When I was younger, I endured snarky, ignorant jabs about how my eating disorder–any eating disorder–was a selfish disease, one supposedly rooted in vanity. I accepted the remarks because I thought I had to; I didn’t know yet that I had a voice--and research to support it. After 20 years of relapse and recovery, I’ve become less tolerant of having others perpetuate this very misinformed assumption.
I served a mirror, yes, but it was unlike any mirror you would want to gaze into. At my sickest, my disease took me to the point of abandoning any semblance of health, natural beauty, or drive for personal care so that I’d serve it exclusively. And for the majority of the last 20 years, I’ve projected an objectively unattractive countenance.
And I certainly take no pride in how I look now. I’m the wreckage, the aftermath. I am trapped inside a weight-restored body that’s connected to a diseased mind. I have enough fat for a period, yet at 33, I’m on my 10th year of amenorrhea so, no kids for me I guess, thanks. I’m loathe to smile for for pictures because I’m missing all 32 of my naturally-given permanent teeth.
I deem nothing lovely about that, do you?
Because of the aforementioned, I assert that this societal generalization is inaccurate, to say the least. And I am not an anomaly.
Eating disorders, in general, are not an illness of vanity. They are quite complex, just as complicated as each individual they affect.
Moreover, diets and eating disorders are not interchangeable concepts. Eating disorders are not necessarily “a diet gone wrong” and by the time restricting food becomes pathological, it is no longer about vanity, even if a diet’s origins had been to “look better in a bathing suit” or to fit in with one’s peer group.
Yes, when I was 14, I wanted to be thin. But to be clear, my desire was to be thin in the way that my friends were thin; the way that those in my peer group were thin. I was not idolizing the thinness of actors or models at that stage of my development.
Yes, I admired certain actresses, but I didn’t wish to have their physiques. I didn’t care about being thin like models.
I wanted to be the small kind of thin; tiny. I equated smallness with thinness and thinness with having value. I greatly disliked being the large, beastly giant amongst my pixie-sized girlfriends. I towered. I felt like Lurch from The Addams Family most of the time. I wanted to shrink into myself. I wanted to fit into my friends’ clothes so we could share them. I wanted to fit.
I wanted to fit. I wanted to fit in.
Interestingly, this is one of the key factors being examined in an anorexia study recently conducted at Columbia University Medical Center involving mice and the emergence of anorectic traits when a particular set of environmental and genetic risk factors were involved. The study’s ultimate goal was to pinpoint the appropriate corrective measures for those suffering from this disease or preventative measures for those predisposed, as the case may be.
The researchers investigated key components behind anorexia and, although they are myriad, focused on one specific gene (BDNF-Val66Met variant), the state of calorie deprivation A.K.A. dieting, and their theory of “peer-pressure causation” A.K.A. fitting in with the other kids. In the study, they were actually able to mimic all of these conditions in the environment of the test subjects and the mice did, in fact, exhibit some anorexic behavior.
“One driver of anorexia in humans is peer pressure, specifically, the desire to be thin,” says Dr. Lori Zeltser of Columbia University Medical Center.
While a little dehumanizing, it’s also a little comforting to know that maybe researchers are getting closer to nailing down what can be done about that gene variant BDNF-Val66Met and other factors to decrease the incidence of the number one killer amongst all mental disorders.
My own Anorexia and Bulimia have strong roots in heritability, a need for a sense of control, and comorbid mood disorders, Ultradian Bipolar Disorder I, and chronic Generalized Anxiety manifested as Obsessive Compulsive diet and exercise.
“Our findings show that having the at-risk genotype alone is not sufficient to cause anorexia-like behavior, but it confers susceptibility to social stress and dieting, especially during adolescence,” said Dr. Zeltser. “You need all of these variables in place to see this robust effect on eating behavior.”
So, essentially, the genetic predisposition must exist, combined with peer pressure to diet and the dieting itself.
As far as the research findings go, they are dead-on accurate with how my own twenty-year battle developed. I can’t speak to the gene variant specifically, but I was tested this summer in the Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative (ANGI) study, so I will hopefully be apprised of that in the near future. As for the other two factors, peer pressure and calorie restriction, I have two decades worth of those drivers.
“The researchers found that adolescent mice with the gene variant, when exposed to both social isolation stress and caloric restriction, were much more likely than controls to avoid eating. Changes in feeding behavior did not occur when the environmental variables were imposed during adulthood. When the researchers subjected adolescent mice with the gene mutation to either social stress or caloric restriction, but not both, the animals exhibited little change in feeding behavior.”
More often than not, I harbored (and still wrestle with) a severely disturbed body image. No matter if I was overweight, my ideal weight, or even at my worst–40 pounds underweight, I was still “huge” and “larger than my peers”.
In my impressionable adolescence, once I lost the first five or ten pounds, I got positive feedback, so I just kept going, I didn’t want to stop. This was praise I felt like I had a handle on; it was something I was finally able to “control”.
Now, of course I was not, in reality, bigger than every one of my friends–that part was body dysmorphia playing upon my height–but there was the additional presence of a certain cultural expectation of thinness amongst my friends, the trickledown effect of the influence by the media.
There were underhanded compliments here and there, “Oh, look at you, Keeyeerstin Mcskinny! I’d love to let you borrow my size double-zero Gap shorts, but aren’t you wearing a two now?”
Fucking vanity sizing. Vanity size this.
No one challenged it. It was what it was. Hence the diet mentality perpetuated among peers, and the implied peer pressure at adolescence and beyond, whether it was real or simply perceived by me.
I was hellbent on being perceived as acceptable, to fit in, to blend in, go unnoticed, NOT to stand out. However, I was hooked early on. I hadn’t realized how much I’d been needing some positive reinforcement and attention, so, when I got it for the initial weight loss after joining the Cross Country team, I just kept going, I couldn’t stop. I felt as though this praise confirmed I’d finally had a handle on my crazed mind. And it was something I was finally able to “control”.
So there is great significance and validity in the results of the mice model study, in my opinion, purely as one who has experienced body image disturbance from the getgo, perceived peer pressure concerning weight, self-induced calorie deprivation, and the diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa on and off for two decades.
And while I’m glad that studies are focusing on multi-faceted causations of anorexia, with their peer-pressure theory added in comes the inevitable public discussion of the media’s influence which is, of course, wholly valid, and worthy of discussion, it’s a factor, but one that I fear gets too much, (sorry) media. However, I can’t tell you that I’m not, as an adult, subconsciously impacted by the size, shape and appearance of the industry’s standard-looking model.
It bothers me that Calvin Klein’s so-called “plus-size model” isn’t much larger than her counterparts and is, in fact, slimmer than the average American woman.
Photos that are digitally altered continue to set an unrealistic and unattainable standard of beauty which in turn, contributes to self-esteem and body image issues for both women and men. This can indirectly trigger, in some cases, eating disorders.
While I can say for sure that media did not directly cause my eating disorder, I do feel that it has perpetuated it at times during adulthood. Presently, I would be lying if I said I didn’t subconsciously allow myself to be influenced by pictures of slim celebrities or models. Even now, when I know better, if I see someone in media who has my preferred body aesthetic, I’ll sometimes struggle; I’ll feel a twinge of jealousy or longing.
Some, albeit minimal, changes are being made in the fashion industry’s weight standards, and it’s said to be in the interest of protecting men and women from developing eating disorders and other mental illnesses such as body dysmorphic disorder.
However, I am torn; it can be frustrating at times when certain Eating Disorder Awareness or other well-meaning organizations seem overly focused on body image and media to the exclusion of issues likely more causative such as trauma, family of origin, or epigenetics.
My conflict stems from the fear of potential miscommunication. I think it sends out the wrong message about the primary underlying cause of eating disorders. Yes, environment plays a role, and genetics have a strong underpinning at an estimated 80 percent. I think that even though media does have a minor hand in the individual’s case, from an outsider’s perspective, that can be interpreted as vanity and thus, this very deadly disease is trivialized in their eyes. This is my fear. How do we get around this? The industry does need to be regulated, and not just because of body image, but because of female objectification, for starters. I agree we have to talk about it. And we have to say WHY we are talking about it, but that brings us right back to the vanity issue.
I’m not nearly articulate enough to begin to explain the host of drivers at work that manifest in the terrible and life threatening illness of anorexia. It’s rooted in nature, nurture, external factors, power struggles, society, religion, reliefs, ego, id, visual stimulus, Co-occurring Disorders, malnutrition, education, information, control, politics, personality, perspective,opinions, people, places, things, fear, and trauma, just for starters. It’s so much more complex than anything I’ve discussed here.
The complex puzzle of the cause for each person is as unique as their own genetic makeup. And just like genetic makeup, it has the ability to change or adapt over time. We are talking about a cause that is even more complex than our own genetic make-up. And it’s certainly bigger than the beauty industry. And it’s so much more complicated than Columbia University’s mouse model or the size of the models on a runway.
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