One of my first, and most vivid memories from childhood comes from when I was about three years old. I stood staring at myself in the mirror, tears streaming down my face, as I dug my fingernails into the flesh of my thighs. I kept at it until I drew blood, the mantra “I hate myself . . . I hate myself . . . I hate myself” running through my mind.
That was the first shot fired of the war between me and my body.
As years went on, and I entered eating disorder treatment, the big question in my therapy sessions was why? Why was I starving myself? What was behind it all? The only answer I could give was, “I hate my body”.
There’s a big problem with how bodies are seen in the media. Society glorifies thinness, and bodies that may or may not be healthy are altered and distorted until they are deemed acceptable for public viewing. They’re everywhere, a constant reminder of how we don’t measure up.
Body image is often cited as a cause of eating disorders: girl reads magazine, emulates model; boy watches Ryan Reynolds movie, becomes obsessed with 6-pack abs. It seems so simple. We have our media-machine villain – so we put on our Body Image Crusader capes and go to war.
But what if we’re looking at it the wrong way? What if the villain we’re fighting is just a henchman? What if the super-villain, the master-mind, is working behind the scenes while we’re distracted by his goon? What if body image isn’t the cause at all, but rather a symptom?
My 3-year-old self wasn’t punishing her body because she hated it. Her media idols were Muppets and Cabbage Patch Kids (and her cheeks were a pretty well-dimpled, straight-outta-the-cabbage-patch pair). She hated herself, not the shell she lived in. She wasn’t trying to hurt her body: she was trying to hurt the thing inside, the thing she couldn’t reach. She didn’t know what to do with her pain, so she made it manifest physically. Her body was just a tool she used for punishment.
As the years went on, the lines blurred – was it body-hatred, or self-hatred? Who can tell the difference anymore?
Most of us have emotional scars that run pretty deep, but you can’t bottle and sell a scar-reducing cream for your soul. This is where the media gets us – we all have a drive to fix what’s broken within us, but that doesn’t sell product. So what do they do? They show us laughing, happy, whole people, all of whom were made that way by going on this diet, or buying this lipstick, or fitting into this dress. The message is loud and clear: fix the outside, and the inside will follow.
And that’s a much easier thing to do. It’s easier to look at our bodies and find fault than to have to look inside. We aren’t taught how to deal with emotions or pain or trauma in healthy ways, so we listen to the only advice we’re given – focus on the body.
If all we talk about in eating disorder recovery is healing the body and repairing the body image, we’re only perpetuating the problem. We aren’t opening a conversation about what lies underneath. It’s estimated that up to 60% of those with eating disorders have been the victims of sexual violence. Many more will have experienced physical and/or emotional abuse. No matter what the cause of the eating disorder, it’s never just about the body. If it was, nearly everyone would have an eating disorder. If it was, eating disorders and self-harm wouldn’t go hand in hand. You don’t see too many scars on magazine covers.
Yes, it’s important to see all forms of beauty represented in the media. Yes, photoshopped images contribute greatly to body dissatisfaction. Yes, chronic negative body image is at an all-time high. But you know what? So is chronic self-loathing. So is unchecked emotional pain. So is an inability to cope with the atrocities around us. If we don’t talk about these deeper issues, we can’t find a solution.
Nowadays when I look in the mirror, I don’t like everything about my body – I don’t know that I’ve met anyone who does. But without the “I hate myself” monologue running through my mind, I find I don’t hate my body anymore, either. When we talk about eating disorder recovery, let’s talk about self-love and self-image, too. Let’s open a new conversation.
Update, February 28: Some friends on Twitter pointed out that my wording in this post is not clear and, upon re-reading, I agree. Sometimes I forget that I’m not writing one long book, and that each article I post is only the sum of the words it contains. Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses with strong genetic, physiological, and developmental roots. It is often said that “Genetics loads the gun, and life pulls the trigger”. The topics discussed in this article fall under the category of “trigger”, not root cause. To truly recover, ALL aspects must be dealt with. Apologies for any confusion, and thanks, as always, for the feedback!