Thursday, February 26, 2015

Finding Beauty

Did you know, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 20 million girls and 10 million guys in the USA are affected by eating disorders, or some form of disordered eating, at some point during their lives?

Actually, yeah. You probably did. Eating disorders are not unheard of, and they’re not as secretly dealt with as they once were. You probably learned about them in school, were taught a few nutritional tips based on whatever food pyramid print-out your teacher gave you, and that was that. Maybe you had a friend who confessed to you once that she threw up in the bathroom after lunch, or you’ve seen a coworker look in a mirror and suck her stomach in, complaining that she's overweight.
Or maybe you’re one of the roughly 24 million people in the United States who has struggled with an eating disorder of some kind.

While I was putting this post together, I came across this article from Darling magazine informing me that this week (February 22-28, I guess) is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. As this came from NEDA, I'm assuming it's US-based, but that doesn't mean I can't also recognize it in Singapore! I had no idea this was even a thing, and ironically, the week's theme is "I Had No Idea..." I encourage you to check out the link. Anyways.

Let me explain, for those who are lucky enough to never have dealt with this problem, what an eating disorder is. Typically, people hear the phrase and think of anorexia (when you restrict your caloric intake to the point of near or total starvation) or bulimia (when you “purge” or throw up your food after eating). Lately, there’s been an emergence of new terms for eating disorders. Common labels include "binge-eater", to describe someone who eats uncontrollably, or "orthorexic", for a person who won’t let a morsel of unhealthy food through their mouths. We've even got "EDONS" to categorize an Eating Disorder Otherwise Not Specified.

Now, I understand, to some extent, the need for medical terms in order to diagnose and treat these problems at their extremes. But does the fact that you don’t fall under any of these categories mean you don’t really have an eating disorder and maybe you’re just "bad at dieting"?

Um, no. Just because you can't label something doesn't mean it isn't dangerous. Disordered eating starts when your focus on and obsession with food starts to control other aspects of your life. I don't mean trying to eat more healthily in order to drop a few pounds, or deciding that tomorrow you're going to eat more vegetables because you finished of that pint of ice cream after dinner tonight. I mean when you don't want to go out to eat with your friends because you don't want to be around the temptation that is food. When you turn on the shower in the bathroom so your parents can't hear you puking into the toilet. When it's the middle of summer and you're eating so little that you still need to wear a jacket for warmth. When you find yourself sitting on the kitchen floor at three in the morning shoving handfuls of food in your mouth because you just. Can't. Stop.

It's fucking terrifying.

Let me summarize, for you, my own story.

In 8th grade I was a total weirdo. Although I’d been okay with that for most of my life, for some reason that year I realized, obviously, I’d be less weird and people would like me more if I was skinnier. Duh. So I started eating nothing more than a Luna Bar for lunch every day and sort of counting calories. I wasn’t full blown anorexic and I was pretty active, and still eating enough lunch and dinner that my weight didn’t change at all. I think I weighed about 115 pounds at this time, and for a 5 foot tall middle school kid this was pretty average. But I’d read in some book about an anorexic girl that she was 98 pounds, so I decided I should aim for the same (WHY I thought taking inspiration from a book about an anorexic girl who DIED was a good idea, I will never know).

When high school started, I joined the cross country team, the gymnastics team and the track team. I had also been figure skating in middle school, which I continued. Now I was having a bit more trouble not eating because, being so athletic, I was actually hungry. I wasn’t too serious about any of this, though- it was more of a general disappointment in myself for not being skinny and thinking that by skipping lunch maybe I'd get skinner. Until we got weighed in my first-semester PE class. 

For some reason this was done pretty publicly, and, being in a class filled with petite Asian girls, everyone who went before me got a number like 98, 97, 102 (I wasn't paying attention to what the guys got).

I was 125 lbs.

I was absolutely mortified- some of the girls actually tried to comfort me after they heard this, saying it was bizarre because I was so short and maybe I just had big bones or lots of muscle. And I mean, I wasn’t fat, I wasn’t even overweight- here’s a pic to prove it. I'm on the far left...

Okay now I'm distracted, we were such cute little runners five years ago! Haha okay but anyways, look at that. How did I ever start thinking I was obese or overweight to ANY extent?? And honestly, ANY weight is acceptable so long as you yourself are happy with it and can live well. Are you 200 pounds but eating fresh fruits and veggies daily and totally confident in your body? Okay! Are you under 100 pounds but eating enough calories to sustain your lifestyle? Alright! There is no magic number you should weigh, whatever any magazine, classmate or whatever tries to tell you. 

But in 9th grade, I thought this number, this NUMBER on a SCALE, made me less of a person because it wasn't small enough, wasn't "good enough", wasn't like everybody else's.

That’s when I started counting calories instead of doing classwork, planning out meals numerically and intentionally giving things higher-calorie labels than they came with (apple? bigger than normal, must be 150, 200 calories). I got headaches in class and often felt dizzy or unfocused because I was hungry, but I still wasn’t losing weight. Eventually, I got so stressed out by this that I flipped and started binge-eating. And I hate talking about this because it's embarrassing, but binge eating is basically when you can't stop eating. Not like, oh, this is good, I think I'll have a few more spoonfuls, but when you eat a whole pie, and an ear of corn, and some pancakes, and literally anything you can get your hands on until you're so full it hurts. You can't even taste what you're eating, and then you hate yourself afterwards and cry a lot, and try not to eat so much the next day, which only leads to restarting the whole cycle.

Anyways, I spent a lot of time working on self-acceptance and figuring out why I was having these issues and stuff, and eventually I got suuuper healthy. Too healthy. To the point where I was afraid of even slightly unhealthy food, and my "healthy eating" became just another way to limit what I could eat. Which again backfired into a binge-eating cycle. And so forth.

If we gave my story labels, we would get something like this: near-anorexic/binge-eater/orthorexic/orthorexic plus semi-binge-eating-trying-to-be-anorexic-to-get-thin-again. How do you easily categorize that? Luckily, my issues were never bad enough that they required hospitalization. I'm not saying I'm "recovered". I still struggle with eating sometimes; I might have to talk myself out of avoiding big meals, or being more of a health freak than I need to be on occasion. Getting over these issues is not easy, but it's possible.

But... why should we have to deal with all this in the first place?

So now on to the real point of this post... What are so many young women (and men) searching for in themselves that causes them to turn to their body, their weight, as the root of all problems in their lives?

It's well-known that society and media haven't been the most beneficial for our mental health, and this is especially true for women. I was lucky in that I was not raised this way- my parents never gave a damn about clothes much beyond functionality (we were an outdoorsy, athletic family, and to this day I'll spend twice the money on running shoes than I would on a party dress). My mom owned a single tube of mascara that she groaned about applying every Christmas Eve, and my parents emphasized character development and learning rather than making sure I fit in with the crowd at school. But society tried to tell me otherwise. My friends, often without realizing it, told me otherwise, teasing when I didn't know how to put on makeup for my first high school dance.

The way society treats girls in the US today is unbelievable. Unfortunately we've gotten so used to talking about how the media is a problem and how societal beauty standards are a problem that we've become even more numb to them. There are some magazines, like Darling, that take photoshop-free vows and don't use advertising in their magazines, or communities like Rookie, which encourages girls and guys to think and talk about subjects that are usually limited in the media. There are people that have responded to these problems, like Lena Dunham, who discusses real issues and defies media stereotypes, actually shedding light on the fact that she works in an industry that has very narrowly defined expectations for women. Why are we trying so hard to fit into these molds, anyways?? As Coco Chanel said,

"In order to be irreplaceable
one must always be different." 

Let me backtrack a little.

The people who study eating disorders and try to identify their roots will tell you in an instant that anorexia is an attempt to exercise control over your life, that binge eaters are usually using food as a substitute for something they're missing in their life.  Some, if not many, body image issues can by shaped by the media, as well as our definition of beauty. This is not an easy thing to change, but it is possible. The thing is, it starts with each of us making a conscious effort to be aware of the problem and do our part in solving it. There are a lot of methods I could suggest to start this, but the one I most deeply connect to is the idea of "finding beauty". 

A while ago I read this book by Jan Chozen Bays called "Mindful Eating". Her work helped me in a number of ways, including teaching me (obviously) about mindful eating (which I'm working on a post about, actually). But the thing that really struck me was that instead of doing what every other author on the subject had done and simply stating that my eating issues represented my searching to fulfill some other emotion, she gave some examples. She explained that maybe, in obsessing about food, people might be attempting to distract themselves from a deeper desire. I don't remember the other ones, though I think love was one of them, but what really resonated with me was beauty

I had never thought that I might, perhaps, be craving beauty. What could that even mean? How can you crave beauty? How on earth can you fulfill that craving?? After a bit of soul-searching I realized I had indeed been searching for beauty, but the only standards I had to base this off of was media. Okay, not the only- I considered my mother, my grandmother beautiful, but I didn't understand why. I hadn't learned yet, being a pretty impressionable child, that there is beauty in so many other things besides the way one looks. I just knew that I wanted to find it in myself, and the media, society was telling me that to that I had to become this plucked, waxed, skinny, white creature, dressed in the style of a typical Seventeen magazine model and interested in boys and lipstick and pop stars. That was beauty, and subconsciously I had decided that if I was craving beauty, I needed to become that to satisfy the craving.

 Of course, I don't want to suggest that any of these things are problematic in and of themselves. I mean, I'm that girl with the heart-shaped sunglasses and big pink headphones. I wear lipstick almost every day. I love fashion. I could spend hours reading about clothes and style, but I believe that getting dressed is an art form, not a reason to stress about your body size. My little sister loves makeup and going shopping with her friends, dying her hair, etc... But she does it because she has fun with it, not because she's striving to look like every other girl in America.

So where do the problems come in? When every picture in a magazine is airbrushed, photoshopped, altered so these "ideal" bodies are pushed into the realm of entirely unreal, when that's all we have to nourish our perceptions of beauty. I struggled because I could not find my own beauty represented in the ideals the media and society taught me. I didn't realize that there could possibly be more important things in life than the way I looked. This sounds absolutely stupid now, but it's what I truly thought.

How do you fix this? I think the best way to start on your own path to finding beauty is by learning to appreciate the world around you. This might sounds weird- shouldn't you learn to love yourself first? But one of the problems with poor self-esteem and body image is that you are TOO focused on yourself. All you can think about is what you look like, how you appear to others at any given moment. So I recommend starting with looking outside of yourself for beauty. Look for beauty in the people you love- not how thin they are, how well their clothes fit, but how they act. Look for beauty in the way your neighbors care for their children, the way your friend is so passionate about her dreams. Take a walk in the afternoon and take in the color of the sky, the way the grass moves in the wind. Finding beauty doesn't have to mean gazing at someone who is photogenic or looking at a scene and thinking it'd look good on Instagram. It's taking a moment to just look and observe your surroundings, the people and places and circumstances that make up your life, and stopping to be grateful for them, to acknowledge them.

Another option is to create. If you can't find beauty, make it! Organize photo shoots with friends. Make collages, art. Paint. Draw. Build faerie houses. Or seek out art- visit galleries and look for paintings of  Renaissance women, lovingly painted for their full-bodied beauty. Listen to music that touches your soul, sounds that make you want to dance with every fiber of your body. If you can, travel, or at least explore your own city. Appreciate food, the way it tastes, feels, smells, looks. Slow down. There are so many ways to find beauty in this world we live in- you have only to open your eyes.

Maybe you find your beauty in the laughter of a child, in the rain on your face, on something else. Maybe "beauty" is another thing altogether for you, maybe it's some other word you're seeking- "excitement" or "love". Maybe it's just an appreciation of life. But you can find it in the world around you by being mindful and present and accepting yourself. Sit down and enjoy a few drinks with friends, or lay in bed and savor a box of chocolates. Accept life for everything that it is.

Once you're able to look outside of yourself and start to appreciate the world around you, it's time to look into yourself. Metta meditation is a helpful tool if you're having trouble facing fears about yourself- it's a self-love mediation practice. If you spend long enough learning to appreciate yourself, to find beauty in the way you care for someone, or the way you can laugh even in the darkest of moments- something unique about YOU- finally, you will realize...

You are worth something.

I've been so fascinated talking to girls from other countries, attending this international school, about body image. It's an insult for girls from some countries when someone tells them they're skinny. A friend of mine from India told me that women in her country are revered for having curves, and we had a hilarious discussion about the way that in pop culture, having a big butt has become a thing lately. This just goes to show how perceptions of beauty not only vary from culture to culture, but also from person to person, and throughout history they change as well. Check out this video of  Women's Ideal Body Types Throughout History for an example of this! My point is that no matter what you look like, whether you fit a certain country or society's beauty ideal, it's not everyone's ideal. So... why bother? Be YOU. Don't waste time trying to look like someone who, in one context, might be considered gorgeous and in another, someone who wouldn't be anything other than average. We focus so, so much on our looks, and though in some respects the way we present ourselves can be significant, it is not all we are, our all there is to this glorious, wild life we have been given.

Finally, I want to point out, as I’ve clarified in other posts, that I am not a medical professional and everything in this post is based off my own experiences and opinions. Below is a list of works I've gotten statistics from, in case you're curious about facts. Also, I am aware that eating disorders are essentially a first-world problem. I know there are places in the world where children don’t have enough food to eat, where struggling to survive by eating an ounce of rice a day is a much greater issue than I could imagine, and being overweight would be a godsend. But I am not from these places, I have never been to these places, and I could not justifiably tell their stories. What I can do is fight for another issue, an issue that I have firsthand experience with, that is still affecting a huge percentage of the world’s population. I have sometimes been told, in trying to change the world through media and fashion and beauty, that there are bigger issues like war and famine to focus on. I don’t deny that. But I believe that there are other people fighting for these issues. I believe that people will find solutions to problems they’re passionate about, and help the people they are most capable of helping. There are people out there helping starving communities in other countries, because that is what they are passionate about and capable of. 

I want to help those struggling with eating disorders, because I know how damaging they can be. I know how they can limit a person’s ability to move on in other areas of her/his life… And how are we going to help the rest of the world if we cannot first help ourselves? This is what I am passionate about, and this is what I am working to change. Young girls, especially, should grow up empowered and encouraged to go after what they want, to change the world for the better.

They shouldn’t be focused on the size of their thighs.


If you're wondering where I got the statistics in this post...

NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association) 
This organization is one my younger sister (recovering from her own eating struggles) trusts, as it really helped her to have a support system through which she could talk to people.

US Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Woman's Health

11 Facts About Body Image  (this one has its own reference list at the bottom)

ANAD (Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders)

Important things you should watch...

Photoshopping Real Women Into Models 

"One Size Fits All" on Different Body Types

and read!

What 7 Women Who Overcame Eating Disorders Wish They'd Known Then

Could Your Diet Be An Eating Disorder?
It's very easy to tell yourself you're just "eating healthy", but be careful you're not going too far.

Movements that are working to help...

I Am That Girl
I love this community that supports young girls and teaches them to grow into individuals.

The Dove Beauty Campaign
Although I have mixed feelings about this because it's still advertising, they've got the right idea.

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