Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Media, Body Image & Anorexia

I am the mother of five children.

I am the survivor of an eating disorder.

Those two statements independently carry a lifetime of worry, but when placed in proximity to one another, they terrify me.

I live in a world where these things don't just happen to other people, to other women, to other daughters, other sons.  They happen to me.  The mere idea of it happening to my children makes me choose my words carefully every day, and dictates my actions more than anything else at times.

I'm doing the best I can to hold the hand of a friend as she starts on down this road, not as the sufferer, but as the parent.  I try the best I can to convey what it was like when I was in that place myself, knowing that the distance, clarity and maturity of my years has allowed me to understand it far more than I did when I was in it.  I try my best to help her understand, so that she can do her best to help her little girl.

And yet, I know that it still resides within me, this tendency.

My name is Kelly, and I was could still be anorexic.

I've written about it before, but for a different reason than what moves me to do it this time.   I was in a different place then, and the voice was different.  Since then, I've struggled with it again.  I've fought it back, told it no, urged it away.

When other things in my life spun rapidly out of control, I found myself controlling the one thing I could.  

Again.

Anorexia, you see, has almost nothing to do with where you fall on a BMI chart, though many falsely believe it only affects people who are already underweight.  It has nothing to do with how attractive someone is.  The body image portion of it, while huge and oppressive, is simply a way that the underlying problem manifests.

The root is a feeling of helplessness, of loss of control.  Anorexia is what some people, usually young women, will do to their bodies to try and regain control of something tangible.  It manifests as a body image disease because often one of the only things that anyone can control in life is what we put into our bodies, what we force our bodies to do.

Most people diagnosed with anorexia also suffer from depression, and a significant portion of them also fit the criteria for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

It becomes overwhelming quickly, invading every piece of what you do and who you are.

My struggle began when I was 14, though in reality the groundwork was laid years prior.  I was a perfectionist, terrified of failure.  A type-A control freak. I was an early bloomer, I was at the mercy of genetics.  Practically blind and covered with horrible acne, I felt ugly.  My life was full of typical teenage drama, laced with troubled family dynamics, and I felt more than a little bit lost.

I needed knee surgery, and the trip down the slippery slope began.  I put on weight after the surgery because I was in a full leg brace for months.  I started taking pain pills far more often than I should have just so that I could push myself in rehab.

It became an obsession.  I wrote down every single exercise I did.  I added more every single day. I got up early and ran every morning.  I ran again after I pretended to eat dinner.  I was proud of myself when all I'd eaten was some lettuce.  The weight started to fall off.  I powered through the pain in my knee, ignored the asthma I knew I had, even if it left me in a pile on the sidewalk gasping for air more than once.  I refused to let myself stop.

People noticed.  Boys paid attention to me.  No one seemed to realize how or why I was changing, just that I was.  I savored the attention, but it only pushed me more. The thinner I got, the worse I felt.  I considered each pound lost a victory, but never enough.  It was never good enough.  I was never good enough.  It didn't matter what anyone else said or did.  My image of myself had become completely distorted.

I started fainting, developed horrible migraines.  The headaches were so bad that I was evaluated for a brain tumor by a doctor who congratulated me on my weight loss, ignoring what the possible reason could have been.

The day I woke up staring at the spinning ceiling in church, I hit the wall.  It had to stop.

I spent 20 years fully able to fight it back, and have spent most of those years carrying too many pounds on my frame, but living with myself.  Loving myself.  Setting the goal to be happy and healthy, and not tying my worth as a person to a number on a scale.

Until last year, when it reared it's ugly head again.

I realized last night that I hadn't admitted that out loud to anyone.  Not even to myself.

This experience with my friend, my trying anything I can to help her, has forced me to be honest with myself again.

Anorexia is not something that ever completely goes away.  It cannot be solved or remedied.  A new wardrobe won't fix it.  A boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife won't fix it.  A great education won't fix it.  A great job won't fix it.  All the other measures of worth in the world can mean nothing if the voice in your head tells you again that you aren't good enough and you start listening.

It can be managed though, with the right support system.  With people who understand that it is a mental disorder, not a physical ailment.  With people who don't engage in negative self talk about the size of their butts or their latest fad diets.  With people who don't objectify and idolize the images of beauty that the media tries to convince us are the only acceptable ones.  With people who don't minimize this real and damaging condition.

Women of the world, I beg of you, we need to do better.  For ourselves, for our daughters and sons.

We need to reject the idea of the perfectly toned fountain of youth.  We need to repress the airbrushed images of perfection that pervade our magazines.  We need to pull our children and ourselves away from the fun house mirrors ever present in our society, the ones that tell us we are too short, too tall, too freckled, too wrinkled, too fat.

We need to recognize the warning signs of eating disorders and take them seriously, not pass them off simply as phases or normal teenage behavior.

We need to do the best we can to instill in our children that they are beautiful, that they are worthy.  We need to teach them to make healthy choices, to be active, and we need to do those things ourselves.  We need to be role models.  We need to love ourselves, love our bodies.  Forgive our faults, embrace our curves. We need to say these things out loud, when our children can hear us.  We need to believe it, we need to teach them.

My stretch marks are not flaws, 
they are merely the evidence of a 
woman who carried five children. 
They don't mean I am broken, 
they mean I am strong and capable. 

It has taken most of my life to find peace with this body I inhabit.  Sometimes the voice in my head wins, but most days I do.

I hope every single day that my children find that peace without ever having to go through this.  I try the best I can to build their self confidence, to teach them to embrace their bodies, to make them see their inherent value and beauty.  And I know that even with all that, they could still struggle someday.

To my friend, I am here, and I will help you in any way that I can.  I wish you, and that beautiful girl of yours, peace.

It is estimated that 1% of American women suffer from anorexia, 3-4% from bulimia.  Approximately 10% of those diagnosed with eating disorders are men, the rest are women.  These disorders have been documented in children as young as 7, and as old as people in their 70's.  Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder.  

21 comments:

  1. I so feel you. I'm a long time sufferer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder, which has manifested itself in various eating disorders. I recognize this and have fought very hard to keep it out of the air while raising my almost 7 year old, beautiful daughter. We talk about being healthy, about how foods are either good for your body or not so good for your body. Everything in moderation. blah blah blah. Then we watched the Miss America pageant (which ironically, in my very non judgmental family, is a yearly tradition where we text each other our picks and have a score system and everything. weird). Daughter was dancing along with the girls. So I thought. I told her I loved her dancing. She said "I'm not dancing, I'm exercising so I can be skinny." Somewhere I failed. Somewhere. Either I haven't been as good as I thought I have been about shielding her from my own issues and positively reinforcing healthy body image, or by letting her watch the pageant, or something. We limit exposure to media and ALWAYS talk about airbrushing and lighting and camera work. But somewhere, I have still failed. It's time for me to figure out where and to do better. Thanks for posting. I love your honesty, as usual.

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    1. Media and peers have so much to do with a girls perception of what she should look like. Please do not think you have failed your daughter. She will always be exposed to things that differ from what you are trying to teach, but with strong parenting and open communication, she will come back to what she has learned from you. Hugs to you....

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  2. I have three boys. They think they are fat. They are not; they are not even husky or soft. They are at their proportional ideal weight. This is a scourge on all of humanity now, not just girls. Love. Peace. Tolerance. But most important: LOVE. xo

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  3. Kelly, another beautifully written post as always. Thank you for sharing your experience in order to help others. I don't know what you looked like as a teen, but you look very beautiful so just keep telling yourself that.

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  4. As a mom I am much more aware of the things I say about my own body. How do we teach our children to love the bodies they have when they hear or see us putting our own bodies down? Once again, having a daughter has forced me to examine my own issues more closely.

    Your openness on this topic will likely lead to other people becoming more aware of this issue and taking steps to limit media exposure (and to think about the things they say about themselves or others). Thank you for sharing your story.

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  5. You are so brave. Thank you for sharing. <3

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  6. As someone who also struggled with anorexia to gain control of my life, I am so glad you shared this. I also have a form of body dysmorphia. I know I weigh too much, but even when I didn't I thought I was horribly fat. It's neverending...

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  7. Such bravery to admit this to the world, such a wonderful friend to the mother of the girl struggling, and such a strong woman to instill beauty in her daughters. <3

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  8. Such an important and amazing post. We have to talk about these things. We have to make people aware of them, and the fact that it's not just about girls trying to get attention. I struggled with bulimia in high school. Every once in awhile, I still find myself leaning in that direction and it's scary. I too have two daughters, and I never want them to struggle with this! Thank you for talking about this, for getting the word out... for opening the discussion. xoxo

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  9. It's a sad time we live in where people are defined by their size weight and body shape. Both my daughters are obsessed with image one is 23 one is 8. It's too late to change the 23 yo ut hopefully I can guide the 8 yo... Thanks for sharing

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  10. Thank you for being brave enough to beautifully write the things that I am too scared to write. Your story could be my story. I decided years ago that my story needs to end with me...it can't be passed on to my daughter. It just can't.

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  11. Kelly - Thanks so much for sharing your struggles and shedding light on this. Beautiful. xoxo

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  12. This..... and you, are perfection. Beautifully written. Raw. I absolutely loved every word. All the best to you, my friend. Xoxoxo

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  13. This is so powerful, Kelly. Thank you for sharing. I could have easily fallen into the anorexia trap in junior high. I would eat little more than carrots or a few gummi bears on any given day. I'm thankful I never did, despite my horrible self esteem. I am sharing this - it is too important not to spread far and wide. Hugs, my friend - your courage is inspiring.

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  14. You have such an incredible ability to share your past experiences and continuing fears, doubts and struggles in a way that makes people less fearful of looking at and discussing their own experiences, fears, doubts, and struggles. Kudos to you for being willing to put it all out there and to allow such open dialogue. Without ongoing talks/discussions/dialogue nothing will change. Hugs to you!

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  15. Wow ! You never seem to not suprise me about myself now I'm not skinny I am on the other spectrum and I have an 8 year old and I really just reliazed how horrible some of the comments I make to her. I have problems with my thyroid and as soon as I hit puberty I gained it like crazy 5 till high school was aweful. Wether it's a skinny or a fat thing it's dangerous. I am going to do better from now on and approach her a little different on something's. now don't take this wrong I don't call her day I am just strict on what she eats and it upsets her I need to address the issues. This makes me relize I could be setting her up to do just this with her self. It's so hard when you were touched in school to watch your own child go threw it . I say next topic anit bulling campaign in schools and do you think they work. Their school has one and just to be
    Clear my son is a bean poll and still gets bulled. Anyways thanks again :)

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    1. Ok I hate iPhone tonight I don't call her fat I was torchered in school and anti bulling.

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  16. Thank you, Kelly, for your openness and honesty and for being such a good friend to your friend. This post should be required reading, at least once a year, for mothers and fathers of every child. I grew up criticized constantly for my weight. I fought back by eating way too much and am still struggling with this issue. Love to you and your friend. xoxo

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  17. This is beautiful and powerful. As someone who has wrestled with these same issues for more than half my life....thank you!

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  18. Thank you for being so open and honest. I agree we can do better as a society both as role models and guiding our young girls to love themselves unconditionally.

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  19. It is time we start having a stronger voice to prevent losing more innocent teens who are programmed to believe that thin is in.

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