The low-grade misery of wanting to be thinner

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My friend Hannah and I were sitting at my table, catching up on life one evening, and the conversation turned to our childhoods. “It’s not always easy, being a girl,” I said, unoriginally. I was tired, running out of clever words, getting too earnest. “There’s so much pressure.”

“To look a certain way?” she suggested.

“Yes.”

“We all deal with it,” she said. “We get through it. And if it’s not that, it’s something else. Everyone has challenges.”

True.

I felt silly for even bringing it up. For context: Hannah is strikingly beautiful in a way that I am not and won’t ever be. But because I was a little embarrassed, I got defensive and said,  “Yeah, but think about how many girls and women starve themselves or hurt themselves in other ways trying to change their bodies. Girls and women actually die of wanting to look different.”

“Sure,” said Hannah, looking like she’d already heard all of that, many times. She was thoughtful for a moment and then said, “But it’s more of the everyday, low-grade wanting to be thinner that’s the bigger problem, don’t you think? That kind of regular misery?”

We looked down at our plates, where dessert lay in waiting, ominously tempting.

Maybe she was right.

For most of my life, my disapproval of my own body has been pretty quiet. There are moments of intense hatred, disgust, the kinds of emotions you don’t admit to in polite company, the kinds of feelings that you frustratedly recognise are stupid, embarrassing, worthless. But most of the time it’s almost casual. I am busy, after all. There isn’t enough time to stand around staring in the mirror and agonizing all day.

I’d guess that for most of us, body angst is a low-grade, background kind of deal. Sometimes it’s so ordinary and easy that we might even think we don’t think about these things. They’re just quick remarks, side comments: You really shouldn’t eat that. You really should work out more. You know you can’t wear something like that, you don’t have the body for it. If you just lost five lbs. If you just lost ten lbs… Most of the time, these are whispers, not shouts. Most of the time they are so utterly normal, they don’t feel worth noticing.

And at the same time, they are destructive.

Like drops of water eroding rock over time, persistent self-disapproval can erode our happiness and our confidence. Maybe the fact that this kind of body dislike is so normal is what makes it so awful. So much of the time, we don’t feel the need to fight back or address it. It becomes habitual, ingrained, even permanent. It sneaks into everything through a crack in the window or a hidden trap door. And then it refuses to ever leave.

I haven’t come nearly as far as I’d like to, in terms of figuring life out, but I do recognize how incredibly important it is to be comfortable with yourself. Because all that casual, constant wishing that you were just a little different, a little thinner, a little bit less you and a little bit more someone else, it only prevents you from appreciating what you actually have and who you actually are. And this is it, guys. This is who we are.

It would be fantastic if no one ever told us that we look bad in any way. Or if they did, it would be great if it didn’t stick. We should learn to laugh off these endless messages about the importance of looking a certain, highly specific, almost impossible way. That would be nice. Most of all, we should get the chance to focus so intently on the other, more meaningful, things in life that negative thoughts about our appearances aren’t even background noise—they are totally silent.

I don’t think any of us should pretend that chronic, gentle body negativity is acceptable.

Remember lead paint? It was poisoning people for a long time before anyone paid enough attention to scrape it off the walls. It was just there, in the background. Just because something has become normal doesn’t mean it can’t harm you.

Which is not to say we need to be paranoid, but we should probably try not to poison ourselves in body or mind.  We should probably try to be kind to ourselves whenever possible.

“It’s a subtle oppression,” said Hannah, impressing me again with her poetic wording. “That voice in your head that’s always telling you that you shouldn’t have any, you need to lose some weight.”

“I don’t know what to do about it,” I said. “How do I stop listening?”

We looked at each other and picked up our forks. I told the low-grade voice in my head to shut up.

The cake was delicious.

It’s a very, very long way from a complete answer, but it seemed like a reasonable place to start. Maybe just talking about it is a good place to start, too.  

 

22 comments

  • Talking about it is a start but it would be far better if we were talking about being healthy rather than being skinny, the two things are not the same.

    Commenter
    Hurrow
    Date and time
    January 08, 2014, 9:24AM
    • Yes, the preoccupation with weight is normalised from a young age, and many mothers instill it in their daughters because they have also absorbed that attitude. So it is not just the media. I really wish my youth culture had focused on healthy living and how beautiful people with different characteristics can be. Even french vogue has a broader representation of beauty than our local media. That nagging negativity is erosive but also can be recognised and minimised. I recommend meditation with a spiritual focus as it illuminates how these ideas can be transient and dissolved.

      Commenter
      LJanes
      Date and time
      January 08, 2014, 10:45AM
  • Oh how right you are Kate. I am a size ten and the only way I stay this size is by torturing myself about my weight every day. Thinking about it dozens and dozens of times. Monitoring every morsel I eat. Punishing myself to exercise. The minute I stop being paranoid and relax a little I gain weight. Going easy on myself only ends up with me busting out of my clothes. If any readers have a solution - I'd love to hear it.

    Commenter
    Resigned
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    January 08, 2014, 10:04AM
    • Solution: stop worrying about stupid things. Be as healthy as you can be, not as thin as you think you should be.

      Commenter
      Sigh
      Date and time
      January 08, 2014, 10:38AM
    • have a plan - a strategy. humans weren't designed to lounge around all day and eat processed foods. i'm not talking about needing to be stick thin, but finding a balance that you can be comfortable with. my wife does a lot of exercise and watches what she eats and often talks about losing another couple of kg. i say to her - you're doing great, because she does more than enough. don't focus purely on the outcome (body image), but what you're doing to manage it. the hard truth is, a lot people do very little - this isn't to be celebrated. a piece of cake every now and then is not a crime though.

      Commenter
      husband of the year
      Location
      melb
      Date and time
      January 08, 2014, 11:06AM
    • Resigned, your comment made me sad. You say you torture and punish yourself to stay a size 10. Why did you choose that particular size as your ideal? It seems that your body's natural 'set point' is not size 10, and you're maintaining it only by obsessive and paranoid behaviour. That's no way to live.

      Perhaps the answer is to be a healthy, happy and relaxed size 12 or even a 14, instead of trying to maintain the unrealistic (for you) size 10?

      Commenter
      Red Cat
      Location
      Elwood
      Date and time
      January 08, 2014, 11:57AM
    • @Resigned

      I could have written your post, word for word.

      I'm so sick of the advice brigade, with their 'it's so easy', 'just cut out sugar', 'eat less move more' platitudes. Those kind of flippant comments only serve to tell me that they have no idea what some of us struggle with day in, day out.

      To be not-overweight, my life is constant monitoring, constant dieting, constant hungriness, constantly denying myself, constant exercise.

      Commenter
      Skinny
      Location
      On a diet since forever
      Date and time
      January 08, 2014, 12:12PM
    • Resigned, have you stopped to think that maybe your particular body (like many of us) is not just meant to be a size 10, and that's OK?

      For someone who doesn't have a genuine, major weight problem (and FWIW I'm one of those - obese and 4 months into the long haul effort to reclaim my health) here's one sane way to do it - eat reasonably healthily, but don't obsess about every thing you put in your mouth. Exercise in a way that's enjoyable but not punishing (while still being effective). Judge your weight by whether your clothes fit rather than obsessing over your scales. re-educate your mind to acknowledge that it's OK to be a Size 12, or heaven forbid a 14, as long as you're fit and healthy and happy in your own skin

      Commenter
      Redeker Plan
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      January 08, 2014, 12:22PM
    • Resigned, we live a very similar existence. I too watch everything I eat, sometimes skip meals or limit my calorie intake to stay a certain size. It's my choice to do this, I don't blame society or anyone in particular, it's what I have chosen to do to be a certain weight. It's also the dress size & weight I feel most comfortable at. I think it's all too simple for others to tell you that you need to be heavier to be healthy but really.....I don't want to be a size 12 or 14 and I certainly won't feel comfortable being that size since I have been an 8 for most of my adult life.

      Commenter
      Louise
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      January 08, 2014, 1:35PM
    • Dear All - what considered and lovely comments - thank you. Skinny - I'm with you. See the issue is this - I'm a professional woman in a cut throat industry and to be respected professionally I feel like I need to be that size 10, max. Larger / softer looking women are often discriminated against professionally for all sorts of wrong reasons. I've also been single for a little while and know bitterly that as a size 10 I get about 500% more attention than as a size 12 and about 1000% more than as a size 14. I feel like to be sucessful in society I need to be this weight. And thus the cycle of torture continues....

      Commenter
      Resigned
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      January 08, 2014, 2:05PM

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