I have spent much of the last ten years of my life hungry. Part of that is because of our fucked up food culture and egregiously tasty desserts, but that’s been the target of many posts so I’ll leave it alone today. My new target comes in two forms: politics and perfectionism. I don’t know which one I hate more.
The health risks of women being– hell, of having –fat have been grossly exaggerated. Many of the studies conducted on correlations between heart disease risk and being overweight have been conducted on men, and then erroneously applied wholesale to women. That was unwise. We know that women have higher body fat percentages than men: but by how much? How much should they? What have we lost sight of? Is it possible to be objective in cultural context?
Women do not just have higher body fat percentages than men, but perform better at even higher levels. A BMI of 25 is considered “overweight” and 18 is considered the limit for “underweight” in women. 18-21 is considered ideal (by whom and subconsciously conditioned by what I ask you), but menstrual irregularities, sexual dysfunction, and poor mental health are statistically much greater risks at all BMIs less than or equal to 22. Women at BMIs from 22 all the way up through the high 20s perform equally well in mortality and health statistics. Additionally, women increase in body fat percentages as they age, while men decrease. This is true of ALL cultures, not just Americans. FINE. LET’S LET IT BE THAT WAY.
Women are told their entire lives that they need to be thin. The rational question to ask at this point is “why.” This is not the healthy ideal. Where does this idea come from? Many feminist sociologists point to the history of the 20th century. As female power has grown, masculine-dominated culture (not men) has searched for ways to harness the power. How can we keep women under thumbs? Can we give them ideals? Can we give them impossible ideals? Can we take something genuinely beautiful to an extreme, such that young bulimic women are the norm in Calvin Klein ads? The problem is not that women want to be anorexia twiggy things like models. They don’t, at least not consciously. The problem is that they want to be thin, a word we think is perfectly neutral, and even that is in many cases just too far. The word fit is even positive. But is a fit women without an ounce of fat on her hips fertile? Not likely.
This phenomenon has a root in male affinities for visual aesthetics. Fine, that’s cool, I don’t begrudge them that.
But what happens when a masculine culture that used to arbitrate the distribution of all privileges begins to lose them? Where does the pressure give? Lots of people think it gives with hunger. They make a good case. People who experience a loss of 25 percent of their body fat (this is a simple drop from a 25 to a 19 BMI, for example… something common and something I have voluntarily done) experience extraordinary psychological distortion. They ferret away food, keep trinkets, draw obsessive pictures about themselves, become possessive about food, obsess over food, lose sleep over food…. the list of symptoms is endless. Picture this happening to a group of men. It has. It did. At war, in laboratories. Not often. Men can be victims of eating disorders, too. My point is: think about a man with an eating disorder. Think about him hunched over a toilet, think about him staggering out of a stall, think about him sitting down at a business lunch and munching on ice and lemon scraping the sauce off of his plate and staring fixedly at the dessert plate, obsessing over what food is an acceptable choice, which one will make him hate himself less… does that horrify you? It should. Put a women in his place. Does that horrify you? It should. I bet it’s less surprising. I bet it feels normal. I bet it feels even a little bit acceptable.
Problems with body image go beyond politics, of course. Men and women alike suffer, though women far more so, and to far more deleterious effects. Only women suffer increased risk for infertility, for ovarian and endometrial cancer, for miscarriage, for low birth weight, and for osteoporosis via having a body fat below ~22 BMI. Politics and fashion and culture are destroying us. Our perfectionist ideals are destroying us, too.
Perfectionism is a demon all it’s own. Who says we have to be perfect? Why?
Feminists have perhaps even more to say about perfectionism than they do about the politics of food. Women have gone from being subjugate to demanding perfection in a matter of decades. This is possibly because of women’s station as the under dog. Young girls grow up throwing punches, told they really can have it all, but they’ve got to work at it, and like hell, they sure as fuck aren’t going to fail. Women on college campuses are expected to be perfect without trying. They might take hours getting ready… dressed in torn up jeans, flip flops, and a sweat shirt. Ironed hair, perfect, discrete make-up, hundreds of dollars in beauty products on every inch of their body. This look is sexy and casual. They’re beautiful and high achievers and you wouldn’t even know it’s killing them.
But it is. At least 1 in 5 women in colleges experience disordered eating behaviors and thoughts about food, increasingly commonly about bingeing. That number goes up to 1 in 2 when it’s limited to “food and body image associations” at some elite schools.
Tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about.
Here are some more types of perfectionism on which to plant your rage:
Perfectionism is destructive in every aspect of our lives. In order to be perfect, we are obsessive not just about our lives, but about our bodies. In order to love ourselves, and to feel loved by society, we need to be as perfect as possible. This fact used to kind of excite me. Someone kick me, please.
We are perfectionists because we don’t know how to be anything else. Not only are we totally isolated in a world in which everything is crumbling around us and there is not a drop of security or safety or feelings of home to be found, but there’s a gap of meaning in contemporary culture and we don’t know how to fix it. With family? Community? Like hell! With spirituality? Art? Who has the time? But with my work? Sure! With self-improvement? With the pursuit of a perfect relationship and perfect love? It’s as though… look. We have robbed ourselves of serenity. We don’t know how to fix this. We think bettering ourselves is the answer, but it only makes us worse. In this fast, angry, modern, competitive, meaningless world, we don’t have any other choice. The quickest, hardest, strongest, sexiest wins the race. Always. So we had best get to it.
I threw away much of my life and well-being to the pursuit of perfection. I needed to be society’s ideal everything, including ideal body. I can’t tell you how many nights I went to sleep between the ages of 14 and 23 salivating and agonizing over what I was going to eat the next day. Fuck off! Why do you think we are hungry all the time? In part, it’s contemporary culture, tempting us with indulgences and sweets and all that stuff that we wish so desperately we could have but know we can now. In another part, it’s contemporary culture pursuing the same aim in a different guise, telling us we need to be thinner than we are.
Here’s some news. If we aren’t clinically overweight, if we test well, if we don’t have inflammation in our systems, we are healthy. We do not need to lose weight. We do not need to be obsess. What we need is to love ourselves, and to accept our bodies, and to let our hunger regulate itself.
I do a lot of talking on here about how to stop yourself from eating. In some ways, this makes me a healer. I really do think that society and all sorts of nasty psychological problems get into our heads, and we need to heal ourselves with practices, food, and lots of mental behaviors. I have spoken to that a lot on this site, and I hope to the gods that message has been heard.
In other ways, this makes me a part of the machine. When I walk down the street nowadays, since I have rebelled against perfectionism, when I see women who are deliberately thin–like me–I want to cry with empathy and pain rather than envy. But before it was easier to justify denying my hunger. It’s not just porn and anti-feminist norms dictating my behavior, but health officials and sociologists and anthropologists and every single person in between. Read in a certain light, I am a part of that machine. This makes me furious.
I am not now, not in any way, shape, or form, an advocate of eating less food unless it’s medically important. I wasn’t before, either. But now I mean it, passionately. Not just for you, but also for me. There is a crucial difference. I feel this conviction in my bones. I mean it, and I will not stand for societal norms in this realm any longer. I don’t stand for them in other ways. Time for me to grow up and shed my hypocrisy.
Where does this leave me?
Honestly, I am not sure. I have a complete wardrobe, an expensive one, ranging from sizes 00-01. It doesn’t get much bigger than that. I also don’t know what to do in general, or what I want to do. I have achieved society’s “ideal” in many ways. I have gone to elite colleges. I have mastered several languages. I have pursued advanced degrees at advanced institutions. I have travelled the world. I have worked several jobs. I have a budding investment portfolio. And I have been skinny for the last two years, and that very fact made me not just confident, but honestly, very, painfully, tearfully honestly, more attractive to men than I had ever imagined.
I see men as victims in all of this, too. None of them want to starve women. None of them want their girlfriends and sisters and mothers to go hungry and to hate themselves. None of them want to sleep with a bag of bones, either. BUT very few of them are comfortable dating a “curvy” woman. When did curves die?! I am a member of a couple of excellent and fun, hip and–most importantly here–intellectual and activist dating websites. One of the most popular questions everyone answers is: “What kind of body type would you accept in an ideal mate?” I have never seen a response that did not say, “I’m sorry, but I can not be attracted to anyone with just a little bit of fat.”
I think I am going to throw up.
It’s not our faults that this is what we idealize, women and men alike. My heart is breaking just thinking about it. I don’t know what to do. How do I continue to be attractive in this society while feeling good about myself? How do I navigate a world in which my standards are so different from everybody else’s? How do I behave in a world in which I have previous been employed for having a supermodel body, and in which I have basked in the warmth of all the male attention I get for that body? What am I going to do?
I am going to move slowly. I have learned how to eat a satiating diet and how to be less obsessive with food, particularly in the last several months. I have been learning to take even better care of myself, mentally as well as physically. I will stay away from all the shit food I always have. It’s nasty and that is something of which no one wants to be a part. I will stay away from contemporary culture like I always have. Advertisements make people crave food they never knew they wanted. And I will eat healthful foods until I am full. I imagine I will not go up to my biggest size– a size nine on a 5’2 body is bigger than I can handle– but I imagine slowly creeping up to a size 1, and maybe some day in several months a size 3, that is something I can handle.
For much of the last ten years, I have been hungry as hell. I’ve been angry as hell, too, but not at the right things.
Time to stop hating myself, and throw my punches elsewhere.
*Statistics all from this wonderful book: The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf.