I remember the road trip that my family and I took to North Carolina my freshman year. My mom, grandma, and I loaded up my mom’s white Honda Pilot, the vehicle that would then carry us on a 7+ hour drive to the mountainlands of Asheville, NC, where our longtime family friends waited to welcome us into their lavish new retirement home. From the second I got into the car on that trip, I was in a nasty mood. I was upset because, of all things, prior to departing from my house that morning, I had gone for a run but didn’t have enough time to perform the additional strength exercises I had intended to also do. As soon as I plopped into the backseat of my mom’s car, I began to writhe with anger, frustration, and fear. I was angry at my mom for not withholding our departure for an extra 20 minutes in order to allow me to complete my exercises. I was frustrated with myself for not being more efficient with the timing of my workout. Most of all, I was afraid. I was afraid of the future, and of the daunting sense of inadequacy I would face in light of my unperformed training tasks. Underlying this fear, however, was a deeper, more ominous one: I was afraid of the way in which my reality was controlled by numbers on a scale, by feelings of hunger or fullness, by constant obsession with what and how much was and wasn’t good to eat. I was afraid of the way that I woke up every morning thinking about food, and went to sleep each night reflecting on how much and what type of food I ate over the course of that day.
Put simply, I was afraid of myself — or, perhaps (though I failed to make the distinction in my mind at the time), afraid of what was controlling me.
This is the aspect of the whole eating disorders/body image concept that I want to highlight: the extent to which the “illness” is beyond the control of she (or he) who is ill. Looking back on that miserable spring break road trip, when I say that I was afraid of what was controlling me, what I mean is that such a fear came down to a single question — and my incapacity to answer it: why do I feel this way? I couldn’t seem to bring myself to recognize that there was a need for me to take the time to repair my sharded relationship with food and with myself — and yet I knew that for some reason, others my age weren’t stressing about these things in the way that I was. Based on what those around me were communicating, I knew that I was acting in a way that was only making me increasingly more miserable — and yet, I could see no alternative route than the self-deprecating one that I was on.
This is was the biggest challenge in my experience with ED-type behavior: I couldn’t see that there was a problem to fix. Somewhere, amidst the swarm of thoughts that ravaged my subconscious each day, lay a variety of definitively and fundamentally incorrect assumptions; the most significant of these included “being thinner will make you faster,” “my body shape/features are a key piece of how others judge my total individual worth,” and, perhaps most significantly, “everyone else who is truly ‘healthy’ engages in this exhausting, consuming process of incessant dietary monitoring.”
Everyone has assumptions, and everyone probably also has assumptions that have been there with them for their entire lives. For me, my assumptions about food, exercise, and self-worth were caked into into my athletic endeavors; they formed the framework of my pursuits, subconsciously guiding me to engage in compulsive exercise, to experience extreme anxiety about food, and to self-sabotage my own confidence. So much of my assumptions were based upon how I thought others made judgements and discerned value in the world around them. To be certain, much of these notions of others’ thoughts were self-formulated; in some ways, it felt as though my brain wanted to believe in this ruthless determination of human value so much so that it would craft such an understanding by drawing on any shred of external evidence that it could find. And human society (as well as the internet) is so large and expansive that these shreds could undoubtedly be found if one looked hard enough.
With that said, however, I found that I didn’t have to search very hard at all to find these shreds; in fact, I encountered them daily, as they manifested themselves in the form of comments and compliments from other people. As a freshman and a new member of my high school community, much of the attention I received from older students was in regards to my physical appearance and capabilities; I was told regularly that I was “tiny,” “cute,” and “super fast.” Given the plethora of available adjectives in the English language, the nervous freshman version of myself was pretty satisfied with the small range of descriptors that had been implicitly assigned to me. As a result, I began to cling to this identity — that is, of being the “small,” “cute,” and “fast” one. My size and my capabilities as an athlete apparently served as reasons to appreciate me — and in the back of mind, I seemed to fear constantly that in the absence of these qualities, I would no longer be loved in the same way.
It’s weird: growing up, we are told to wear armor, to construct our own sense of value and self-worth without ever allowing others’ thoughts to impact or degrade those self-created conceptions. This is a nice idea and all, but, unfortunately, it’s not how things actually work. We can’t ever totally separate our personal thoughts from our external experiences. Especially when we’re young, our brains just don’t really work like that; instead, the reality is that we do inevitably draw upon what is said by others in order to develop our own values and conceptions of the world.
Thus, while no one person can be explicitly blamed for the hurt caused by EDs (the sufferer included), I would argue that we are all responsible within the process of establishing what is to be considered of value in other people. Every compliment one makes about another person, no matter how informal, feeds, to some extent, into that person’s conception of how she is perceived and judged. You can have a powerful impact on another’s reality in this way — and while some people are more easily influenced by external influences than others, it’s so important to always keep in mind that one always has, on some level, this power of influence.
When you compliment someone, try to go beyond the obvious and non-essential aspects of his or her identity. As a freshman, people often complimented me primarily on how fast I was (“this girl is a speed demon!”). Compliments like these that led me to assume that others were determining my inherent value based on my capabilities as an athlete; such assumptions then led me to engage in unhealthy behaviors as a means of enhancing those capabilities.
“True” compliments, I’d argue, are the ones which identify something profound and perennial about another person; they require a deep dive into the nature of the individual, rather than a quicker, more convenient exploration of the surface level components of who they are. Instead of complimenting someone’s athletic capability, consider pointing out their boundless determination. Instead of remarking on how “smart” or academically successful someone is, focus instead on their thoughtfulness, and on the genuine intentionality with which they tend to care for ideas.
Once it was upon me, my eating disorder felt out of my control. Perhaps, however, the more that we cultivate a culture of true and profound expressed appreciation for others, we can all help one another to construct our self-perceptions around the things that are essential to who we are, and which we will therefore always have control over. This is the responsibility that all of us have; it is in this way that we can enable ourselves and those around us to not be limited, but to in fact blossom and flourish.