Body Size & Anxiety
This morning, a woman (whom I had only just met) told me that the only reason most people don’t eat healthy is because they are “lazy.” My Social Worker alarm ringing, I immediately contradicted her by speaking of the challenges that people living in poverty face in terms of accessing healthy food. She then replied, “Anyone who cares can eat well—there are no excuses.”
Thinking now about why this stranger upset me so much, I realize that it wasn’t just her blatant social ignorance and rudeness. Her use of the word “lazy,” which announced her sense of superiority and judgment of those of us who struggle with eating issues, offended me deeply. I am sensitive to the judgment of others about how I eat because I also judge myself rather harshly. The truth is, although I chose to educate her about “people living in poverty,” what I really wanted to say is “Do you understand how painful it is to want to eat healthy foods but to be unable to do so because of anxiety, depression, and/or eating disorders? Do you know how many of us constantly berate ourselves for making the “wrong” food choices even though we can afford to make the “right” ones?”
When I entered adolescence, like many women, I discovered that suddenly people felt free to comment on my body. Even the most “complimentary” remarks made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. It became clear that my new reality was one where I had to be conscious of what I was wearing and how I looked all the time because other people felt entitled to judge me. That’s when my body started to feel separate from the rest of me.
Possibly the worst offenders, despite their great love for me, were my parents. As I started to develop breasts and hips, they became increasingly watchful of my weight. My mother would often tell me that she just wanted me to “be healthy,” but it didn’t take long to learn that “healthy” was code for “thin.” Ironically, I don’t think my mother realized this herself; I believe she really wanted the best for me. However, she felt (rightfully, as it turns out) that thin women have the best chance in life.
Most people, like my mother, never question the food choices a thin person makes. A slender girl eating an oreo is not fodder for public commentary. So health isn’t really the issue. A chunky girl with a cookie, however, is an entirely different matter. The issue is clearly body size.
As a result of all of this attention from the outside world and from inside my own family, my body size started to make me anxious. I was acutely aware of how I rated: I was “good” as long as I remained thin. However, if I gained weight, I was “bad” and “unhealthy” no matter the actual status of my life or health. Writing these words, it is not surprising that my anxiety was rooted in my body image—no matter how distorted that became. You see, I was not an overweight teen. Not by any clinical standards. But the laser focus on my every curve started my life of hypervigilance that all Anxiety Sisters experience.
In my twenties, after a really horrendous bout with anxiety, I lost a lot of weight. My mother knew how much I was suffering from my anxiety and she was extremely supportive of my efforts to recover. But one night, when we were out to dinner with the family, she remarked, “I don’t know how you feel, but you look great.” The thing is, she did know how I felt. Like I had a never-ending stomach flu—too sick to eat anything other than the occasional cracker. That I could look beautiful to her (or anyone) while I was suffering so immensely has stayed with me for the thirty years since. Clearly, health was not the issue.
Back to my rude woman this morning: I think when she used the term “lazy,” it triggered me so strongly because I know—I have lived—the harm such judgment can cause. There are no good foods and bad foods. (I need to say that to myself constantly.) It’s the searing judgment around body size that is unhealthy and unacceptable—and the root of many anxiety and eating disorders.
It is so important that we stop ourselves from commenting on women’s body size, even if the comment is positive. Girls should not be made to feel judged on their looks; that society is allowed, even encouraged, to comment on female body parts is a cultural cause of anxiety. Until body size is recognized as personal and off limits to commentary and judgment, we will continue to create anxious girls who will become anxious women who will then struggle to accept themselves for the rest of their lives.