Pandemic Weight Gain, Generational Disordered Eating and Body Image Issues
(Trigger warning: this story contains discussions of eating disorders, disordered eating, and Body Dismorphia)
Before I moved to the East Coast, I took care of a fourth-grade girl after school. Her parents hired me to drive her to climbing and martial arts lessons, help her do homework, and cook her dinner. On the way to climbing we usually stopped at Starbucks, where she would fish her hands around in the stacked baskets and select a pricey allergen-free chip-thing. She reminded me of an energetic spider, jumping around, limbs akimbo, and everywhere at once. I allowed her to roll around the kitchen floor, as long as we discussed her math problems. When she went quiet or froze, I knew something was off. One day I caught her, frozen, brow furrowed, checking the nutritional panel on a snack in the Starbucks checkout line. I asked her if she knew what calories were and she shrugged. To her, calories were points that indicated the value of the food. If a food had a high caloric value, it was bad, no matter what. I gently told her that calories were not bad, they are potential energy, we need them to live — to climb, run around at aftercare, pay attention in school. With the realignment of food as fuel, her spirited demeanor returned. Despite this small victory, a wave of grief washed over me, knowing that my influence could never overpower her mother’s. Day after day I watched her mother come home from work, defrost a block of frozen spinach, dress it with low-calorie butter spray, and call it dinner. They had an empty ten-thousand dollar refrigerator. Today, that little girl is a teenager, and I still worry about her. I don’t want her to end up like me and my female friends, dragging around the ball and chain of our body image for decades.
When I talk to my friends about their mother’s eating habits, the goal was always to become thinner. In the last half century thinness has been presented to women as empowering. Waifish actresses like Audrey Hepburn gave rise to other waifish actresses like Keira Knightly, supermodels like Twiggy paved the way for Kate Moss. It didn’t matter whether it was 1930, 1960, or 1990: the biggest icons were extremely thin white women. Our mothers and grandmothers were baptized into an American culture where fat meant failure, maybe because “beauty” came with social and career opportunities many women felt like they couldn’t get otherwise. I can only think of one close friend whose mom doesn’t have body image issues (to my knowledge). Some of our mothers never meant for us to know, keeping quiet about their own bodies, while they starved themselves with cabbage and protein bars. Although, most of our mothers shared their toxic opinions and roped us into the body-hating.
In my family, body image issues went hand-in-hand with self-presentation. It was important to look thin, clean, and pretty. All of my life, my mother has wanted to lose weight — 2 to 15 pounds, depending on the day. She has always been tall and skinny and never skinny enough. Through high school my mom would berate me if I tried to leave the house without under-eye coverup because she found my naturally dark under-eyes offensive. When I stressed out about tests, she would tell me to dress nicely to remind myself that my looks would get me farther than a test. She would ask me how much I weighed to compare it to her own weight, even though I was six inches shorter. I refused to get on her scale for years because I knew it would open a door to unhealthy behaviors like skipping meals. I used to believe my mother’s fear of fat came from the media. Yet, when I became a teenager, my maternal grandma started to comment on my body. She would grab my underarm while I walked by and make fun of how it jiggled and tell me not to eat too many sweets. She speaks about other female family members’ bodies as though they are moral failings. She found ways to criticize my body when I was a size 4. Her opinions resulted from internalized misogyny that women were created to be men’s visually appealing household manager/support system/mother and primary caregiver. The result of this kind of thinking means that men can do no wrong, or if they do make a mistake, it isn’t a woman’s place to say anything. About ten years ago, when we were in high school, one of my male cousins went to jail for drunk driving and possession. My grandma’s response was essentially: what a rascal! If I had done that, she would have disowned me. Now that I’ve had the same boyfriend for several years, doesn’t talk about my body as much, or my career and life goals. I guess in her mind I effectively used my appearance, my power, to achieve the prescribed end goal: finding a man.
This body and image policing starts young and is presented as tough love. My mom took me to get my legs and bikini waxed for the first time in eighth grade. She taught me to be so afraid of having visible body hair, that even after all the waxing, I still wore long sleeves and long pants on my school trip. There are two anecdotes about this phenomenon of body and image policing that stand out in my mind. 1. My best friend’s mom was so worried that her daughter would be too pale in school photos and made her get a spray tan. She was in the sixth grade. 2. In seventh grade my classmate was offered $100 by her parents to lose 10 pounds. These kinds of things felt a little strange at the time but were easily brushed off, or so we thought. Even though I pushed back, telling my Mom to get out of my business, making unflattering faces in photos when she directed me to put my “shoulders back, tits out,” the generations of body hate poisoned the well of my own self-worth. The same was true with my female friends. My classmate whose parents tried to bribe her into losing weight developed an ED, which worsened in high school, and ultimately resulted in her admission to a rehabilitation program after graduation. My friend whose mom got her the spray tan in sixth grade spent a decade eating low-fat everything, skipping meals, and exercising like her value as a person was directly proportional to what she looked like in a bikini. Unlike most folks with disordered eating habits, the pandemic helped my friend realize the futility and life-sucking nature of this fixation. Her realization makes my heart flutter with joy. But like the momentary salve to the little girl’s fear of calories, I fear my friend may never be free of these toxic impulses. In the midst of trying to find a place for ourselves in the world — careers, partners, passions — the disparaging voice holds strong.
Body hate is fervent in my dad’s family as well. My dad isn’t blameless in my body-image issues either. He loves to remind me not to gain weight, and always lets me know about his latest weight-loss. His fatphobia was also taught to him by his mother. While my dad was growing up, my paternal grandmother kept an obsessive watch over what went in and out of her and her children’s bodies. She used their family calendar to keep track of everyone’s bowel movements, and I suspect she purchased powdered milk not because of the lower cost, but the lower fat and calorie content in comparison to fresh milk. When I was a kid, I remember my grandmother drinking coffee at all hours and only eating tiny amounts. One of her favorite foods was white rice soaked in soy sauce. By the time I was a teenager, touching her seemed dangerous, as though the half-dozen shirts she wore to keep warm were what kept her from shattering. In the last few years of her life, I’m not sure if she ever ate. She spat her chewed food into tissues to avoid swallowing it, then dropped the used tissues under the dining room table. The family begged her to stop leaving the tissues on the ground because the dog would eat them whole and have to go to the vet, but she adamantly denied the tissues were hers. She shrunk away in her eighties, becoming a sad, angry woman who turned off her hearing aids on purpose. On her deathbed she told my aunt that she was finally happy with her body. Maybe that last story isn’t the truth, but even my aunt’s fabrication about what my grandmother said communicates so much: my aunt wanted me to know that my grandmother was finally happy with herself after a lifetime of self-hatred. Those of us whose lives have been poisoned by body image issues want to be happy with ourselves and want others to be happy with themselves. The fight to become smaller and thinner so easily becomes all-encompassing, making us unable to enjoy our lives because we are disgusted and ashamed by our own appearance, distracted by our hunger, and constantly angry we do not look the way that we have been conditioned to believe will make us confident and carefree.
My formative years were the early 2000’s, a time when popular culture became a veritable minefield for female bodies. Photoshop was rampant, and paparazzi went out of their way to take unflattering photos of female celebrities so they could sell them to all of the gossip outlets. Women had four categories: too provocative, too skinny, pregnant, or fat. Every female celebrity who ate lunch or was slightly bloated was on “baby bump watch,” with tabloids zooming in on pictures of their abdomens for proof. Fat was the worst thing a female celebrity could be, because at some point the media and diet industry decided bodies should never change. Teenage celebrities were supposed to have the same pubescent body into their 20’s and pregnant celebrities had to go into hiding after giving birth in order to “transform” into an even skinnier and sexier version of themselves. The media said fat meant sad, fat meant you didn’t care about your appearance, and therefore you were probably gross and dirty too. Social media like tumblr (a precursor to Instagram) prospered off “thinspiration” posts of bony models in black and white, as well as forums on how to starve yourself efficiently while hiding it from friends and family. Even though disordered eating was encouraged and prescribed to those deemed fat, eating disorders were perceived as embarrassing and shameful, and dismissed with comments like “ you don’t look like you have an eating disorder” or “eat a cheeseburger.” Fashion consisted of revealing belt-sized skirts, tube tops, belly shirts, jeans so low that enterprising pubes could poke out the top, and suddenly everyone had to worry about “muffin tops” and “thigh gaps.” It is no wonder my generation was raised to hate our bodies. Even looking at the above paragraph, a sea of terms and phrases in quotations, I am reminded of how all of this fabricated nonsense hinders so many of our lives.
I’m never sure what I actually look like thanks to a defense mechanism I developed: Body Dysmorphia. After years of scrutiny towards my own appearance my brain decided I would be better off never really knowing. I treat all mirrors as Fun House mirrors, save a quick honest glance here or there. Some days my head looks so round and my face so bloated that I wonder how it hasn’t rolled off my neck like a meatball. Viewing these distortions is akin to the dramatic-but-believable edits of Photoshop or FaceTune. I once showed my therapist a photo of myself and a college friend, and told her how I did not like it because my thighs looked like sausages. She remarked that my friend’s thighs were exactly the same size. I brought my face closer to my phone screen, in disbelief. She was lying. Five years later, I can look at that photo and see that she was not lying. An outsider might think this Body Dysmorphia would protect me, because if I know what I’m seeing is altered then I’m free from my own judgement. However, it has proven to be both exceptionally convincing and dangerous.
In my junior year of college, I had a depressive episode that resulted in me losing a quarter of my body weight. I was so anxious I couldn’t keep normal amounts of food down and I became dangerously thin. When I looked in the mirror, however, I did not see the difference; I honestly believed all my pants had lost their elasticity. Now I look at photos from that time and it’s obvious to me that my body was following the sickly desire of my mind to melt away into nothingness, to cease to exist. My body wasn’t the problem, it was a side effect of my depressive hopelessness. And yet, my body was all my doctor could see. In the same appointment where my doctor directed me to drink Ensure and do daily weigh-ins to make sure I gained weight, she warned me not to go “too far in that direction.” My clothes were falling off of my body and my own doctor was telling me to be careful about getting fat, as though fatness was the ultimate villain. I, like the little girl I would babysit a few years later, like all humans, needed fat and calories. Everywhere I turned I was told that fatness, like the Kool-Aide Man, might bust through a wall and ruin me.
Our cultural Fatphobia reminds me of the old-fashioned European virginity-guarding, dowry-dealing, women-can’t-own-their-bodies-or-land bullshit. Get caught spending time un-chaperoned with a man in the garden, ruined! Gain weight, ruined! Except now, women are lied to about the agency we have over our bodies. Most people are free to gain weight, but it often comes with shame and public backlash. Whether it is nasty looks from people around us, abusive comments on social media, or the (especially damaging) opinions of our mothers and families, women aren’t allowed to live with blinders on to protect themselves from judgement. Our bodies are seen both as private extensions of ourselves for which we alone are responsible, and also as things in the public domain, like the Happy Birthday song. One of the many reasons that this is problematic is because you don’t know what is going on with someone just by looking at them, and 100% of the time, they know their body better than you know their body.
I’ve gained weight over the course of the pandemic. I don’t weigh myself, and due to the Body Dysmorphia I can’t trust my reflection, but my clothes are uncomfortably tight. My dad has received both of his vaccinations and I imagine we will be planning a visit in the next few months. I haven’t seen him since October of 2019 and I miss him deeply. But when we finally see each other I fear he’s going to say something about my body. Like millions of other straight men in the world, my dad thinks of my body as an appropriate subject of scrutiny. As a result, a large part of me doesn’t want to see him anymore. Not him, not my mother, or my maternal grandmother. It is easy to let the dread snowball, leading me to become so full of shame about my appearance that I don’t even want to see my friends. I can’t let this toxic thinking win, I need to fight it, and I know I have the anger and the fight in me. While working on this piece over the last few days, my brain has been playing clips of a one of favorite songs, “None Of Your Business” by Salt-N-Pepa, which came out in 1993, a year after I was born. It’s the defiant anthem I need to move forward (minus the God talk at the end). What a woman does with her body is none of your business, what she looks like or wants to wear, who she wants to sleep with, it isn’t up to you to judge her. It is none of your business.
One day I hope I will be free of the hate I have for my body. I’m not asking to love my body. I can exist in between love and pretending I do not have a body at all. The Body Neutrality Movement accepts that while we all have bodies, we are also whole beings with more than just bodies. That is what I am working towards. I want to find happiness with my appearance, enough to not dread shopping for clothes or looking in the mirror. And to everyone reading this, especially parents, please examine how you treat your children’s bodies, what you say about your own body, and why. Bodies do not need to be punished.
*My mother told me before a trip to India that she wanted to get dysentery and then stay thin by getting her vitamins via IV drip, apparently like Kate Moss.