nil. Comments based on my outward appearance burn like knife dragged through an open wound. The difficulty is, I can't stop the words coming from people's mouths. To shield myself, I have to build a mental barrier with bricks made of self worth and acceptance. Right now, it seems like an impossible task, but my frustration with this illness grows day by day. Maybe change is on the way...


xx

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