If You Are Sick of The "Thin Ideal," Please Read

When I left for Toronto on May 10 to attend the 2-day National Eating Disorder Information Centre's 2017 Body Image and Self-Esteem Conference, I did not anticipate that I would return home with an ache in my heart. Almost 2 weeks later, and I am still flipping through my notes, rereading the quotes I feverishly wrote down as I listened to the presenters so poignantly speak about eating disorders and body image in social, cultural, and political contexts.

I want to share with you a few of the quotes that left a profound impression on me:

"It's a meaningful personal and political act for girls and women to live in their bodies and feel positive." -Niva Piran, PhD 

"Challenging oppression is not just about liberating others, but vital to our own growth and liberation." -Linda Bacon, PhD

"The longer we stay in emotions that contribute to negative thoughts and behaviors, the longer they last, and the harder the patterns are to break." -Danielle MacDonald, PhD

"Language has the power to trigger or illuminate. Choose your words wisely." -Dianne Bondy

"Talk less about food to our kids. Talking about what is and isn't healthy food isn't beneficial."
-Leora Pinhas

"When we talk negatively about our body, we create violence within ourselves." -Dianne Bondy

"Our understanding of body image comes from outside our bodies." -Sonalee Rashatwar

"When we begin to share our stories, our own stories become louder than the voice of ED."
-Carrie Cox

"You don't have to understand someone's perspective to respect that it's valid."
-Linda Bacon, PhD

And these were just the highlights! There are dozens more quotes and ideas from the conference that have settled in my soul that I continue to turn over in my brain as I work to understand my personal healing and shape my professional passions through these new lenses.

On the flight home, I downloaded all the thoughts, ideas, and feelings that I experienced during the trip. I was struck by the idea that thinness equals privilege and privilege equals power. And if you are attractive, white, and thin--all the more privileged and powerful you are; all other bodies are marginalized, severely misread, and unrecognized. Sure, as a member of this society, I knew this, but I never understood it in quite these terms. This is probably due to the fact that I am white and not outside of privilege in many ways.

Day in and day out, as we absorb the deluge of images and messages that perpetuate the "thin ideal," we intrinsically learn that, in order to have power, our bodies must match that of photoshopped ideals. If I keep my body small, then I'll be OK, we think to ourselves. What's maddening is that, of course we think that--because that's what the thin ideal teaches, preaches, and demands "powerful" women look like! The feeling of not being able to compete with other bodies, of always falling short despite the lengths we are willing to go, leaves us feeling unworthy, shameful, disgusting, hopeless, good for nothing, and [fill in the blank].

From that realization, came this one: 

If we believe changing our bodies will give us some sense of power, then the REAL question isn't about what size or weight I need to "get to" to feel "powerful." Instead, the question is: Where in my life do I feel powerless, and what power do I need to feel safe and loved?

For as long as I can remember, I was taught that my eating disorder was about control. That explanation always rubbed me the wrong way, but I couldn't explain why. Now, since all of my processing from the conference, I realize that eating disorders and body image struggles are not directly about control: They are about power and powerlessness.

When we hate our bodies and/or turn to self-destructive behaviors, we feel powerless in some other area of our life, which is quite different from feeling out of control or not in control. Thanks to a variety of social, cultural, and political constructs, we only know power to be located in the outline of an illegitimate body ideal. And so, in the desperate need for some source of power, we become dissatisfied with our bodies. Before long, dissatisfaction morphs into loathing, aversion, and pure detestation. Our body hate is so strong that is traumatizes: We feel unsafe in our bodies and can no longer trust them to "behave."

I mentioned at the opening of this post that I feel an ache in my heart. I do, and it's nauseating.

My heart aches from a sickening worry about if and how it is possible to protect my daughters from negatively internalizing messages about their bodies. My heart aches for my yoga therapy clients, who have suffered hard and come with vulnerable and open hearts and minds to heal. My heart aches for all the women I've met in treatment and groups, for those who suffer in silence, and for those who have no recourse. My heart aches for all children, women, and men who believe their destiny is to do battle with their bodies.

My heart also aches for myself, for the rewriting of my own healing history: learning that it was never about control but about feeling powerless. Yet, I am deeply grateful for this new awareness and the opportunity to define all the "powers" that I do possess (like compassion, creativity, loyalty, intelligence, empathy) and the ones that I perceived as being without over the long years of anorexia (which will take a willingness to go back in time to fully grasp).

I sign off by holding heartache and gratitude together, at the same time. Both give me defining "powers" in this very moment, such as the abilities to feel, express, and recognize gifts in unexpected places, and to fully trust that none of those "powers" are dependent on the size and shape of my body.