Apparently we’re at a crisis point for body image. While the nation’s waistlines expand, we’re increasingly told that we should be stick thin to be beautiful. Every so often the media gets het up about it; Vogue claims it will show “normal” people in its pages, the catwalks ban “underweight” models. It doesn’t take long for Heat magazine et al to start pointing and laughing at celebrity bellies again. The upshot is messed up teens with body image issues and eating disorders, it’s girls starting a diet when puberty hits that stop-starts for decades.
It’s very easy for headlines to shout about bad body image, for magazines to criticise the publications next to them on the shelf for causing unprecedented levels of eating disorders. It’s much harder to actually engage with the issue in a rational, grown-up way. Amongst my peers there are two camps when it comes to the F word (fat, that is). Some are open about their struggle, telling everyone around them that they’re on a diet, that they can eat only pastrami or scrambled eggs or cabbage, or whatever the torture regime is for that week. Others struggle in silence. They rarely discuss their figure or weight, to the extent that you probably think they’re totally happy with their body.
Recently I’ve been watching “Don’t Call Me Crazy”, a documentary set in a teenage mental health unit. One of the patients is anorexic, and it is heart-breaking to watch her. With utter conviction she tells the camera how “fat” she is, meaning that she goes for days on end without eating. When forced to eat it takes her half an hour to swallow just a few peas. As a punishment to herself for eating, she cuts her arms. In a letter to the hospital staff she writes about how desperate she is to die, but how there is no way of killing herself in the secure unit.
When I watch this beautiful girl in tears over having to eat a spoonful of peas, I don’t believe it has as much to do with food and fat as she is convinced it is. Having had my own share of body image issues, I know that eating disorders are very often an alternative manifestation of depression. It’s a kind of displacement. However thin the girl is, even if it’s morbidly skinny, she will still be depressed, and want to die. There is no magic point at which she will decide she is thin, and therefore become happy.
I want to tell her, and my younger self, that being “fat” is almost irrelevant. It might seem impossible in the midst of the crisis, but you have to somehow separate out the low mood and the body image. And even when you know that’s right, when you know that you’re not really depressed about being fat but are “just depressed”, you can’t always be rational.
Although I’m a hell of a lot better than a few years ago, I still wobble at times. I can spend hours on end internally berating myself, or crying about how fat and ugly I am. It takes a while for it to click that I’m probably not depressed about the few extra pounds I’m carrying, but because of something else. Knowing that still doesn’t help sometimes, though. Knowing that I’m upset about being fat because of, say, exam results, doesn’t stop me being upset about being fat. It just means that I have a rational, psychological reason for being upset.
It’s the same thing when it comes to helping myself physically. Scientifically I know that eating vast quantities of chocolate, and drinking the equivalent in wine, won’t help my mood (or my waistline). Similarly, knowing that eating fruit and vegetables and going for a run would boost my endorphins and serotonin levels doesn’t necessarily make me do those things. It just makes me feel guiltier for doing the reverse.
I tell a lie, though. I think it does help a bit, being able to separate out the fat from the fiction. Certainly I deal with it better than I used to, even though I still get upset on occasions. Equally, I have been on a couple of runs this week, and tried to up my fruit intake, not exclusively with a view to losing weight, but for my general well-being.
I hate magazines that slag off supposedly fat celebrities, and constantly get frustrated with media portrayal of our bodies as commodities (“new body in six weeks” anyone?). Yet I’m not naive enough to think that anything is going to change. Despite the periodic outcry over teens’ terrible body image being caused by the media, nothing fundamentally changes. Teaching teens about body image, airbrushing and the like may be a good start. Giving them the tools to be sceptical could be useful for the rest of their lives. And if that stops just one more beautiful girl cutting her arms to punish herself for perceived fatness, that would be a good thing in my book.