Once upon a time — before URLs, handles, likes and shares — I put some good old-fashioned postage stamps inside an envelope and sent away for a zine (made of actual paper!) that was filled with some very big ideas. I was 16 and the zine was called i’m so fucking beautiful, a title that hooked me instantly because at the time I was quite literally starving myself of that sentiment. I was all punk rock by day, but I had a couple of dirty secrets that did not exactly jibe with the Manic Panic and combat boots:
- I thought calories were evil. Unfortunately this didn’t stop me from willingly and regularly consuming wretched diet foods that were almost certainly concocted in the bowels of hell. Listen, when a chocolate product in a plastic tub includes instructions on how it can be enjoyed frozen as “ice cream” or microwaved into a “shake,” it no longer qualifies as food, okay? But I ate (and drank!) that sugar-free, chemical-laden kryptonite sludge like it was my duty, each scoop and sip meticulously tallied in my Calories and Fat Grams Journal, which was really more of a disturbing collection of numbers and equations scribbled on Post-Its and scrap paper than an actual journal. Think “A Beautiful Mind” for the eating disordered set.
- I kept a stash of “thinspiration” featuring pictures of models I tore from magazines (‘90s-style! Old school!). I wanted to be that kind of beautiful. And the more I stared at those images, the more fervently I started to believe in that waifish brand of perfection. So I made myself sick chasing sizes that were smaller than the small sizes I already wore. I developed a mortal fear of weight gain. And while my weight fluctuated up and down and back up again as I abused it with brutal cycles of starvation, bingeing, and purging, I was never anywhere remotely close to being plus-sized, full-figured, curvy or any other palatable euphemism for that oh-so-terrifying F-word.
In the midst of all this counting of calories and pinching of imaginary flab, i’m so fucking beautiful landed in my mailbox. If memory serves, rainbows and rays of sparkly sunshine shot from its photocopied pages directly into my soul that day. There might also have been some harps and a “Hallelujah” chorus happening. Nomy Lamm, the kick-ass then 17-year-old who created it, raged about how our thin-obsessed culture was oppressing girls and women: “Where’s the revolution? My body is fucking beautiful, and every time I look in the mirror and acknowledge that, I am contributing to the revolution.” She was right. She was so 100 percent, hell-to-the-yes right! Oh, and she also happened to be fat.
Everything Nomy Lamm wrote made me furious that I was subjecting myself to such ridiculous torture at the hands of The Man. It felt good to be angry. It was a downright glorious respite from the 24/7 self-hatred party I was throwing at my house. But wait, holy shit, was I really about to be liberated by someone whose body size was my deepest, most crippling fear? It was suddenly very obvious that I needed to get it together. I needed to deal with my eating disorder. I needed to confront my anxieties. I needed to own up to my shameful biases about fat. So that’s what I did.
Then, after mucho therapy and years of working to educate others about eating disorders and healthy body image, I realized there was something else I needed to do: acknowledge my privilege.
I used to say my thighs were huge. They weren’t. I once squeezed the flesh hanging from my upper arms so angrily that I left a bruise. But despite what I thought I saw in the mirror, the fat was NOT there. Sure, in comparison to those pictures of models, I probably could have stood to lose a few. But I am 5’2″, people. I was not destined to grace the pages of Vogue. Marc Jacobs would never in a million years pick me to walk his runway, nor would I ever in a million years want that job. However — and this is the Big Fat However — I can walk right into Barney’s (or Century 21 — okay, Century 21!) and squeeze a pair of his skinny jeans over my not-that-far-from-skinny legs. I could do that when I was plagued with body loathing and I can do it now that I’ve come to understand what a ginormous waste of energy all that body loathing was.
I am a small person, a naturally small person. And that makes my life a whole lot easier in many, many ways. Yes, I’ve struggled with serious eating disorders, but I also have the good fortune to be on the culturally acceptable side of the body size gene pool. I get to maintain my recovery in a thin body.
I chose to throw away my scale at the same time I chose to get healthy; to this day I don’t know or want to know how much I weigh. But let’s be clear: I am in no danger of being judged harshly because of my weight. It was important for me to let go of a number that ruled my every thought for a good chunk of my life. I also know that whatever that mystery number is on any given day, it is not likely to personally offend another person. It won’t raise eyebrows, get me booted off a plane or lead a doctor to claim that my gnarly bagel slicing injury would heal faster if I could just manage to lose those excess pounds. I will not get a stern lecture that I shouldn’t have had the bagel in the first place.
I now take great pleasure in eating intuitively. The what-I-damn-well-please-when-I damn-well-please method is the least Crazy Town diet I’ve ever been on, and I’ve been to Crazy Town and back many times over. If I want a handful of Goldfish from my daughter’s snack container, I am going for it, thank you very much. If I want to order dessert, I am ordering it and eating it without apology. There is no hesitation. There are absolutely no more “I really shouldn’ts.” I allow myself what my body is craving and, perhaps not so shockingly, once I was able to detox from all the eating disorder bullshit, my body started craving a mostly-balanced menu of real, edible, delicious food. According to the results of my recent annual check-up, this approach is working out just fine.
Today there are few things I enjoy more than eating good meals with people I love. After years of deprivation, I can savor tastes and appreciate what is on my plate. It is deep. It is awesome. What’s extra awesome is that I can do all of that without strangers staring me down in restaurants, whispering about what a problem I am, what a threat it is to the moral fabric of our society that I am downing a plate of gnocchi or a dish of gelato. If I feel like sitting on a park bench to eat a greasy New York slice, there is no danger that I will go home and see myself on the six o’clock news with my face blurred or my head cut off as the anchor cites some dramatic statistics about The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Obesity Epidemic.
The basic tenets of my recovery — the things that keep me stable and healthy when it comes to how I eat and how I feel about my body — are privileges. And I am not okay with that. That is just not how it should be. Because while recovery from an eating disorder is a complex process that is different for everyone, there are some facts I will bank on. For starters, it is safe to say that a fat woman who struggles with her weight and body image will not find vicious name-calling or cruel jokes to be just the motivation she needs to stick to that magic diet (you know, the one that’s going to screw up her metabolism and make her even more likely to binge and obsess over food). If she’s worked hard to get to a healthy place with her eating, it will not be particularly helpful when others make assumptions about her physical and emotional well-being by sizing her up. Despite the media’s preference for sensational coverage of emaciated anorexia sufferers who are “dying to be thin,” the reality is that eating disorders and poor body image affect people of all shapes and sizes. They are equal opportunity issues. Recovery? Not so equal. I had the best of all worlds in that department. I could afford therapy. I had a good support system. I got an expensive liberal arts education that included lots o’ feminism and media literacy. Oh, and even though I hated on my body hard, I was the only one doing the hating.
Back in the day, i’m so fucking beautiful made it possible for me to grab onto the idea that maybe just maybe I could see myself as so fucking beautiful. Praise be the riot grrrrl goddesses, that has come to fruition. But the difference between Nomy Lamm and little ol’ me is that I am, well, little. No one ever balked at the notion that I could — and should — accept my body. That right there is why we still need a revolution. So yes, let’s all do what we can to make peace with what we see in the mirror. But that won’t be enough. We have to rage against the Diet Industrial Complex too (seriously, what a lying, abusive DICk). And for those of us who are privileged enough to have our body acceptance validated and applauded, let’s stand up and demand that validation and applause for everyone — small, medium and large.
Claire Mysko is the author of You’re Amazing! A No-Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self and Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? The Essential Guide to Loving Your Body Before and After Baby. She oversees content for Proud2Bme, a program of the National Eating Disorders Association. Follow her on Twitter.