"I wouldn't have been able to twirl," she said under her breath with eyes gazed down and shoulders slumped low in disappointment. "What do you mean?" I asked in confusion.
Karen was a middle-aged woman being treated for anorexia nervosa. She had an extensive history including a gastric bypass surgery 10 years ago. Many of her eating behaviors and weight related issues stemmed from adverse childhood experiences.
During treatment, Karen was blindly weighed each morning. This means she would step onto the scale backwards in order for staff to monitor her weight trends. When an individual has an eating disorder, knowledge of one’s weight can oftentimes be more triggering than helpful. One morning, while being blindly weighed, Karen had accidentally seen her weight.
“All I could think about when I saw my weight was the fact that I would not have been able to twirl.” Karen went on to explain that she was a dancer in high school. Each week, members of the dance team would have to step up onto the scale to see whether or not they would be able to perform. You see, their weight determined their ability to perform, not their talent. Sadly, this would be the first of two stories I would hear within a month’s time of women who were still scarred from traumatic events of having to weigh-in before a performance.
Though severely malnourished with a sunken in appearance and in dire need of weight restoration, all Karen could think about was the lie that she had been fed all of those years; the belief that she was not enough. The number on the scale was not simply a relationship with her body and gravity, but rather a sense of identity or lack thereof. She wasn’t told that good dancers are strong, graceful, dedicated or artistic. She was told that good dancers were small, thin and didn’t take up much space.
So she strived, day after day, to control her weight when everything else in her world felt so out of control.
Mandy was a young woman in her 30’s who had been sexually abused. She, like Karen, was being treated for anorexia. This was her first time to ever seek help for her eating disorder, a disease she had battled for the majority of her life. Mandy believed that if she could be as small as possible, she would somehow disappear. Then she would be unseen, untouched and finally safe.
Michelle was a wife, a professional and a mother of two. Growing up, she was taught to be small and unseen. She was scorned for her vibrant and loud personality. She learned being quiet was being small and this was best. So she worked tirelessly to control her dietary intake and to keep her weight down.
Tina was a transgender male to female struggling with gender identity and feeling that she was unable to express herself. To Tina, being thin meant being feminine so she strived to be as skinny as possible. She was unable to wear make-up, paint her nails or dress in women’s attire so she resorted to the one thing she felt she could do; lose as much weight as possible. Then, maybe she would finally feel at peace about her identity.
Many different people, many different stories, but one common theme: the strive for thinness in order to solve much deeper-rooted issues. The belief that a certain body size or shape would make life easier, more manageable. Karen believed that if she was smaller, she would be accepted, valued as a dancer and simply enough. Mandy believed that if she chased the thin ideal, she would ultimately be safe and in control. Michelle believed that if she lost weight, she would finally be the person that her parents desired for her to be, quiet and behind the scenes and Tina believed that being skinny would help her to somehow find her true self.
When life feels out-of-control, it is tempting to desperately grasp for something that we think will calm the chaos. A strive for thinness can easily become a way to escape from instead of cope with uncomfortable emotions. It is easier to have a “weight” problem than a self-worth issue, un-dealt with trauma or an unsettledness in regards to gender identity. The challenge is that achieving a specific body size or shape will never solve these problems. When anxiety is high, we may reach to dietary restriction, compulsive exercise or other forms of disordered behaviors in order to bring the anxiety back to baseline, where it feels more manageable. The catch is that this only works for a hot minute. It is like trying to place a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. Eventually, the anxiety returns and at a higher volume than before.
Food, or lack-thereof, will not fix a broken heart. No number, pant size or shape will heal our hurts. Using eating disorder behaviors to cope with life’s struggles only keeps us in the dark, isolated and ashamed. We must choose healing over hiding, stepping out into the light to begin mending what was broken. Only then, will we begin to stop twirling out of control.
*The names in the above stories have been changed to protect the privacy of each individual patient.*