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The Weight of It

We give so little weight to our thoughts.

You can push them away and mold them and let them be and more than anything else, just not think about it.

This is a sharing story. It’s personal. It’s descriptive. This is your trigger warning.

I’ll let you in on a secret. I won’t ever reread my own mental health writing. I write it in dark rooms, on late nights, where the only light is from my computer, with big headphones on and the kind of music that’s sad pianos and violins. I send it off for proofing and then I never look at it again; schedule it without a single reread. You have to, to paraphrase someone wise, let it all flood you just enough to really feel it, just enough to write it well. And then you shove it away.

But, thoughts.

They started in eighth grade. That is, they started collecting, gathering mass and steam and power. If I really think back, I can pinpoint patterns that started even before I left elementary school. Age eight, after weeks of worry, telling my mother I thought my calves were too fat, and how shocked she was. Standing by a blue locker in sixth grade and worrying about the shape of my upper arms–getting so trapped in the thought that I was nearly late to class. It was just seven steps away, and I couldn’t make myself move, because what if I was putting on weight?*

I was ten.

By the time I started my freshman year, I would have weeks where I worried about my weight. I’d go a while with always wondering if I shouldn’t just be a little slimmer, and then suddenly it would stop, and I’d think, That was pleasant. I’ve gone a whole day without thinking I’m fat.** How silly of me to have worried before. A few weeks later, there would be a little thing–pants that shrunk in the wash, a magazine cover, someone looking both happy and slim, and it would start again. I thought I was normal. I thought it was a teenage thing. I thought I just needed a little more distraction, a little less boredom.

The deprivation started with oranges. Two of them–little mandarin ones–and one granola bar. I didn’t eat them. They were my after-school snack, for the two hour break between eighth period and twirling practice. I don’t know why–I think I just wanted to see if I could.

Damn curiosity.

My stomach was empty enough to hurt by six. Three hours later–three hours of running and dancing and leaping about later–I hadn’t touched them. It felt really good.

I try not to think about this very much, that good that permeates everything when I don’t eat. I can’t do it anymore, and–and I’m well aware how horrible this is–I rarely feel that overwhelming, shot-through-with-stars, top-of-the-world, utter happiness. If there’s anything that’s ever made me sad, it’s that the easiest way to really feel good is to fall into a habit that could have killed me. My choices look like weighing some of the happiest I’ve ever been against a plateau of stability. On really good days, it’s not a hard decision. There are fewer Really Good Days than I’d like.

But those oranges.

They stuck in my mind. I could do it–eat less than I used to. And I could do it with limited consequences, I thought. I shouldn’t skip meals entirely; that was Bad. But I could reduce them, couldn’t I? One yogurt cup for lunch. An apple for dinner. Three hours of twirling practice. Bed. Four strawberries for breakfast.

Over about sixteen months, I ate somewhere around a third of needed caloric intake, while maintaining twirling or ballet practice every single day for several hours. (Just so we can enter this in the Annals of Perfectly Obvious, let me say this is a terrible idea.)

The thing is, it’s hard to deprive your body of perhaps the thing it values most. You have to demand control. You have to just absolutely refuse to entertain the thought that you could eat more. You worry that you’ve consumed just a little more than last time. Every mirror is an invitation to compare, to examine, to fuss and pinch and panic. And so you think about it–food, exercise, the shape of your hips in your jeans–all the time.

By the time I was even slightly considering that I should eat more, food took up about 80% of my thoughts. How much, when, what kind. Could I eat a little less today to make up for yesterday? Over and over and over and over. Nothing could happen–not a date, not a kiss–without mentally running through everything I’d eaten since that morning.

Think about that.

Do one simple task today. Get the mail. Wash some dishes. And imagine that you can’t do that without thinking about say, the shape of your eyebrows.

It’s not just a passing thought. It’s everything you think about. Every curve looks like eyebrows. Everything is reflective, and you see your face in it all. You can’t look away. You can’t even stop yourself from trying to find more reflective surfaces.

Think about doing that every second of your day. When all you want to think about is making out with that cute boy, and how nice he is. When all you want to do is sit in class. When walking down the street means every building is a potentially reflective danger zone. It eats what makes you…you.

We give so little weight to our thoughts.

*Numbers aren’t important, and I’m not going to use them here. They aren’t important because if you think that anyone at any weight should have to spend their mornings curled up on the bathroom floor trying to convince themselves they aren’t too repulsive to go out in public, you are the problem.

**Let’s be really clear here. The problem here is that I thought weight was a determination of my self worth. It isn’t. It’s also true that weight does NOT (really, I can’t possibly say this enough) determine whether or not you can develop or have an eating disorder. The problem is more that I thought weight had any bearing on my person. 

Comments

  1. tangovelocity says

    Ashley,
    Thank you for a very illuminating post. A lot of the behaviors/statements I see and hear from our eleven year old daughter make much more sense in light of your experience with this endemic culturally driven and destructive perception of young girls’ and womens’ physical ideal.

  2. Kate Donovan says

    Hi! I’m Kate, the author of this post (Ashley’s co-blogger), commenting in part because I didn’t want to accidentally ascribe my mental illness to her, and partially to clarify a bit on cultural influence.
    While there’s no doubt that media promotion of an unachievable feminine ideal is contributing to disordered eating and eating disorders, anorexia (what I have experience with and talk about) also appears to have some genetic loading as well. This is one article involving such evidence after twin and family studies. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0022399988900049 (sadly, I think the full text is behind a paywall unless you’re around a university). This isn’t to say that families are solely at fault or that your daughter is behaving as she is because of her genes. It’s just that I actually spent *much* less time around pop culture and media than probably any of my peers and don’t want to leave a story that implies that exposure to impossibly thin models were contributing to my own experience.

  3. tangovelocity says

    Well, first, my apologies for not seeing that it was you Kate, and not Ashley that had written the article. Also, thank you for the sciencedirect link. It is particularly germane to us as the daughter I talked about is adopted, and our knowledge of her birth mother’s background is limited, and we know nothing of her birth father’s background or family. We will keep doing our best in any case to help her.

  4. DJMankiwictz says

    I find myself wondering about the time being described. Do you live with these consuming thoughts to this day, or does this describe how you were for a time? I imagine either way, it hasn’t completely vanished.

    My aunt went through something almost identical when she was a kid. She refused to eat to the point where she had to be hospitalized and put on a drip. To this day no one is entirely sure what she was thinking. All I know is that eventually her family got through to her and she realized she had to eat. She’s still smaller than normal. At any rate, her reasons were her own and as she never wanted to share them, the rest of the family has decided not to force it out of her, especially since she’s gotten past that pretty well. However, I’m left wondering if she still has tough days like you describe now. Knowing at least that would help us know better ways to help her on bad days.

    (For what it’s worth, I give way too much weight to my own thoughts. I’m rather introverted.)

    People are way too concerned about weight these days. True, being dangerously overweight is a health issue worthy of consideration. Being by and large could stand to eat better I suppose. What gets me is just how obsessed about it we’ve become. It’s not the health people notice, it’s the cosmetics. Not only do you get people offering unsolicited “weight loss” advice to people who aren’t anything close to morbidly obese, there’s a general attitude that “fat people are evil” (where “fat” remains undefined), that is, they are lazy good for nothings who are hurting us as a nation. There’s entire web sites dedicated entirely to making fun of people judged as overweight. One in particular shows pictures of ridiculously indulgent foods with the claim “this is why you’re fat”, as though the images people have are of monstrous gluttons stacking half a dozen pancakes in a hamburger bun.

    Mental health is more important than whatever sack of meat my consciousness is unfortunately bootstrapped to. People need to lay off criticizing others in this way. It’s this constant bombarding, worse now than it’s been in a long time (to the point where “fat” kids are now getting demonized by fully grown adults and not just their peers) that’s doing the most damage I think. So let’s leave the issue of weight issues in first world countries to the doctors speaking on it and not have every uneducated rube in the country adding their “two cents” on the “problem.

  5. Kate Donovan says

    I don’t live with this level of invasive thoughts today, no. I’d say my baseline is about 20-30% of my thoughts consist of food/weight/shape related things, which is very very good compared to what it was before.
    When I get triggered, however, it can rise to the 85%-90% level, though, which remains as unpleasant as ever.

  6. mikecline says

    Thanks for sharing this. Getting over that thing that locks your mind is tough, whatever it is. It’s easy to say don’t give a shit about what society thinks about certain “beauty” issues, but it’s really damn hard to escape the constant onslaught of pop-people-perfectness. Healthy comes in many shapes and sizes.

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