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A Teen's Guide to Getting Beyond Obsessions with Food and Weight
By Carol Emery Normandi, Laurelee Roark
New World LibraryCopyright © 2001 Carol Emery Normandi and Laurelee Roark
All rights reserved.
Getting Over the Obsession with Food and Weight
When I was fourteen, my mother put me into modeling school. I was tall, thin, and gawky, all arms and legs. At that time the cultural ideal was round and curvy, like Marilyn Monroe, which was definitely not like me. My mother believed that going to these classes would at least help me be better poised and graceful and not such an outcast. This might have been somewhat true had not the other unforeseeable events taken place. It was the middle sixties. Suddenly Twiggy, the very first of the original "street waifs," was discovered. The pages of fashion magazines, like Vogue or Cosmopolitan, started to feature extremely thin and young models like Twiggy. All of a sudden my "body type" was "in." The more knock-kneed, the more flat-chested, the taller, and the thinner, the better. At that time I weighed about 115 pounds and at five-foot eight-inches this was certainly thin. However, Twiggy weighed under a hundred pounds, so any teen model who wanted to work needed to also weigh this amount. I very much wanted to work and I very much wanted to look like Twiggy. So, I went on the first of many semi-starvation diets that I would go on throughout my life. It was in this way that I started the eating disorder that was to last well into my thirties and would many times over almost kill me. I learned many harmful lessons early on. One of the things that I learned at fourteen was that I would never really be thin enough without being very sick. I also learned that the only thing that I had going for me was the shape of my body and the way I looked. Nothing else seemed as important ... not my personalty, not my mind, and not my soul. I understood that my looks were my only commodity. I was constantly obsessed about food and weight. It took years and a lot of inner work to stop the obsession and raise my self-esteem high enough that I was able to appreciate my "whole" self. Little by little, I learned to love myself unconditionally no matter what and to appreciate all that I am.
What's it like being constantly worried about what you look like, what you should be eating, and how much you weigh? Well, chances are, if you live in the United States and you are female, you know exactly what it's like. The truth is that 65 percent of eleven-year-old girls worry that they are too fat; 80 percent of eleven-year-old girls report they are dieting; 90 percent of high school junior and senior adolescents diet regularly. Chances are that by the time you are a junior in high school, you are already worrying about your weight and what you eat.
Most likely you know someone who is always on a diet, who is scared of getting fat, or who has an eating disorder. You probably hear, "I'm too fat," or "I shouldn't have eaten that," or "I can't eat that," or "I have to lose some weight," over and over again. And most likely, it's not your male friends that are saying these things. It's a female thing. Ninety percent of people with eating disorders are female. It's also a young-adult thing. One-third of eating disorder victims reported that their eating problems started between ages eleven and fifteen, and 86 percent of eating disorder victims reported that their eating problems started by age twenty. But why is this? Why are young females dying to be thin? Why are young females throwing up, taking laxatives, swallowing diet pills, starving themselves, and hating their bodies?
The desire to be thin, disliking our bodies, dieting, starving, overeating, taking diet pills or laxatives, excessive exercising, and worrying about becoming fat are all symptoms of an eating disorder. They are not the cause of the eating disorder. The causes of the obsession with food and weight are very complex and different for everyone. They can include the following:
Growing up in a culture and/or family that encourages dieting and teaches females to dislike their natural feminine bodies
Everywhere I turned I got the message I was too fat. My brother was always teasing me and my friends, calling us fat. My mother was always on some diet and used to say over and over again how her thighs were too big. Since I'm built like her, that meant mine were too. You just sort of learn by hearing comments that everyone makes about what's okay and what's not. My friends were always trying to make sure they didn't gain weight. And I could see in every magazine model, in every female movie star, and in every Barbie doll what I was supposed to look like.
As females in this culture, we learn at a young age what we are supposed to look like and act like. We are supposed to look and act like the models in Seventeen and Cosmopolitan, and yet most of us are not born with bodies that will ever look like those bodies. No matter how hard we try, we can't make one body type into another. To be female in this culture is to be on a diet, worried about weight, or on the verge of an eating disorder. To be female is to hate our bodies and to strive for an ideal body that is unnatural for most of us. The message that females should dislike their natural feminine body is everywhere. Think about it. Billions of dollars every year are spent on advertising showing very thin models. And billions more are spent by the rest of us on diet programs so we can look like all these models. We are actually taught to diet and hate our bodies by hearing negative messages and unrealistic standards over and over again through advertisements, magazines, television, movies, our own friends, and sometimes our own families. It is everywhere. It is a cultural attitude.
Not knowing how to deal with overwhelming feelings and using eating-disordered behaviors to cope with them
By the time I was thirteen years old, I had already learned that my body was too fat and that I should be dieting. When my body started changing from a preteen body into a rounder, curvier, sexually developed woman's body, I thought I was getting too fat. I believed that my body should be like the ones I saw in the magazines: tall and thin. Since my body wasn't like that, I believed it was wrong. I had a lot of feelings of insecurity as a teenager about who I was, about relationships with other people, and about my sexuality. But I didn't really know how to deal with these feelings. I put myself on a diet because I thought if I lost weight it would fix everything. Now I can see that what I really needed was some reassurance, some help with my self-esteem, and some way to cope with the overwhelming feelings. But the only way I knew how to make myself feel better was to eat. And the only way I knew how to be accepted was to diet and lose weight. I got into the cycle of eating to make myself feel better, and then dieting because I ate so much. As time went on, this became worse, and I began throwing up so I wouldn't gain any more weight. By the time I was in college, I was a severe bulimic. The part of me that needed to be loved, comforted, and reassured got buried beneath the bingeing, purging, and obsession with food and weight.
We all experience a variety of feelings in our lives, yet many of us are not taught how to understand them, express them, and process them in a way that is constructive. So we try to find any way we can to take care of ourselves. For some, overeating can soothe or numb uncomfortable feelings. For others, undereating can do the same by creating a false sense of strength, control, and worthiness. Sometimes the constant thinking about our food and weight keeps us from experiencing our feelings. Although these behaviors start as a way to cope, they end up hurting us more than helping us.
Defining who we are by what we look like or what we do creates insecurity and low self-esteem
At twelve, I was hospitalized three times for anorexia. Sometimes I was fed intravenously, and I was always monitored to make sure that I didn't throw up. I thought I'd be prettier and happier if I starved myself. I thought anorexia was the only thing I had going for me. My recovery was a long, slow process. But I realized that the root cause of my anorexia was self-hatred, and insecurity about who I was. I began to question, "Why should anyone be measured by how much she weighs?"
When we are taught that our value as a person is based on our accomplishments or beauty, instead of who we are as spiritual beings, our self-esteem becomes based on achieving these goals. We think we are good if we are thin and bad if we are fat. We think we are worthy if we get straight A's in school, and worthless if we get straight C's. We push ourselves to meet other people's standards because we want to please them, not because we are pursuing our own unique gifts and strengths. The experience of becoming a woman and developing sexually is laced with expectations of eating certain foods and looking a certain way. So our identity as women becomes focused around "Am I fat or thin? Am I eating non-fattening foods or not? Am I the right weight or the wrong weight?" With all of the incredible things women can and are doing today, do you know what most women want to be? Thin!
Our identity, self-esteem, and security have become so tied to food and weight that we have forgotten the potential of who we really are. And the problem is that if we can't be as thin as we think we should be, or as beautiful as we think we should be, or as whatever it is that we think we should be, we feel bad about ourselves. Feeling bad about ourselves (low self-esteem) creates the even more desperate need to be whatever we think we should be (thin) and puts pressure on us. These pressures and uncomfortable feelings can actually cause us to overeat, undereat, and obsess even more, leading us into a vicious cycle.
A way to protect ourselves from physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or other trauma
I remember realizing one day that I no longer got comments about my body. On one hand this was upsetting to me because I hated my body and thought that everyone saw me as fat and ugly. But on the other hand I felt safer because I didn't have to deal with men saying, "Nice tits," or "Check out her healthy chest," or grabbing my butt and breasts. It dawned on me that maybe having some weight on me protected me in a way that I didn't otherwise know how to.
Sometimes changing our bodies, such as gaining or losing weight, can be a way of protecting our bodies from being treated as sexual objects. Like Carol, we may feel that if we are very fat, or very thin, we will no longer be sexually attractive and will be safe from further harassment. This is also true of more severe trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse.
Also, if we have a traumatic experience in our lives, we have to find ways to survive the emotional pain. As a child, one of the most available ways of coping with the pain is using food to soothe oneself. As we said before, overeating, undereating, and/or obsessing can be a way to manage overwhelming feelings.
So, as you see, the behaviors of the eating disorders are just symptoms that are a response to other underlying pressures. In other words, when we worry about what we look like, we are really worrying about whether or not we will be liked. When we worry about how fat our thighs are, we're really afraid that we are "unacceptable." When we are eating a lot of food when we're not hungry, we may be anxious or angry or unhappy and the food helps to calm us down. When we are refusing to eat when we're hungry, we may be trying to punish or hurt ourselves, or trying to feel safe by taking charge of one of the few things we have control over. When we look in the mirror and say, "Yuck," we are just repeating what we have learned by listening to our mothers, friends, relatives, or the media.
You probably already know about each eating disorder, having heard it from your parents, your teachers, and even your friends. You've read about it in magazines and seen stories about it on television. We know this information can be very confusing. Some of you may not have a typical eating disorder, but instead find yourself having fat thoughts, hating your body, or worrying about what you eat. If this is the case, this book can still help you find the tools to accept your body and have a healthy relationship with food. This in turn will prevent you from developing an eating disorder. So, here are simple descriptions of each of the three main eating disorders and some quotes from young people who have been there.
What Is Compulsive Eating?
I can remember at twelve years old being alone at home in the afternoons because both my parents worked. I would get very bored and lonely and sometimes scared. To feel better I would sit on the couch, turn on the TV, and eat whatever I could find. I would eat and eat and eat until I felt better. I began to worry that I was gaining weight so I put myself on a diet. I would try not to eat too much at school, but when I got home the only way I could get through the lonely afternoon was to eat. The more I ate, the more I hated myself, and I would put myself right back onto another diet. I could never stick to the diet because eating was the only way I could get through the day.
Amber learned to cope with her lonely afternoons by eating to soothe herself. It didn't matter whether she was hungry or full. Her need to take care of herself emotionally overruled her physical needs. Compulsive eating (also called binge eating) is an attempt to take care of oneself with food. For Amber, it was a way to make herself feel better, at least temporarily. A compulsive eater becomes out of touch with her body's messages that signal hunger and fullness, and she starts overeating to help herself cope with uncomfortable feelings she is holding inside. This may lead to binge eating (eating large amounts of food at a time) in order to keep those feelings from surfacing.
We also view compulsive eating as a response to restrictive dieting, which can lead to increased food intake and binge eating. Feeling bad about your body size can also lead to dieting and compulsive eating. A compulsive eater often worries about what she can and can't eat, and how much she should and shouldn't weigh. Sometimes these thoughts become so loud and frequent that they drown out real feelings.
Compulsive eating can result in weight gain. However, that may or may not cause physical harm to your body. There are many myths about the relationship between weight gain and physical health. If you have concerns about weight gain, it is best to consult a doctor who understands compulsive eating, the negative effects of dieting, and the myths regarding weight gain and its impact on physical health. For resources and referrals, see the resource list at the back of the book.
What Is Bulimia Nervosa?
Last summer my friend and I read about a girl who threw up after she ate a lot. We thought this was a great idea, so we started doing it ourselves. We would go over to her house after swimming and eat cookies, cakes, and chips until we were so full. And then we would make ourselves throw up. We did this all summer long, we called it "our secret diet aid." I thought my stomach was too flabby and doing this made me feel like my stomach was really flat. But it also made my stomach really hurt. And now I am scared because I am so out of control. I want to stop, but I can't.
This is a classic case of something too good to be true. Heidi thought she found a solution to her overeating and her "flabby" stomach. But, once she started purging, she couldn't stop. The reality is, this kind of "diet aid" not only doesn't work, but it is also dangerous and can be deadly.
Bulimia nervosa is a form of compulsive eating where you binge and then do some kind of purging. Types of purging may include vomiting, fasting, excessive exercise, or use of diuretics, laxatives, or diet pills. Many young women start purging after they feel they've failed at dieting. They either feel they were eating too much, or their body was too fat, or both. Like compulsive eaters, people with bulimia usually spend a lot of time being concerned with their food and their weight. They might also tend to have difficulty experiencing and resolving overwhelming feelings.
Bulimia can be harmful to your body. It can cause digestive problems, dental problems, diabetes, damage to the esophagus, and electrolyte and chemical imbalances that can lead to irregular heartbeats, heart failure, and death.
Excerpted from Over It by Carol Emery Normandi, Laurelee Roark. Copyright © 2001 Carol Emery Normandi and Laurelee Roark. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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