At a certain point in high school, everyone stopped packing a real lunch. A real lunch was replaced by a Clif Bar, an apple, and carrots (360 calories). Because we were hungry and under-eating, everything but the carrots would be gobbled up before lunch. So we just sat there, still hungry.
It would have been genuinely awkward to pack a real lunch. If I had arrived with a turkey sandwich, a bag of chips, and a carton of 2% milk (700 calories), girls would’ve stared. I would've fielded too many questions about what was in my sandwich (cheese? mayo?) and whether one could “steal” a chip. (Criminal.) Luckily, I never had to answer such questions, because I was right there with them, reaching for my Clif Bar before 10am.
When I wrote my personal statements for college, and later when I interviewed for graduate school, I wasn’t prepared to report that my interest in eating disorders stemmed from personal experience. I simply said this: "I’ve been observing awkward lunch behaviors for years. Too many people close to me have spent too much time staring at their midsections. I want to know why."
The real story was this: I sort of starved myself once. It didn't really feel like a choice. I want to know why.
I conducted my first "real" research project in my senior year of high school. Unsurprisingly, the topic was body image. I asked my college-aged female participants about their families and friends: How did they refer to their own bodies? How did they engage with food? I compared that to participants' “objectified body consciousness.” That sounds fancy, but it’s actually pretty straightforward: When you look in the mirror, do you see a body - or do you see a self?
This is, of course, a feminist topic. Admittedly, I have never made much of an effort to understand feminism and its different waves, and I have sometimes seen feminism performed in ways that disturbed me. My relationship with the term is ambivalent.
By now, you all know that I’ve been reading an unpublished draft of Caroline Knapp’s Appetites for the last month. I’ve been relieved to see similar ambivalence in her own writing. I don’t know where she stands in relation to the word “feminist,” but I sometimes see her describe feminist theories about the body as “tempting,” “tired,” and “incomplete.” My sense is that she knows they’re right, and she also knows there’s more. Not to misuse another feminist phrase, but Me too, Caroline. Me too.
Yesterday, I bought a full-length mirror. If my relationship with “feminism” is complex, my relationship with the full-length mirror needs its own miniseries on Netflix. When I was maybe 13, my sister walked into my bedroom only to see my full-length mirror turned around and facing the wall. Wisely, she didn’t ask. Since then, I’ve wandered into many girlfriends’ dorm rooms and apartments and wondered to what extent the angle of their mirror reflected strategy versus reality. There is nothing so disconcerting as for a friend to tell you that your own mirror sits at a ‘flattering angle.” Your life flashes before your eyes: Shit! Have I looked 20% worse this whole time? How did I ever manage to nail down a job? A boyfriend?
Unfortunately, I've recently decided to learn how to dance, and anyone who knows how to dance will tell you they learned in the mirror. (That’s based on a sample size of 2, but I’m sticking with it.) A few nights ago, I queued up the YouTube tutorial right next to the full-length mirror. While the mirror reflected back that I was making steady progress, it also showed me something else. Where’s the muscle tone in my legs? Didn’t my butt used to be bigger? Is it worth losing a butt to get abs? Do mine count as abs? By the time I laid down to sleep, I had forgotten the dancing, and was bitterly preoccupied by the size and shape of my body. Again.
Feminist writers might say that bringing a mirror into the house encourages self-objectification, self as object, materializes the male gaze. Maybe I inadvertently drew up a chair for the patriarchy, and offered it popcorn while I learned how to dance.
Temping, tired, and incomplete. For me, the mirror isn't male. The mirror is a welcome distraction disguised as a crisis.
If I fall asleep ruminating about the size of my butt, there isn’t room for much else. I don’t have to think about the fact that I’m on the precipice of a big change. I don’t have to sit with my own uncertainty, confront my lack of control. What if everything falls apart? What if I’m making a mistake?
If the culture worshipped its sudoku champions, I’d do those before bed instead. Sure, sudoku is tough, irritating, and pointless, but the premise is simple. Numbers 1-9 in each row and column. Same thing with being thin: tough, irritating, and pointless, but the premise (thin = good, fit = safe) is blessedly simple.
Freedom is scary. Self-imposed constraints, as oppressive as they may seem, lessen our felt freedom. An anorexic must divvy 800 calories across three meals; that's tough to do. An exercise addict, glued to the treadmill, just doesn't have time to work on her resume before bed. An orthorexic can't join potential friends at the restaurant because they won't meat her dietary needs. A high-school girl can't master her changing body or changing social circle, but she'll be damned if there are chips in her lunch.
Sounds oppressive. And yet, it's safer than freedom. It's safer than What else?
For me, it’s a mirror. For you, it could be a book, a game on your phone, the lick you can’t quite master on guitar, a perpetually unfinished house, obsessing over your performance at work. These things aren’t bad in themselves, nor do they necessarily queue the need for a behavioral change. But ask yourself this: How have I created the illusion of constraint? if I weren’t obsessing over this, what would I be thinking about instead?
And is there room to think about that, too?