Today is the 10th annual Love Your Body Day, a special event created by the National Organization for Women to promote healthy body image among women and girls. Poster contests, body-positive e-cards, letter-writing campaigns to companies that objectify women. Colleges are organizing healthy sporting events, from rugby matches to fun runs, or featuring more risqué takes on "Love Your Body," like sex toy workshops. Sufferers of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are speaking out about their experiences, in the hopes that listeners will not make the same mistakes they did.
I am one of those speakers -- in fact, I just returned from a talk at UCLA where I addressed the sorority system about my personal struggle with an eating disorder while in college. As has happened with other universities I have spoken at, women approached me afterward, sharing their own tales of discontent and emotional disparagement. This time, a beautiful, charismatic sophomore told me about her success in losing 100+ pounds, and the crippling pain that came with being an overweight teen. A few months ago, at a Big Ten university in the Midwest, I approached a freshman who was crying alone as the audience emptied out. Her friends were all using cocaine in an effort to stay slim for Spring Break, she told me between sobs, and the pressure was starting to get to her.
Having watched too many friends battle anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive exercising, I have seen the ways poor body image can wreak havoc on a young woman's physical and mental health. They are just a few of the eight million American women who struggle with a diagnosable eating disorder, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders -- and that number does not account for the untold others with disordered eating and distorted body image ("body image" referring to the way a woman perceives her physical appearance, as well as how she thinks others see her).
For years, I struggled with anorexia, an eating disorder that demolished my self-esteem during my first year of college faster than any unrequited freshman crush could ever have. I shed 30 pounds from my already slender five-foot-eleven frame before winter break through a diet of salsa-topped salad and seemingly endless nighttime runs across my university's beautiful, sprawling campus. My face grew gaunt; my clothes hung from my skeletal frame as if from a hanger. All around me, chaos ensued -- "What should we do with her? Why did this happen?" Meanwhile, I was busy hammering out my daily caloric intake on my calculator. I just didn't get it. I mean, five foot eleven and 120 pounds -- that's what models weigh, right?
In a sad bit of irony, I was majoring in -- and acing -- nutritional sciences.
I am now considered recovered in terms of my eating disorder, meaning I don't actively engage in the destructive behaviors that overpowered me for so many years. Through a treatment regimen that consisted, at different times, of a variety of therapies and medications, I exorcised the demons that drove my pulse to 36 and my periods to a halt. But the inner critic will always remain and I, along with millions of otherwise successful women, continue to struggle with body image on some level.
Studies have revealed that over 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat, while 72 percent of seven-year-olds are on diets. Preschoolers are refusing juice and cookies because they are "on diets." Over and over, research shows that women of all ages would rather be dead than overweight. At the same time, obesity rates are shooting further into the stratosphere.
Considering the society we live in, is it any wonder I've found myself comparing cellulite with total strangers? Or looked on with envy as preteen girls enjoy the blossoming of their breasts while their hips remain narrow?
It both scares and deeply saddens me to imagine the hours, the days, indeed, the years, that my female counterparts and I have flushed down the toilet (often literally), thinking about which parts of our bodies we wish we could shave away, what we should eat for our next meal, how many calories we need to burn to cancel out last night's chocolate cake. I suspect that with my background in science I could have helped discover cures for both cancer and stretch marks in the time I've spent agonizing over such meaningless inner dialogue.
The fact that NOW's Love Your Body day exists and is hitting its full stride is evidence that we, as a society, are making changes. Changes towards acceptance. Changes towards fondness of our physiques, not mere tolerance. But on the other hand, how sad is it that our nation is so obsessed with being thin, with being "perfect," that we need to specifically designate a day for loving our bodies? Why isn't every day "Love Your Body" Day? I think the answer lies in a culture where women are continuously bombarded with images of breasts and stomachs and thighs and eyes that can't possibly (or shall I say, realistically) be attained. Where women toss around catty insults like, "She's so anorexic!" when referring to a thin woman in line ahead of us at Starbucks, where a book called Skinny Bitch is a bestseller.
Tonight, while out for dinner with friends from Australia, my husband and I listened as they recounted their cross-country trek over the last four months, from hiking through Thai jungles to eating stomach soup in China to lounging on the beaches of Barcelona. Being on the go so much, our female friend said, has forced them to resort to grabbing quick bites at fast food shops while preventing any sort of regular exercise routine. They looked at each other and her boyfriend, who is American, casually mentioned, "We've probably each put on about 10 pounds, right?" She looked at him with a hint of confusion and said, "I'm not sure -- I don't know what pounds are." Her simple statement regarding metric conversions bowled me over as I pondered it literally.
I don't know what pounds are.