Our society is warped. Twisted. A veritable fun-house of fat and thin mirrors when it comes to body image. We’re all well aware how the media accustoms us to starlets sylphlike on screen and sacks of bones in real life. Because the camera adds 15 pounds these days, you see. Even Kim Kardashian, queen of curves, felt compelled to exclaim in a recent interview, “I look a lot bigger on TV. When I meet people, the first thing they say is, ‘Wow, you’re so much smaller than I thought’. I look about 15 lbs heavier. I’m only 115 lbs, and everyone thinks I’m like 130 or 140. It’s bizarre. I’m a US size 2!”
Kim Kardashian’s butt size aside, it makes me wonder if we really are aware of the extent of the media distortion?
I’ve gotten a lot of interesting feedback from my 20/20 piece but one of the most common comments I’ve got is some incarnation of “But you never looked that skinny.” The implication of course is that I wasn’t skinny enough to have an eating disorder. I first encountered this during my pre-interview process with Fox News. The producer kept asking me for my “skinniest skinniest pics, the ones that show the most bones.” I knew what they wanted. They wanted to see a 64-lb walking skeleton with a nasogastric tube and furry arms. Because that’s good television. From the very beginning I told them I never got that thin but sent them some pictures from that time period. They weren’t satisfied and kept phoning, texting and e-mailing me for better pics all the way until I’d boarded my airplane. If I were more technically savvy it would have driven me to Photoshop, I swear.
The Skinny Pics Debacle Take 2 happened after the 20/20 interview taped, but before it aired. The producer for the segment e-mailed me many times asking for better shots with the implication being skinnier shots. But it wasn’t limited to just TV people with their characteristic penchant for extremism. My own family joined the chorus. In an e-mail to my uncle about the piece, my father wrote, ” I saw her frequently through the whole time period in question and yes, she was slim, but she was healthy, energetic, and happy (as far as I could see), and so I was never worried. I admit freely that she cares about food in ways I don’t, but hey, different strokes for different folks.”
I love my dad dearly and consider him a great friend as well as a great father but his seeming dismissal of my illness stung. Friends and acquaintances jumped on the bandwagon as well – some by comparing me to the super-skinny Johnny of the 20/20 piece and others by comparing me to popular TV or movie stars. “Well, you were thin but not like Angelina Jolie thin. And she doesn’t have an eating disorder.” To my crazy mind all of these comments came out sounding like “You weren’t thin enough as a normal girl and you certainly weren’t skinny enough as an anorexic/orthorexic. Even when you’re bad you’re not good enough!” How skinny would I have to get before people thought I was actually sick?
Here’s the thing: I had a BMI of 17. According the World Health Organization anything under 18.5 is considered unhealthy. But in a world where Kate Moss and Victoria Beckham subsist at about a 16, I do look kind of porky. And it wasn’t just low weight. I lose my period when my BMI dips below 19 – a fact I’ve discovered on several occasions in my post-pubescent life. Amenorrhea is indicative of such poor nutrition that the body feels like it cannot support a baby. I had low iron, whacked-out electrolytes, vitamin deficiencies and hair loss. But worst of all was the mental damage. I was depressed, neurotic and withdrawn.
It’s true that I didn’t break any bones, lose teeth or end up in the hospital with a tube up my nose – a fact for which I am deeply grateful. But I did hurt. It’s just most of the hurt was emotional. And that’s the wound I’m still working on healing.
At my thinnest – and most fragile mentally – I got tons of compliments. Everywhere I went people commented on my physique. One woman at the gym even told me I had “the perfect body” (as if there is such a thing). I loved how I looked in clothes, even while I was secretly horrified at how I looked naked – since I lose weight in my upper body first, my chest looked like a xylophone while my legs still kept their fatty bits. My therapist maintains that the compliments came because of my increased self confidence – and she may be right – but I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that we are conditioned to appreciate only extremely thin women.
A lot of women with eating disorders look “normal” to us.
My dirty little not-so-secret is that I would love to be that weight again, ribs and all. But I can’t do it and remain healthy. Some women probably can weigh what I did and keep their periods and their sanity. Not me. Not my body. And so I choose to maintain a weight higher than what is comfortable for me and waffle back and forth between self -hatred and -love because I know where the alternative leads and I can’t pay that price anymore. Even if that makes me look 15 pounds too fat on camera.