I speak to a lot of women in the process of eating disorder recovery who feel a lot of emotions about the weight gain suggested by their recovery team: anger, sorrow, fear, guilt, shame. I’ve felt all these things, and I know how real they are. None of what I’m about to say is meant to diminish those emotions and that experience.
I hear a lot of them say, “Don’t I have the right to decide how my body looks? Don’t I have a right to decide what body I feel the most comfortable in?”
The answer is…yes. Of course you do. Your body is YOURS and no one else’s.
But be extremely critical in analyzing what is influencing that decision and your opinions about what your body “should” look like in order for you to be happy. For those of us who have dealt with disordered eating or body dysmorphia, oftentimes our autonomy isn’t quite as powerful as we may think.
A big part of this process is learning how to separate yourself from not only your eating disorder, but also from the messages we’ve gained from society from the moment we were born. We are socialized to carry the beliefs that we do, trained to think that one body type is better than another, trained to believe that we can only be happy with one shape or another.
To find self-love, you must be willing to entertain and explore the idea that the things you think are your personal opinions may not be as autonomous as you once believed. But the beauty in this scary process is the possibility of self-love in a truer, deeper, more meaningful and long-lasting capacity than one that relies on one specific way of appearance.
So, let's explore together what influences our opinions about our bodies, and how we can break down the complexity of the issue to inspire greater amounts of self-acceptance in our lives.
The Cycle of Socialization
Bobbie Harro has created, in my opinion, one of the best educational resources that explains the process of socialization in a way that is understandable and easy to digest. Their work breaks down exactly how we go from an infant without autonomous opinions to fully socialized adult with deeply engrained ideas about the world around us. I highly recommend reading the full piece, “Readings for Diversity and Social Justice,” here, but I'll give a brief breakdown that specifically relates to the topic at hand.
Harro's cycle points out that the cycle of socialization begins before we're even born. As fetuses, we don't have a clue about what kind of world we'll be born into. We don't know the "rules" yet, so to speak. A fetus doesn't come out of the womb knowing what body type is conventionally attractive or what skin color society has decided is most desirable. We're born little lumps of clay, ready to be molded by those around us prepared to show us the ropes of society.
In what Harro calls the "first socialization," we grow up seeing the world through the eyes of those around us. Our parents, family members, the media, and authority figures pass off their worldview as the only facts we know. We grow up seeing one body type as the "ideal," or hear women in our lives shame their bodies for being too big or too small, and we absorb these opinions as gospel before we develop the skills for critical thinking or analysis. As a little kid, we don't stop and wonder why society tells us our body is or isn't beautiful, we just see it as "the way things are."
As we grow older, we no longer see things purely through the eyes of those we're raised by. We venture out further into the world, and begin to receive conflicting messages to the ones we once thought were the only way of existing. We start to wonder if perhaps there is more than one way to be beautiful or healthy or happy, we start to be exposed to different and more diverse role models outside our immediate communities. In the age of technology and social media, this process is becoming ever-more accessible and filled with more diverse voices than ever before.
It's at this point that we reach a turning point in our body-shame journeys. Should we choose to step away from the messages we were raised on and begin to question our engrained ideals about appearance and self-worth, we can be punished. We can be told we look no longer attractive, or told we are being "too much." Should we persevere and continue to seek out more diverse opinions and think critically about where our beliefs come from, the Cycle of Socialization can be broken, and we can move into what Harro calls "The Cycle of Liberation," wherein we pursue self-love, authenticity, and hope despite whatever deep-seated beliefs we've harbored about ourselves throughout the first stages of our life.
But if we're beaten down enough that we fall back in line with whatever messages we've been fed about beauty, appearance, and self-worth, then the Cycle of Socialization continues. We become another cog in the machine, passing on society's narrow messages about beauty to the next impressionable generation until we rinse and repeat yet again.
Harrow calls the divergence towards the Cycle of Liberation "waking up," and I absolutely love that term. I see people waking up every single day, especially on their yoga mats and in online communities dedicated to developing a deeper sense of self-love and acceptance. I see women like the Love Your Belly Movement reclaiming body parts that we've been socialized to believe are shameful, and I see "waking up" in action. There's a growing group of people, especially women, begin to question why belly rolls or cellulite or wrinkles are "unsightly" or "undesirable" instead of simply accepting what they've been told their whole lives.
And the beauty in this is that by waking up ourselves, we're giving others permission to do the same. By being vocal about our decision to love ourselves, even the parts that society has trained us to dislike the most, we're setting a new standard for socialization. We're dedicating ourselves to building a world where young people are brought up exposed to more diverse voices, opinions, and perspectives at a younger age. We're inspiring young people to be critical about the messages they come across, to play a more active role in the development of their opinions about themselves and others.
Imagine a world where young women grow up without hearing their mothers shame their own bodies. Imagine a world where young people don't learn to imitate the negative language surrounding food and morality we hear around the dinner table all the time. Imagine a world where the bodies portrayed in the media are viewed as only one way to be beautiful; or better yet, a world where the bodies portrayed in the media encompass a broader range of body types and appearances.
That's what's possible if we're able to break away from the Cycle of Socialization.
Falling Back Asleep
Now, waking up sounds all well and good, but the fact is, it's a difficult and oftentimes painful process to do so. How do we dissect our opinions about ourselves and determine what is an authentic value we carry and what is a shame we've absorbed from society?
You have a right to exist in a body that feels comfortable for you. I know personally I've lived in a great number of different bodies: ones where I've been bigger, ones where I've been smaller, ones where I've been more or less muscular. And I know I've felt different in all of those bodies, and been treated differently by society in all of those bodies. But it's oftentimes difficult for me to see in the moment the differences between all the different voices within me speaking their opinion about my body: my eating disorder, society, and my inner self.
When I was a junior in high school, I was still very much in the thick of recovery from anorexia nervosa, but my treatment team wasn't as big of a part of my life as they had once been. As a freshman, freshly diagnosed, my weight was carefully monitored by a doctor, and I was told with no wiggle room how much weight I should be gaining or maintaining at any given point. Medicine was the only valid opinion at that time in my life, and no one trusted me to make an unbiased decision about what weight I should be at in order to be both happy and healthy.
But by the time I was a junior, I had more freedom. I was deciding what I ate and how I moved my body. I wasn't seeing my doctor on a weekly-or-more basis anymore. I wasn't at my lowest weight, to be sure, but I was certainly still very small. My weight dipped down below what my doctor had determined as "weight restored" at this time in my life, but I was certain I knew better than she did. I thought I looked great! I thought I'd found my happy place, the spot where my body was finally not a target of scrutiny for my recovery team and I could finally be in charge of my own appearance again.
A few things were at play here. For one, I was comparing my body to the lowest weight it had ever been at. Of course I was eating more than I was when I was at the peak of my disorder, right before hospitalization. Of course I weighed more than that time in my life. But that comparison didn't mean much, and as I would later come to realize, I was ignoring a lot of things that say much more about my health and happiness than my decision that I had found "the right body" for me.
I was comparing my body to images I saw around me of a beautiful female body. I saw on my own frame a flat stomach, slender arms, and thighs that didn't touch and felt as though I was running down a checklist of "socially acceptable beauty" and checking off all the boxes. I saw myself eating more than I once had and being bigger than I had once been and thought to myself, "I did it! I recovered! I love myself, yay!"
But it turns out that in thinking this way, I was ignoring lots of others signs of health and happiness that society doesn't put much emphasis on. My period was MIA, my bones ached, I got tired easily, I was locked into a rigid routine, and I was too afraid to eat socially or in public. And in my desperation for self-love, I'd failed to recognize that choosing to love my body only if it adhered to certain rules or expectations of appearance isn't true self-acceptance at all.
I'd thought I'd "woken up" because no one was hovering over me with accusations about relapse, but it turns out, I'd just fallen right back into the cycle of socialization and eating disordered thoughts.
I would have fought tooth and nail to keep my body at that one specific weight and size had anyone suggested otherwise for the sake of my health. I would have thought it was my own opinion, my own right to believe that this was the body I was happy with. I would have argued that it was my body and I had a right to decide what was comfortable for me.
But I wasn't calling the shots. Society and my eating disorder were.
Is this my opinion, or society's?
As we embark on our self-love journeys, we must be critical about all of our opinions, assumptions, and beliefs. Even things that seem obvious, like what is or isn't beautiful, must be questioned. It doesn't mean you're wrong about everything, but it does mean you need to at least entertain the idea that you are. We have to trace our beliefs back to their roots, ask how and why we were socialized, and who benefits from us buying into those beliefs.
A great exercise for this is the age-old beauty magazine problem.
If we look at the person portrayed on the cover, we can assume that it's because they're an ideal of some sort. A lot of the time, they're a beauty ideal (I'd even argue, the majority of the time). Any regular person in a grocery store seeing this magazine can't help but compare themselves to this ideal: Am I that thin? Do my arms looks like that? Do I have abs like that?
It's at this point that the exercise really begins, by asking, "Who wants me to have this reaction?"
One answer is the magazine and its advertisers. Not only are these magazines plastered in socialized ideals of beauty, they're also littered with advertisements that implicitly or explicitly promise that by purchasing them, you'll be one step closer to the ideal. Advertisers are banking on how immersed we are in the Cycle of Socialization in order to make a profit on the insecurities it produces.
Here, the answer to the question, "Is this my opinion, or society's?" is a bit easier to pick apart. Society profits off of our insecurities, so it's rational to assume that our opinions that stem from us comparing our opinion to these marketable ideals is much more an opinion of society than our own. If we're able to witness this here, in this explicit example, then perhaps it will be a bit easier to explore elsewhere.
When we find ourselves picking apart our appearance or attaching our self-love to one way of appearance, we should ask ourself, "Who wants me to have this reaction?" just like we would with the magazine. Who truly benefits from us holding such critical ideas about ourselves and the way we look? Where did these ideas come from? Why were the designed in this way?
And finally, we should ask, "When is the first time I remember holding this belief?"
Is this my opinion, or my eating disorder's?
For those of us who are working through mental illness, the lines are blurred even further. Our eating disorder absorbs ideas from the Cycle of Socialization and holds them over our heads as bait, promising us the pleasure of control over our lives and happiness from reaching a certain ideal. Eating disorders are not simply about looking a certain way or being vain, they're one way that mental illness interacts with the world around us.
For me, my eating disorder came from a need for control. My life felt out of control, I felt like I didn't have control over my identity or who I was. And so, my eating disorder took this and promised me that if I controlled the food I put in my mouth and the way I exercised until I met society's expectations of beauty, then I would finally feel in control of my life.
Going through this process resulted in a great amount of difficulty for me in being critical about the opinions I hold about beauty and self-acceptance. It's taken me years to begin to tease apart what opinions are mine and which are society's and then which have been coopted by my eating disorder. This process is one that takes time and one that is, in many respects, life-long. But one exercise that I've shared before never fails to help me along the way.
On a piece of paper, write what your eating disorder wants on one side, and what your true self wants on the other. Take this as a time to be honest with yourself, to dig deep and question where your beliefs come from and what influences them. Feel no guilt or shame over having socialized beliefs, and understand that literally everyone in this world has been socialized in some way: you're not the only one.
This is an opportunity to go deeper than perhaps ever before, and a chance to let your inner voice that has been suppressed for so long begin to emerge.
Once you've written your lists, tear the paper in half as a symbol of your freedom from your eating disorder and the beliefs it attempts to impose on you.
You deserve genuine self-love that lasts a lifetime.
You deserve to life life in a body you love, and I'm not here to steal away your autonomy over your body and what it looks like. I'm not saying in any way that people don't have a right to lose weight or gain weight or build muscle or not build muscle as a way of changing their appearance: I think that's heavily dependent on context and who you are as an individual.
But you also deserve self-love that is independent of society's expectations of what you should or shouldn't look like in order to be worthy of acceptance. You owe it to yourself to think critically about the things you believe and to scrutinize what you may be making your self-love dependent on. You're worthy of love and happiness without having to meet certain targets, goals, or expectations first.
I’m here for you. I hear you. I see you. We’re on this journey together.
Photos from Roberto Martinez.