Saturday, June 16, 2012

On body types, mental health, and defending the skinny girl

Alternately: The One Where Maybe I Come Across as Some Kind of Apologist for Something, or Whatever, I Don't Know

Okay, so my reader knows I hate blog posts that start with definitions, but I think this one calls for it.

The NIH on Anorexia:
A decreased appetite is when you have a reduced desire to eat. The medical term for a loss of appetite is anorexia.
The Mayo Clinic on Anorexia nervosa:
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that causes people to obsess about their weight and the food they eat. People with anorexia nervosa attempt to maintain a weight that's far below normal for their age and height. To prevent weight gain or to continue losing weight, people with anorexia nervosa may starve themselves or exercise excessively.
I share these definitions in part because I'm so very pedantic that when I see terms used incorrectly, I get an eye twitch and an itchy rash on my lower back. I also share them to clarify something: Anorexia isn't "the state of being skinny." It isn't "the state of wanting to be skinny." It's the state of having a broken brain. And that's harsh, I know, and I know a lot of people with and/or recovering from eating disorders might bristle to read that. But as someone who spent (and continues to spend) plenty of time fixing my brain after a decade of bulimia, I feel comfortable assigning broken brain as a contributor to eating disorders.

People have different body shapes for a lot of different reasons--genetics, activity level, physical health, mental health, medications, food access, socioeconomic status, and a lot of other stuff. This applies both to the very heavy and to the very thin. And if you're bashing a woman at a table across the restaurant for her food choices or body shape--whether she's fat or thin--it's almost certain that you haven't the slightest idea as to why her body is the way it is. You probably think you know--Fat people just need to have more self-control--but you don't. Again: You probably think you know--Starving herself to be pretty; how gross--but you don't.

A note, before I go on, about anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders: They are a mess. You can't possibly know until something else has taken over your brain. Throwing the word "anorexic" around every time you really mean "super skinny" trivializes and muddies it. Calling any really thin woman anorexic places a judgment on her--and it is judgment, because "anorexic" has become society's shorthand for "weak, shallow, and stupid." And it ignores women who are anorexic but haven't become strikingly skinny and who may go untreated because no one thinks to worry about their behaviors. We shouldn't be judging and criticizing women's bodies anyway, but if you absolutely can't resist, at least leave "anorexic" at home.

On with the show.

O NOEZ WON'T SOME ONE THING OF THE SKINNY PEOPLE?!!1! They're so put-upon. Well, yeah, sometimes. There are a lot--a lot--a whole huge ton--of benefits to being conventionally attractive in society. In much of the West, that involves being thin. But just because a person has that "ideal" body and reaps the benefits thereof, it doesn't mean we need to even the odds or get ours back by criticizing their bodies--and their actions and motivations.

That thin woman you're calling "anorexic" or "gross" or telling to eat a cheeseburger or saying so many other hurtful things could come from a family of very thin people. She could be an athlete in training, cramming down calories in an effort to keep her weight up. She could be taking a medication that kills her appetite or makes her unable to maintain weight. She could have a disease that kills her appetite or makes her unable to maintain weight. Or she could have an eating disorder.

You're bashing a woman who's naturally thin, who's in careful and healthy physical training, who's sick and probably would love to be able to gain weight again, or who's broken. You're attacking a woman who is a person. That's who you're attacking, whether you're doing it to cover your own insecurities or in a well-meaning effort to help women overcome society's pressure to have the "perfect" body.

It's no secret that our society is absolutely obsessed with body shape. We judge women's bodies like it's a sport. We talk about the "obesity epidemic" like the real problem is fat and not health, like the solution to our nation's health problems is just to get the fatties to push away from the buffet and not to address problems like food deserts, lack of education, a crappy economy, lack of access to health care, and lousy urban infrastructure that contribute so heavily to poor health. We talk about "thin being in" like the real problem is thin bodies instead of the adulation over thin bodies, and the pressure on women to work for body shapes that aren't natural for them.

What can we do? Good question.

Shift focus from the "obesity epidemic" to a "poor health epidemic." Yes, rising obesity in the U.S. is a symptom of an overall problem--but it's the symptom, not the problem. Recognize the different between fat and unhealthy and fix our nation's health problems, not our fat problems.

    - Make healthy food affordable and available to everyone, in every area.

    - Fix infrastructure and establish green space so "just go outside and ride bikes!" is feasible for everyone who wants to do it.

    - Educate the public on how to read food labels, make healthy choices, and prepare healthy meals that are easy and affordable to make.

    - Make health care available to everyone to identify and address health problems where they exist. Educate health-care providers to not automatically assume that fatness is the cause of all other health problems, which results in lazy and inaccurate diagnosing and treatment.

    - Strengthen our job market and economy so people a) have enough money to buy healthy food, and b) have the time and energy at the end of the work day to make healthy meals.

And at the end of that, some people are still fat, so be it. Some people are heavier than others. I'm sorry that fact offends you so, but I know you'll live through it. And if someone chooses not to take advantages of these changes, leave them alone about it. They're grown and get to make their own decisions about their own bodies.

Shift focus from thin women to the pressure to be thin.

    - Stop criticizing women for what we perceive as an effort to fit society's artificial and ever-shifting standards, because those are the standards and we're punished for not performing. And because we could just be wrong.

    - Push women's magazines to feature a wider variety of women's bodies, not because they aren't including "real women" but because "real women"'s bodies are simply bodies that are attached to women, encompassing everything from the very small to the very large--and then reward them openly when they do.

    - Pressure Hollywood to do the same.

    - Push designers to adopt a larger fit model, because women's body shapes vary greatly and certainly change as sizes go up--a size 10 doesn't have the same proportions as a size 2, so designing for a 4 and then adding extra fabric won't do it.

    - As odd as it sounds, make less of a deal about including larger women's bodies into media--"Now with bigger women!" only reinforces the idea that thin bodies are the ideal and heavier bodies are the other, the add-on. Just include everyone. Let every woman see her body shape represented as "normal," and let every man see what "normal" women look like.

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