A Personal Account of Eating Disorders, Sizeism, and Society

Trigger warning: Discussion of eating disorders and behaviors

My struggle with an eating disorder is a hard thing for me to write about. It’s difficult enough to talk about it with the select few who know the whole story, but to write about it on such a huge public scale is something I can say for certain I never thought I would do. My hands are shaking even while I write this. But it needs to be talked about, not just for my sake, but because people need to know the reality of the situation and how our society consistently sends thin privilege messages to people day in and day out. Thin privilege, in essence, is the advantages afforded to people who meet the socially constructed criteria of an acceptable body size. This is my story.

As a kid I was average height and very skinny, probably because I was always moving. You know those kids you see at the grocery store or on the playground who make you wonder to yourself how anyone can have that much energy? That was me. When I entered middle school, a lot of things changed including the fact that I hit puberty at a very early age, 12, years before anyone else I knew. With puberty came facial hair, terrible breakouts, and gaining weight. My metabolism slowed down to what it is today, and the result was that in middle school I was not only the weird kid and the gay kid, I also became the fat kid. I was teased and bullied mercilessly, a fact for which I felt shame for years after. I had next to no friends. While all the cool kids were wearing their Hollister shirts and jeans, I didn’t even dare go into that store because I knew only embarrassment would follow.

High school started off the same way. By the end of freshman year I had hit my heaviest, nearly 200 pounds, which was, as I was told, unacceptable for someone barely 5’8” tall. I had a few friends, but on the whole I was depressed, desperate, and lonely. This continued into sophomore and junior year, and while my exterior looked happier and more sociable, on the inside I was crumbling under the weight of feeling intrinsically wrong and unacceptable. All the popular kids were still oblivious to my existence, which, according to every television show I saw growing up, meant my existence was invalidated. I was anxiously trying to find a cure for whatever was so clearly wrong with me.

In April of 2012, I had a major falling out with a number of friends I had considered very close. I was destroyed. I became so depressed that any energy I had was put toward not having a break down in the middle of class. My appetite vanished, and I went days at a time without eating anywhere close to a proper meal. I felt like my life had spiraled out of control. Then, something remarkable happened; I started losing weight. There was absolutely nothing healthy about what my body was going through, but I didn’t care. I found my answer to how I could regain some control over my life. I decided if I could control my food intake and my weight, my life would stop spiraling and instead reach a steady, socially acceptable path to success.

By the end of junior year, a month after I made this decision, I had already lost 25 pounds. I was astonished at what started happening; people were noticing me. People who I told myself for years I was not good enough for started talking to me, asking to hang out with me, and inviting me to eat lunch at their table. Their table. I was floored. What do they see in me that they didn’t before? At the time, I didn’t really care; I was finally feeling validated, and I was ecstatic. Whatever I was doing was working.

Over the summer, not having school meant I could focus 24/7 on controlling my food intake. I exercised excessively every day of the week. I ate only at dinnertime with my family so no one would suspect anything. And by July I had lost another 30 pounds, bringing me down to the 145 pounds I was told was the right weight for my height. But, in hindsight, it was not the right weight. I was cold all the time and would take two showers almost every day because the hot water provided temporary relief from the shivering. Keep in mind, I lived in Florida; there was absolutely no reason I should be shivering during the summer.

My parents started hounding me to get a job, telling me I was sitting home doing nothing every day. If only they knew what I was actually doing, they would probably be sending me to a rehabilitation center instead of the mall on a job hunt. Two of my new friends from school worked at the Hollister in my mall, and when they heard I was job searching they encouraged me to apply there, so I did. That was my first time in that store, and I was taken aback. Between the dim lighting, fog of cologne, and thumping dance music, I was simultaneously mesmerized and terrified. I put in my application to the assistant manager, a tall slim white man in his mid-twenties with stylish blond hair. A week later, I was called for an interview and dug out the only Hollister shirt I owned. To my delight it fit me for the first time in years. I went to the interview, answered their generic questions as best I could, and was speechless when they called me the next day to tell me I got the job.

Before I started working, I had to go in and buy my uniform. The “look policy” that the company, Abercrombie & Fitch Inc., has in place requires all employees to wear a specific set of the store’s clothing: jeans (shorts are sometimes allowed for a few weeks), specific t-shirts and button-downs, and flip flops.

Trying on Hollister jeans for the first time was every bit as demoralizing as I thought it would be, and any comfort I had for my new slimmer body instantly vanished. Talking to the some of the other employees, I realized that the size I could just barely button, a 33, was considered large among the staff. It didn’t occur to me in that bubble of fragrance and judgment that a 33 was absolutely fine, nor that the Hollister 33 equated to a 30 or 31 in a company not geared toward only the skinniest size of people. All I heard over the booming music was that I still wasn’t good enough.

Simply not eating was no longer enough, and I frantically searched to see what could help me lose more weight. Throwing up was an option, but to be honest trying it once and researching the effects of it online turned me to a different method: laxative abuse. Luckily, my new job was the perfect source of income to fuel this new idea, letting me buy laxatives with my own money instead of having to ask my parents and come up with lies to cover up what I was doing.

By the time my senior year of high school started, I had lost another 20 pounds, and I was getting compliments left and right. About how nice that shirt looked on me. About how much healthier I looked. Out of nowhere, it seemed everyone began going out of their way to be nice to me where before a good portion of them probably didn’t even know my name. The worst part is that most, if not all, of these people had no idea the reason why they were suddenly being so nice to me was greatly influenced by my drastic weight loss.

The irony of my senior year was palpable. People were praising me for being “healthier” and “in such great shape” and “the happiest [I’ve] ever been.” Meanwhile I was suffering the worst anxiety and depression of my life while simultaneously giving myself constant gastrointestinal pain. The cramps were so bad some mornings from taking too many laxatives the night before that I would show up to school an hour or two late and could barely eat anything all day. Yet somehow, no one seemed to notice. It didn’t occur to me until after the fact that this was more than likely due to society’s construction of thin privilege. Everyone was so blinded by my suddenly emaciated form, told by society to be something worth admiring, that they couldn’t see how destroyed and torn up I had become inside in the process of getting to that point.

Fast forward to now. I’m a sophomore in college, studying things I find fascinating and important. I am in a loving, serious relationship with the most amazing person I’ve ever met, and he has helped me overcome so many obstacles I never thought I could face. I’ve gone through therapy, I’m on medication for anxiety and depression, and my life is on track in a healthy way for the first time in a long time.

But I will never forget this part of my past. This has been a hard thing to write about, as I said at the beginning, but it is important that I do. So many people think the idea of sizeism is not as severe as it really is. All too often I hear minimized the impact society has on a person’s mental health in regards to eating, and I hope what I have written serves as a first hand account of how important this issue really is. This is a call to everyone: be conscious of the people around you. Pay attention to them. Don’t let social constructs cloud your vision or blur your judgment, because it’s very likely people are suffering more than you would otherwise think. After all, I was.

Categories: Nico Tavella | Tags: , , , , , , ,

There is no default for people

“11 insanely hot men you will not believe are trans.” The online LGBT publication GayStarNews (GSN) published this article three days ago, unknowingly providing the perfect example from which a discussion about gender ideas in this society can stem. You can see the article by clicking on the following link: http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/11-insanely-hot-men-you-will-not-believe-are-trans181114-0

Why would we not believe they are trans? Because they don’t look trans? What is a trans man supposed to look like? For that matter, what is a cis-gender man supposed to look like? And why is the ability of a transgender man to fit into the societal definition of the default man something we need to laud with an article dripping in praise?

“No matter where you start from, you can be who you want to be.” Yeah, sure, so long as who you end up being looks like a Calvin Klein underwear model…otherwise you’ll be stared at, ridiculed, and definitely not be called “sexy” in a magazine.

“Beautiful both inside and out.” Just remember that only the outside beauty actually matters enough to go into a publication’s article as “sexy” because, no matter what your personality says about you, if you aren’t conventionally beautiful post-transition we don’t care.

Write whatever positive, inspirational words you want, but when they lie under the title “11 insanely hot men you will not believe are trans” they are simply groups of letters with zero meaning behind them.

This article is overflowing with hypocrisy and negative underlying messages, but the worst of it might very well be the sentence saying that these 11 transgender men “prove you don’t have to conform to a certain body type to be sexy.” Really? Because all eleven are tall and muscular, most of them have facial hair, and all except one are white. Almost all of them are also either shirtless or wearing shirts that can easily reveal their muscles, hence, the default man of our society.

GSN might think their article is promoting body confidence and trans acceptance, but in reality it is only reinforcing rigid gender expectations and encouraging trans men and women to strive to look like what men and women are supposed to look like.

This article is just one of thousands spanning decades of media conveying the message that, if someone wants to be called “sexy” or “beautiful” or “hot” they have to look a certain way. This effectively equates self-confidence with outward appearance…yet again.

But what’s even worse about this article than those in any copy of Vogue or GQ is that now we’re pushing this on transgender people. This article sends the message of conditional acceptance; it’s okay if you’re transgender, so long as when we look at you we can’t tell.

Make no mistake, this article brings this mindset into the spotlight, but it has prevailed since the advent of the transgender community. The truth is, in this society we are unnervingly comfortable with the status quo; we can demonize the idea of gender roles all we want but we still fall back into them the second we experience something which calls them into question.

It’s comfortable in our society (in addition to it being comfortable to assume the gender binary) to expect men and women to look a certain way. Seeing someone who looks somewhere in between, a place a lot of transgender people find themselves at some point during their transition if not for their entire lives, brings to cis-gender people a sense of confusion and subsequently fear, so they retract into the safe haven of social constructs.

By writing an article praising these 11 trans men for being “hot” by the definition of what our society calls a hot man, GSN is sending a message to the whole of the trans community not only that they have to fit into certain gender expectations to be deemed attractive, but even more so that they need to fit into gender expectations to be accepted enough to be published.

We need to stop this. We need to stop putting so much importance on how someone looks. We need to stop equating one’s outward appearance with their worth as a person. And we definitely need to stop promoting conditional acceptance toward the trans community.

What I find interesting about this article particularly is that it’s published by an LGBT publication, which just goes to show socially constructed gender expectations are just as pervasive in self-proclaimed progressive groups.

Be careful what you write. Double-check your words before you post them. Don’t let problematic social ideologies permeate your good intentions. Doing so will only reinforce an infrastructure that many would benefit from bringing down.

Categories: Nico Tavella | Tags: , , , , ,

Breaking News: Women Care about Health

As of 2011, 14.8% of adults in Queensland, the northeastern state of the nation of Australia, reported smoking on a daily basis, and another 4.1% reported smoking between weekly and monthly[i]. This is slightly higher than the US smoking prevalence, which, as of 2012, was 18.1% of American adults[ii]. In the US, smoking and the tobacco industry have been under an increasing amount of attack since the Surgeon General reported in 1964 the health effects smoking has on the smoker; among the latest measures taken is the series of advertisements by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention entitled “Tips from Former Smokers” (See participants of these ads and their stories at http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/campaign/tips/press/campaign-preview-2014.html). In contrast, the latest campaign by the Queensland government to decrease the percentage of the population that smokes is the “If you smoke, your future’s not pretty” campaign. Launched by Aussie model Rachael Finch and the Queensland Minister for Health, Lawrence Springborg, in May of this year, the goal of the campaign is, according to its website at http://ifyousmoke.initiatives.qld.gov.au/, to “encourage young women in Queensland to quit smoking by showing how the habit can age them faster and damage their looks”[iii].

Now I want to make this abundantly clear: it is fantastic that the Queensland government is initiating a conversation about putting an end to smoking. This is something that needs to happen everywhere, because the fact that almost 20% of people smoke in the US, Queensland, and so many more places where the risks of smoking have been clear and understood for decades is ridiculous.

That being said, this campaign put on by the Queensland government is a great example of how far we as an English-speaking society still have to go in terms of dismantling problematic societal infrastructures. In the spirit of deconstruction, I’ll go through the issues with this campaign the same way one might take apart a watch or car, systematically and unapologetically.

Let’s start with the title: “If You Smoke, You’re Future’s Not Pretty.” That’s true, smoking does negatively impact your future. The title implies, however, that if something isn’t “pretty” it’s bad. Think about it, the word “ugly” has this horrible connotation behind it…but what really defines what is and isn’t pretty? Society does. The title of this campaign decided to play on this social construct, which provides them with a clever title but simultaneously reinforces the idea that pretty is good and anything that isn’t pretty is inherently wrong.

The campaign’s website is broken up into sections, the first of which is called “How smoking affects you.” The first sentence below the title is “quitting smoking boosts your looks,” and it goes on to say that “studies show that smoking ages you faster and damages your skin, so getting rid of cigarettes really is a beautiful thing. Smoking also costs you a lot of money, makes you unfit, and, of course, seriously damages your health.” This is unbelievable…that the Queensland government assumes being outwardly acceptable by society’s standards is the prime concern of women, so much so that they list it as the first issue with smoking, just goes to show the still-standing perception of women in society as shallow, thoughtless people incapable of caring about their health without first knowing how it affects their outward appearance.

The second section is called “How to quit smoking,” and I’ll admit I got my hopes up that this section would be better. Then I clicked on the tab “reasons to quit,” and the first item on the list was “you’ll look better: quitting smoking will make you look younger and prettier.” Needless to say, I was again disappointed.

The website did have some high points: there is a “get support” section that provides contact with confidential, trained counselors to help smokers quit via a phone call, and there is also a “QuitTracker” app offered that lets the user monitor their daily smoking in a diary format, which puts the amount one smokes in perspective and can help the person plan to quit. From a public health standpoint, this is a fantastic example of increasing people’s self-efficacy by providing resources and making it more possible to quit smoking.

But here’s an idea: let’s support people in the journey to quit smoking without interweaving misogynistic undertones into our campaign. Let’s not automatically assume that women, who are the target of this campaign according to the website, care about how they look more than anything else. Building off of stereotypes, off of rigid gender roles, serves to enforce everything that has proved to hold women beneath men for centuries. By capitalizing off of the image of a shallow, materialistic woman simply to have a catchy slogan for their campaign, the Queensland Government is making a gross assumption of what the Australian woman cares about. Furthermore, this assumption reveals that the government does not consider women to be intelligent enough or well enough informed to be able to hold their health status as a priority over their complexion.

Here’s the bottom line: the Queensland government’s campaign against smoking builds off of the physical insecurities of women, put in place by the same societal infrastructure, because of its effectiveness to get women to care. But this is the wrong way to go about this. Instead of using women’s insecurities as a means to an end to smoking (I’m hard-pressed to believe campaigns like this one will make that change anyway), the Queensland government should make a campaign designed with the idea that women care about their health as much as anyone else. I know this is difficult; assuming women care about real issues more than how they look is pretty bizarre. But I think doing so would have a much more beneficial outcome in terms of reducing smoking rates and at the same time avoid suppressing women as equal people with equal concerns.

[i] Queensland Health. 2011 Self reported health status survey. Population Epidemiology Unit, Preventative Health Directorate: Brisbane; 2011

[ii] Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention. Current Cigarette Smoking Among Adults—United States, 2005-2012. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2014; 63(02): 29-34 [accessed 2014 November 10].

[iii] If you smoke your future’s not pretty. (2014, May 1). Retrieved November 10, 2014, from http://ifyousmoke.initiatives.qld.gov.au/

Categories: Nico Tavella | Tags: , , ,

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