I don’t remember when I started watching my weight. I don’t think it was a conscious decision; somewhere in the muddle of elementary school, counting calories just seemed like a natural process. I didn’t think I was fat, and I didn’t hate my body; I just did what I thought I was supposed to be doing.
“Your body is a machine,” a visiting health teacher told my fifth grade class. “You are what you eat.” I didn’t want to be the girl made out of ice cream sandwiches. I started reading nutrition facts labels and “working out”, which to me meant dancing around in my basement with my big sister. I stopped buying school lunches and came to school with a yogurt and a granola bar—which was plenty of food for me, but enough to make my friends insist that I was “on a diet.”
“You need to stop,” I remember a friend whispering to me at recess. “You look fine.”
“I know,” I said back. “I just don’t really like lunch.”
I’ve used that explanation more times than I can count: middle school theater camp, when I insisted to my older counselor that no, I did not have issues with my body. Seventh grade chorus class, when the girl in my soprano section looked shocked that I’d had only tea for breakfast. I had all the unfortunately typical insecurities of a girl going through puberty, but while I may have sworn that my nose was too big or my hair just wasn’t pretty enough, I’d always been happy with my body. I would love it no matter what shape it took; I just wanted to be the best I could be.
And to me, rooted in the Seventeen magazines my cousin and I read by flashlight and the Disney princesses I spent more than half of my eighteen years obsessed with, that meant staying thin.
Then high school hit, and I understood why my friends in elementary school had been concerned. Suddenly I was the one comforting girls about their bodies, checking at lunch to make sure my friends were eating more than a stick of gum. One of my best friends came to school with her throat bleeding; I learned that she’d been bulimic since fifth grade. Another became fixated on getting a “thigh gap”, something I only understood when I looked at Tumblr and saw just how common that obsession was. In 2000, the U.S. Public Health Service found that anorexia was the third most common chronic illness among adolescents. Studies have also found that 91% of college girls have tried to control their weight through dieting (Shisslak), and 25% of college girls maintain their weight by “binging and purging” (Renfrew). And maybe most frightening, only 1 in 10 people with eating disorders receive treatment (Noordenbox).
But even beyond the psychological tragedies, it seems so impossible for teen girls to have a healthy relationship with food. We trek over to friends’ houses for sleepover binges on Twizzlers and ice cream, then watch the waifs on Disney Channel reruns and tell ourselves at least we’re filling our stomachs. We scan grocery store aisles and get slammed at eye level with “Reduced Guilt” brownie mixes, as if eating more than celery should push us to repent. We can’t just eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full; we treat food either as a form of entertainment or the enemy making us poke out of our jeggings. It’s not enough to be content with how you look. In a world crazed with self-improvement, our bodies are just our most visible proving ground.
With college less than two months away, I’m trying to be healthier. I’m not resorting to drastic measures—do YouTube pilates videos and swapping carrots for chips really count as healthy lifestyle measures?—but I still feel like I’m doing something wrong. When I turn down a cookie, I find myself wondering if I have a problem—if I’m just another out of control diet girl. But gorging myself on junk food to show I’m stable won’t solve anything. There’s a thin line between getting fit and getting obsessed, but until our culture learns to be healthy, I’ll just take it one yoga move at a time.
Noordenbox, Greta. “Characteristics and Treatment of Patients with Chronic Eating Disorders.” International Journal of Eating Disorders 10 (2002): 15-29. Print.
Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders, “Eating Disorders 101 Guide: A Summary of Issues, Statistics and Resources,” 2003.
Shisslak, Catherine M., Marjorie Crago, and Linda S. Estes. “The Spectrum of Eating Disturbances.” International Journal of Eating Disorders 18.3 (1995): 209-19. Print.
United States. Public Health Service. Office of Women’s Health. Eating Disorders Information Sheet. 2000. Print.