I’m preoccupied with staying thin. I’ll do anything to avoid saying I’m thin.
“I am thin” are three small but very difficult words for me to type. Looking at them, my impulse is to erase and forget the sentiment even crossed my mind. They are nearly impossible for me to say aloud. I didn’t protest when an ex-boyfriend touched my midsection and casually called me thin, but the silence was thick. I hoped the awkwardness would justify never having to confirm being thin, even though I am thin enough for it to be a mostly unremarkable statement.
The difficulty of saying I am thin is one of few external discomforts of being thin. At my current height and weight, I can take for granted that I will find my size in the latest fashions and my body type reflected positively in every type of media. (This is doubly true because my skin is white, a trait magazines induce with Photoshop as habitually as they shave inches off thighs.) I can count on most romantic prospects to find my body desirable — especially in public, where a woman’s size sometimes seems inversely proportional to the power of the man she stands with. Until my mid-twenties, I knew only the discomforts of an average body and they were excruciating, compared to the drawbacks of being thin. When overweight and even average bodies are subject to relentless vitriol, complaining about being asked to take the middle seat feels like taking a mean-spirited victory lap.
Although I reap the benefits of being thin, it is rare that I feel thin. I change clothes multiple times each morning in search of more flattering outfits that never materialize. I wince and recoil during sex when my partner grabs at any available flesh, no matter how insignificant. I look at empty seats on the subway and fear that I will barely fit, only to sit down and see my reflection in the window opposite with ample room on either side of me. The only time I feel thin is in the fleeting moments after someone tells me so unprompted. But external validation expires quickly, the truth of it trickling out of my heart as time passes without a similar remark.
In a world where size descriptions are shorthand for personal integrity, to be thin and call oneself thin is to brag twice. And bragging women are known to inspire backlash. On a woman, positive self-evaluation reads like self-aggrandizement. We may graciously accept praise from others, but it is outrageous to agree with it, let alone arrive at these conclusions ourselves. So when online dating profiles have a body type option, I don’t select one. Instead, I use full-body photos with recent dates in the captions so that the men perusing can decide for me. Clicking “thin” myself would feel like saying I am adequate. I am good. I am enough.
But being thin does not make me feel adequate. On the contrary, it is the persistent feeling of inadequacy that got me here and keeps me here. Those feelings just happened to manifest as the “right” kind of eating disorder. I rarely admitted to disordered eating when I was slightly larger out of fear I’d be judged a liar or, worse, insufficiently committed to my disease. But around age 26, I traded my bulimia-based regimen for a more anorexia-based one, though I’ve never had severe enough symptoms for a medical diagnosis. I used to occasionally throw up whole meals, now I just eat far fewer meals that could be described as “whole.” It began as an honest effort to work out and eat more vegetables. But the same impulse that recognized my first purge at 17 as a tool of control recognized exhaustive exercise and punitive meal portions with the same potential.
I admit to disordered eating occasionally because I am tired of hearing, “It must be so great to eat whatever you want!” True, I don’t have a list of restricted foods. But I do have a mind so conditioned to find small portions and low-calorie foods desirable that I can no longer discern what I actually want. Do I truly prefer the taste of a Fiber One bar to actual candy bars? Is the feeling in my gut satiety or guilt? Do I run for hours to increase my endurance or to test the pain threshold of my knees? “It’s funny, â€˜cause I can’t even distinguish between what I want, what I need, and what I simply crave anymore! My consumption patterns are governed entirely by pathology rather than instinct now! Isn’t that bananas?” I often want to say, but rarely have said.
The response to these outbursts — when I admit what I must do to be thin — is generally silence. Other times it is dismissal; I must be exaggerating. Occasionally someone asks if I’ve considered seeking help. It comes from a good place. But the reason I have not sought help is in the subtext of the observation that precedes it. Beneath every variation of “It must be great to eat whatever you want!” is a silent “It must be great to be thin.” And it is great to be thin. An eating disorder that keeps its host at an attractively low weight is the most socially profitable kind of mental illness. It didn’t pay out in a sudden parade of affection with confetti and balloons. The dividends are subtle: an uptick in men holding subway doors for me, compliments from dressing room attendants, a sense that people listen to my thoughts and opinions as if they have more value. I know that I am supposed to say, “I struggle with an eating disorder,” or, “I battle food issues,” but the truth is that I do neither. When the result is being thin in a world that rewards it, the pathology is logical.
It feels like a lie in my mouth but I know, on an intellectual level, that I am thin. And that the shape of a body ought to be a neutral thing. In a perfect world, a thin person saying she felt fat would be as demonstrably ludicrous as a blonde saying that they she felt brunette. But here and now, “fat” and “thin” never simply mean “fat” and “thin.” A woman on a blog chronicling her anorexia might call her frail body “fat” because she ate more than her allotted calories for the day. An overweight woman might post a picture in a dress that people said makes her “look skinny.” These words are less quantitative than they are moral, measures of a person’s physical sacrifice for the sake of pleasing others. “Fat” indicates a failure of will, the sin of succumbing to one’s basic needs or desires. Body positive activists work hard to reclaim “fat” for neutral objectivity, but we have a long way to go. When a woman calls herself fat, her friends still trip over themselves to deny it.
My moral compass did not improve when I became thin, and my weight is not a reflection of my virtuous willpower. Disordered eating, whether it renders one emaciated or substantially overweight, is a conspiracy of genetics, trauma, media, and accidents of longitude and latitude. They sentence all of us to similarly obsessive thoughts and behaviors, but their outcome arbitrarily rewards some and damns others. The few who hit the genetic jackpot and are naturally thin are prone to equate thin-shaming and fat-shaming. I want to tell them what it feels like to sit atop the fence between fat and thin. I saw how much greener the grass was on the thin side but until I got there, I had no idea how much kinder the world could be.
But kinder is not kind, and I am still not ready to shake the feelings of inadequacy that make me preoccupied with thinness. I do, however, want to live in a world where the words we use to describe bodies are no longer weapons and trophies. So I’m trying to acknowledge being thin. First, because I don’t want to subject others to my own dysmorphia. More important, I am forcing myself to say “I’m thin” because I want to neutralize the word. Tiny words take on enormous meaning when we leave them in the hands of others, wait to receive them, absorb them in our pores as judgment. I want to be able to be to say I’m thin myself — with a nonchalance with which I could never say I am good, I am enough, I am adequate — because my size does not, in fact, define my character. People say if you tell a lie for long enough it becomes the truth. I want to tell the truth long enough it stops feeling like a lie.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, here are some organizations that have trained support staff available by phone:
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders Helpline: 1-630-577-1330
Binge Eating Disorder Association Helpline: 1-855-855-BEDA
National Eating Disorder Association Helpline: 1-800-931-2237