For a couple of years when I was in high school, I got high on being hungry. High on the sight of my own bones. High on my own, amazing willpower. (Which was a far more exciting accomplishment to me than the straight-A’s I was scoring, and the awards I was racking up for leadership and community service and all the rest.)
I never had all-out anorexia nervosa. I never, to my own disappointment, succeeded in dropping below 101 pounds. But for someone who’s just shy of 5’4″ 101 pounds is pretty darn skinny. Officially underweight, according to BMI calculations. You know, like, movie star skinny. (But not quite sickly-looking.)
It started innocently enough. I just wanted to lose a few pounds to look a bit more svelte in my bathing suit. I was egged on by the fact that my mom was losing weight, and felt, I suppose, a little competitive. I made it a goal to eat less than her at every meal. I stopped eating snacks. I eschewed sweets, chips and other typical teenage fare. And as the pounds began to drop, it only fueled my resolve. A sandwich for lunch became a half sandwich. Then no sandwich.
One of my best friends was also working hard — too hard, and in unhealthy ways — to be thin, and this forged a strange, sometimes-competitive, other times commiserative bond between us. Meanwhile, my grades kept soaring. I took on more responsibilities and activities. At home, I became, for a while, cook, caretaker and therapist for my family, while my father was depressed and my mother was immersed in a new career venture and, later, ill for several months with a severe case of mono. (I remember her not being strong enough to lace up the back of a dress I wore to a formal dance as I stood by the side of her bed.)
Somehow it all felt like part of the same thing: Striving, succeeding, shouldering and skinny-ness.
But eventually, I started feeling trapped. My obsession with my weight — and other forms of perfection — felt like it was starting to take over my life. I’d started occasionally making myself throw up — not after a binge, but after an ordinary meal. Once, after having allowed myself a simple, ordinary-sized bowl of ice cream. And I was tired of being the grown-up in my family. Tired of running myself ragged to do everything just right.
Slowly — very slowly — I managed to liberate myself. I relinquished responsibility for taking care of everyone else all the time. I chilled out a bit on academics (and still managed to end up Valedictorian). I stopped weighing myself as often and tried to have a healthier relationship with food. Toward the end of my senior year of high school, I drank a little. (Which I hadn’t done before. I was a good girl. And the calories!) I got laid. (Heh.) In other words, I cut myself some slack.
But it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I felt I’d finally developed a healthier relationship with food. Even now, I can’t say that I unequivocally love my body. I love it a lot more when it looks (and the scale suggests) that it’s thin.
So, what has all this got to do with being a parent?
It has to do with this. And this. Two of the many “thinspiration” or “thinspo” blogs and Pinterest boards out there, where teenage girls commiserate about their weight and find inspiration (usually in the form of images of stick-thin girls, hipbones jutting and tummies flat as — but of course devoid of — pancakes) and ideas for getting skinny and staying that way. Sometimes there are “Inspirational” quotes, like Kate Moss’s famous “Nothing tastes as good as being skinny feels” (Which, hoo boy, my 16 year-old-self would have eaten up. Instead of lunch.)
How do I help my girls have a healthy, happy relationship with their bodies and with eating in an age where the Internet offers what amounts to a virtual support group for *getting* — not getting over — anorexia.
Hayley Krischer over at Femamom recently wrote a post about her own past eating disorder and thoughts on the Thinspo blogs that sums up my feelings perfectly. (In fact, what’s funny is that I started drafting this post a few weeks ago, then saw her post on the topic and saw we’d begun our posts with almost the same sentence. Great formerly f-ed up minds think alike….?) In her post she writes:
“As a teenager with an eating disorder, would I have turned to the Thinspo Pinterest boards? Of course! Thinspo boards create an environment for the sole purpose of supporting each other’s eating disorders. One of the rules: knees and thighs can’t touch. Mottos: don’t eat. When you have an eating disorder, you turn to whoever will give you the thumbs up. If my teenage self stumbled on a Thinspo Pinterest board, I would have discovered affirmation. See, these girls look just like me. Or, worse, I want to look more like them.”
Yep. Me too. Absolutely.
It’s daunting enough, as someone who has battled with body image in the past, to figure out how to instill healthy eating habits and healthy attitudes about weight in my two daughters as they get older. Even now, I worry about over- or under-emphasizing the importance of maintaining a healthy weight. I never, ever use the word “Fat.” I’m so careful not to equate junk food or overeating with “overweight”; I stress “unhealthy” instead. (Like when the girls notice that an (overweight) girl in their gymnastics class eats Oreos and chocolate chip cookies for her snack afterward). But is this disingenuous? Doth I protest too much?
Then, of course, there are the ubiquitous images of uber-svelte celebrities and models in movies, magazines and on TV. For now, we can put tight controls on what our girls watch and read and see. But that doesn’t last.
And with Thinspo out there — a secret club, of sorts, for girls in search of bodily “perfection” (on the belief that it will make them happier, more desirable, more popular…) — it feels like helping my girls avoid having a complex with food and weight will be that much harder.
As always, I guess, all I can do is my best: I’ll try to instill in my girls healthy attitudes about food and body image. I’ll try to set a good example — eating well, exercising, keeping my occasional gripes about my less-than-washboard abs to myself. I’ll tell them they’re beautiful (no matter what they look like) but also tell them — as I do now — that they’re smart / creative / funny / thoughtful / kind / etc. So hopefully they will know — and maybe manage to remember through the storm of adolescence, and in the face of powerful media and internet and peer influences — that these things matter much, much more.
DOUBLE TIME, my memoir of parenting twins and battling depression (among other things) is available for pre-order! Order before May 8, and I’ll send you a bookmark and free signed bookplate. Click for details.
More from Jane on Baby Squared