By the time I turned sixteen, I’d forgotten how to eat.
This isn’t technically true. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to eat, exactly–my problem was more in the whens and, more importantly, the whys of eating because somewhere in the back of my mind was a consistent compulsion to always, always, always be eating. Or else.
Let’s back up. Last week, we published an article that said, in essence, both fat shaming and skinny shaming suck, but fat shaming will always be worse because, at the end of the day, thinness is viewed as an aspiration while fatness is seen as something that is meant to be eviscerated.
On a basic level, and looking at this article as a standalone piece, this is certainly true–as Ashley said, “our society sees skinniness as an ideal,” and thus, even when experiencing skinny shaming, certain amounts of privilege and attention are granted to thin people.
The problem lies in considering this attention as a privilege without contingencies. I know this because I was skinny shamed, and, as a result, I developed what many would classify as an eating disorder.
When I was in high school, I ran cross country and, given that I was a pretty late bloomer, I was still growing, which meant that I was fairly thin. This would be neither here nor there, but at a certain point I noticed that this gave me a certain amount of attention. Particularly if I was around food. People would constantly urge me to eat–You’re too thin. Just eat the sandwich. Just eat the cupcake. Just eat the ____. If I didn’t, they’d shake their heads. Knew it, they seemed to be thinking. If I did, though, I got an approving nod.
So, I kept eating. I ate when I was hungry, but, more often than not, I ate when I wasn’t just because I knew that was what people wanted to see. I’d make a show of it, making sure to camp out at the snack table at any school event or party, grabbing fistfuls of chips. See? I was saying. I eat. I love eating. I could do it all day. Whenever I went out to dinner with friends, I’d finish my whole meal (refusing to share, obviously, because you have to stay on-brand), plus theirs because that was just what I did. “I love eating,” I’d tell everyone. “I’m always hungry.” For me, it wasn’t so much about my own feelings about my body–which, until recently, I barely thought about–as much as other people’s response to me eating. It was my thing. I was a Skinny Girl Who Ate. People loved it.
They weren’t alone. There’s a sort of societal fascination–obsession, really–with Skinny Girls Who Eat. Look at any profile of a famous actress–women who possess a tremendous amount of resources exclusively devoted towards maintaining their bodies, like trainers, nutritionists, etc.–but what we see in an interview is a tiny fraction of their lives that’s meant to viewed as a meaningful display their entire lifestyle. This narrative is that they have an appetite much like that of a particularly ravenous linebacker, which means that their svelte figures came into existence by sheer cosmic chance: Blake Lively says, “On average, I order about three meals for myself in one sitting,” Gigi Hadid says, “I used to eat like a man–more than the man that I eat like now, like a bigger man,” Emma Stone is “contemplating how to stuff cupcakes with cookie dough, but her dancer’s body [doesn’t] betray it.”
Here, the word “betray” feels apt. Eat, because girls who eat are the cool ones, it seems to say, but you have to stay skinny. And don’t let anyone know that you try.
That’s what I thought, anyway. People liked it when I ate, but that was only because it seemed to come as a surprise that I ate at all. Because of this, I made sure to eat in front of people, but when I was alone, I didn’t. I planned out my days in accordance with occasions where I’d be expected to be eating my usual amounts of food in public, often skipping meals in preparation. One night, I told my mom that I wasn’t hungry for dinner so that the next day, I could eat an entire box of cookies–the big, doughy ones from the grocery store covered in frosting and sprinkles–in a class party as my peers watched.
How do you do it? people would ask. I’d simply shrug beatifically in response, ignoring my distended stomach and heightening urge to puke because Oh, you know–just your run-of-the-mill starving and subsequent binging isn’t a very good response. After all, being skinny is good when it takes no exertion, but if an ounce of effort slips in there–don’t order a kale salad on a date–you’re high-maintenance.
So, I ate when people could see me, and I didn’t when they couldn’t. For a while, this worked. Then I went to college and it became harder to maintain an “effortlessly thin” illusion, since there was less of a divide between school and home, so people could tell when I wasn’t eating. So, I ate more and, as expected, I gained weight. This made it so that me eating was no longer a spectacle, so I didn’t have to gorge in front of people anymore. At a “normal” weight, I could now eat “normal” amounts without feeling as thought I was being unduly scrutinized.
I know–first world problems, right? I was skinny, then I ate too much, and now I’m pretty much average. I didn’t–and still don’t–have a true “normal” to return to, however. The habit of binging is one that’s hard to break, and thus, I don’t really know when I’m hungry and when I just feel like I should have a snack just because. I can’t do “moderation,” either–eating no pizza makes sense to me, and eating a whole box of pizza also makes sense. Eating one slice of pizza does not make sense to me. I can restrict and I can binge, but it’s harder for me to listen to my body because, at this point, I have no real idea what it’s actually saying.
So, for me, the question of which type of shaming–skinny or fat–is worse is irrelevant. This is just my story, but you’re certainly not hard-pressed to find others in which the scrutiny of their body led to some kind of eating disorder or another–just google “I had anorexia,” “I had bulimia,” or “I had a binge eating disorder.”Rather, it’s the societal compulsion as a whole to scrutinize women’s bodies and decide what kind is right and what kind is wrong–and how a woman is supposed to act about her body–that should be criticized.
There’s an underlying assertion in any body-shaming narrative that a woman is only good as long as her body is, too. Essentially, whatever your body type might be, you can’t win. While the overweight are increasingly marginalized, many thin people can’t escape being examined and prodded for the way that their bodies just are, either. Because of this, hearing “you’re too skinny” comes across as both an accusation and a compliment; the phrase “eat a hamburger, already” a dare and a warning.
Body shaming, in any form, doesn’t help anyone. Please, guys–let’s end it.
What are your thoughts on body shaming? How has it affected you? Let us know in the comments below.