Books can still save us

I’ve been reading Courtney Martin’s Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, one of the more recent books on women and body image, eating disorders, and unrealistic standards of thinness. While to some extent the book’s overgeneralizations–along with the 20-something author’s conviction that no generation has ever been as obsessed with being perfectly thin as hers–are a little frustrating, I’m also glad books like this are out there. And reading it has me thinking about the deep effect earlier such books had on my own life.

Back in the early 90s–and in my early 20s–I was, as I’d been most of my life, overweight. I’d cycled in and out of various diets–nothing terribly extreme, but one day I decided I wanted to do this dieting thing right, and actually asked my physician about it. First he emphasized that I should only diet if I wanted to–he said I wasn’t so overweight at the time that I needed to diet for health reasons (I think doctors were less BMI-obsessed then; I’m not sure I would have gotten such sensible advice now). But then he handed me an 1800-calorie-a-day diet sheet I could use if I wanted to lose weight anyway, for appearance reasons or whatever. I did want to lose weight for appearance reasons, so I went ahead.

Now, 1800 calories a day by most diet plans is actually high–I know women who routinely live on 1000 or 1200 calories and consider that normal (even though in developing countries living on that little food counts as famine conditions); this is part of why I don’t buy Martin’s notion that her generation is more obsessed than those that came before. But for whatever reason, 1800 calories a day wasn’t quite enough for me, or maybe it was the makeup of that particular diet. Whatever the reason, I wound up dizzy between meals, and found myself downing the occasional sugar packet in the break room to keep my blood sugar up and fight off that dizziness.

At some point, I realized this just wasn’t healthy–or maybe I got tired of being in the food-obsessed place that diets always put me–so I stopped. I gained back the weight I’d lost, and some extra weight along with it for good measure.

Meanwhile, I had a couple of books sitting on my shelf: Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. Backlash had a chapter or two on the beauty and fashion industry; The Beauty Myth was entirely about same. As I read these books, I got pretty angry, but I also came to understand a few things which should have been obvious: That women come in a wide range of sizes–we’re not all alike. That clothing doesn’t come in a wide range of sizes, and that the fashion industry really is broken. That the images of women I was seeing on TV and magazine covers were even more limited than I realized, and that I wasn’t ignoring those images nearly as much as I thought.

I began forcing myself to look to the world around me, rather than to TV, movies, and magazines. What women, in the wide world, did I find beautiful? They came in all sizes and shapes–when I looked around I found a huge range of large and small women to be pretty. Which made me realize the most important thing of all: Being thin is not required for being beautiful. Beauty and weight are two entirely separate things.

Weight might or might not be a health issue (though I think that question’s more complicated than we make it out to be too), but it was definitely not a beauty issue. I could be beautiful–I could feel good about my body–no matter what I weighed.

By then I’d realized something else: every time I dieted, and not just this time, I gained weight in the end. So I made a few decisions.

– From now on, if I was hungry, I would eat something. End of discussion.

– I would never diet again. I might change what sorts of foods I eat and try to eat healthier. I might try to be more physically active. But I would never again enter that obsessed, calorie-counting, unable-to-think-about-anything-but-when-I-get-to-eat-next place again, not unless I literally couldn’t afford food. Because it wasn’t only bad for my health–my family has a history of yo yo dieting–it was bad for my psyche. It was bad for me.

– Eating would no longer be a moral act for me, only a physical one. I would never again say, “I ate that brownie, I’m so bad” (or “I didn’t eat that brownie, I’m so good”) again. The decision to eat a brownie might be a health one, it might be an “mmmmmmmm, brownies” one, but it was not a moral decision, and I was neither a good nor a bad person for it. And if I did choose to eat that brownie, I was going to enjoy it, every last bite.

– I would continue looking to the real world around me for my images of beauty. I would remember that what applied to the women in the world I found most beautiful applied to me too: I was beautiful, me as I was, not me as I might if I was thinner.

Over time, I honestly believe these decisions have changed my life, made it better in countless ways.

And yet, I don’t think I realized how much they might have changed my life until a few years ago, when I was assigned an article on eating disorders for a magazine I write for. Somehow I’d always thought of eating disorders as a high school sort of issue, or maybe a college one. I was stunned, when I researched my article, to discover that the prime age for developing an eating disorder is 18 to 25. Back when I was a young professional working my first real job and attempting my last diet, getting dizzy and hating how obsessed I felt, I was solidly within the danger zone for being most at risk.

Maybe I would have been okay regardless–in the end, in spite of my attempts at dieting, I look around and think I was never really as obsessed with thinness as others I knew. (Though Martin says interesting things about how all young women tend

But other times, I think of my own tendency toward obsessiveness and wanting control and, well–I think there’s a chance that those two books, Wolf and Faludi’s, just might have saved me.

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